Keith Flett offers a brief survey of Bolshevik policy and practice towards alcohol consumption.
Drink and the left has been an issue since the labour movement was born or made in the 1820s and 1830s. The left, trade unions and political groups often met in pubs for want of other venues, and Marx and Engels themselves were famous imbibers. Yet inebriated workers and the culture of the pub and beer was something promoted rather by the Tories, who after all represented brewery owners, the Beerage. People who had a drink or two were not the easiest to organise or to get out on demonstrations.
Temperance was a feature of the labour movement again more or less from the beginning although we need to be careful about usage. Abstinence from drink did not usually mean beer and wine but spirits. It's in this context that we can consider what the attitude of the Bolsheviks was to drink, and what impact the 1917 revolution had on the question in Russia. The Bolsheviks were after all part of a European labour movement familiar with the politics of drink. Before 1917 Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party was a confirmed non-drinker while the revolutionary Labour MP Victory Grayson, by contrast, certainly was not.
This makes the question of what the Bolsheviks did on drink after they took State power in Russia in late 1917 of particular interest, as they were the only left party of any hue that had the opportunity to put into practice policies on alcohol during this period.
There was certainly from the early 1920s a distinctive Bolshevik practice on drink that differed by degree from the United States, but perhaps rather less so than the policy of the First World War Government in Britain.
While Prohibition in the US was driven by temperance groups, and by local ballots in both Russia and Britain after 1914, restrictions on drink were determined by concerns for a healthy workforce and that if drinking did occur, then what was drunk should be of good quality and in an appropriate, controlled environment.
In Russia the Tsarist regime banned alcohol at the start of World War One in 1914. In Britain drinking was not banned, but pub opening hours significantly curtailed and the alcoholic strength of beer lowered. In both cases these measures did have a real impact.
When the Bolsheviks took power in late 1917, the issue of drink was not central. Even so in December 1917 the Petrograd Soviet appointed G. Blagonravov Special Commissar to combat drunkenness.
The concern of the Bolshevik Government was widespread, small scale and home distilling of spirits. This meant the unregulated development of capitalist enterprise as well as large scale drunkenness. It led to the denunciation of ‘home brew fascism’ and police efforts particularly in rural areas to uncover, prosecute and jail at least those who were brewing commercially and on occasion anyone at all, even those brewing just for home consumption.
By 1923 well over half of the prison population of Moscow were home brewers. This was hardly a sustainable position particularly because at the same time the Bolsheviks were reducing police numbers, mainly for financial reasons.
Once the Civil War was won, the Bolsheviks could turn their thoughts to reconstruction and building a socialist society and it was at this point that the issue in particular of vodka production came under serious scrutiny. There was a division between those who argued that drinking and drunkenness led to an unhealthy and inefficient workforce, precisely what the infant USSR did not need, and those who saw the importance of State control of the drink trade and the money this could make for an infant socialist State with little source of finance.
Interestingly, the British Government towards the end of the First World War pursued a similar policy. In areas where munitions factories were sited, in particular Carlisle, it took over and shut breweries and used instead a State-owned brewery that sold beer to State-run pubs. The quality of the beer almost certainly improved as a result and the State ownership scheme in particular was keen to keep a very close eye on spirit consumption and to encourage eating with drinking.
This general attitude was also to be found in Communist Parties other than the Russian. The US CP published a magazine, Health and Hygiene, which while not supporting Prohibition, which it saw as simply promoting gangster control of the drink trade, certainly did not feel alcohol was something to be encouraged in the proletarian lifestyle.
The magazine also pronounced on diet:
(it) recommended a recognisably healthy diet of vegetables, fruits, cereals, dairy products, soups, meat and fish, but also recommended ‘miscellaneous’ foods, such as ‘ice cream, cake, pie, mayonnaise, olive oil, gelatin [sic], custards, puddings, jam, marmalade, nuts, candy in moderation and so forth.' Alongside these dietary suggestions, the same article recommended ‘a certain amount of exercise’ and a ‘sufficient amount of sleep. (Hatful of History blog)
By the mid-1920s the drink issue in Russia had reached a point where action had to be taken beyond simply attempting to punish home brewers.
Stalin argued in 1925 that socialism could not be built with white gloves on, and on this occasion, he was referring to support for State production of vodka. One result was that between 1924 and 1927, the number of annual arrests for drunkenness in Leningrad rose from 11,000 to 113,000. Full-strength vodka sales had resumed in 1925.
Distribution of State produced vodka appears to have been patchy in a country as vast as Russia recovering from a Civil War but the political point was clear. It could begin to undercut home brewers, particularly those who brewed for profit beyond personal consumption. It could also address the vital issue of grain supplies and direct them to the production of basic food rather than drink. The link between a healthy workforce, a basic diet and alcohol could not have been clearer.
For much more detail see Neil Weissman Prohibition and Alcohol Control in the USSR, the 1920s campaign against illegal spirits, Soviet Studies Vol 38/3 (1986)
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.