The Land of Vodka and Drunkards no More? Russian alcohol consumption slashed under Putin

It would be reasonable – if not a little unfair – to say that Russia is synonymous with alcohol consumption. Strong, undiluted alcohol. Stereotypes abound for all nationalities and races, many of them unpleasant. Like the Irish , Russian people are often generalised as being heavy drinkers. Rather than a tipple of Guinness, though, for the Russians vodka is their assumed poison.

Whilst undoubtedly ridiculous to declare a population of more than 140 million a bunch of drunkards, there is evidence that the Russians suffer the scourges of alcohol more than most countries. Alcohol-related deaths have traditionally been high per capita, likewise alcohol-related crime.

Doesn’t make pretty viewing for Russians

Matters have not been helped by Russia’s refusal for many years to count beer as an ‘alcoholic’ beverage and by the proliferation of street vendors selling the hardest spirits at all hours of the day from small kiosks.

As Nikolai Gogol wrote:

Go along, go along quickly, and set all you have on the table for us.  We don’t want doughnuts, honey buns, poppy cakes, and other dainties; bring us a whole sheep, serve a goat and forty-year old mead!  And plenty of vodka, not vodka with all sorts of fancies, not with raisins and flavorings, but pure foaming vodka, that hisses and bubbles like mad.

Akaky Akakiyevich visits the drunken, one-eyed tailor Petrovich in Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’

Vodka is, regardless of its potency or adverse affects when voraciously consumed, an undeniable part of Russian culture, just as drinking alcohol is in many countries.

The myth goes that Vladimir the Great, Prince of Novgorod from 980 to 1015, rejected Islam because of its prohibition of alcohol. The sale of intoxicating beverages was encouraged for centuries in a bid to fill royal coffers, with Ivan the Terrible even demanding the erection of more kabaks (taverns) as a primary source of taxation. By 1648 more than a third of Russian men were in debt to kabaks, and by 1860 the sale of vodka accounted for 40% of government revenue.

The kabak became an important place for social interaction

It was little wonder, then, that by 1909 the average Russian consumed eleven bottles of vodka per year, and that by 1913 nearly 5% of the population of St Petersburg were alcoholics. With the Tsarist system coming under increasing strain, and a World War on the horizon, something had to be done.

But attempts at prohibition fell short. Beer was still not classified as alcoholic and procuring harder liquor was not particularly problematic. By the time of Stalin, alcohol sales were again required to generate state income and the half-hearted attempts by his Communist successors to stave off the blight of drunkenness were rebuffed by an unwilling populace.

Stalin and Churchill apparently enjoyed some heavy binges during WWII

One question that seemed not to be considered, however, was why so many Russian people were seeking solace in the bottle in the first place. Culture is one thing…but an epidemic needs more explanation. Dostoevsky hit on an idea in Crime and Punishment:

“And the more I drink the more I feel it. That’s why I drink too. I try to find sympathy and feeling in drink…I drink so that I may suffer twice as much!”

Misery, loneliness, lack of opportunity; Russian’s lower classes have suffered from all of the above, whether under the Tsars, the communists, or Putin. Systemic causes for alcoholism have always been overlooked, not to mention a frigid climate!

Yet there seems to be a bright patch on the horizon for, as a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report has outlined, Russian alcohol consumption decreased by a whopping 43% between 2003 and 2016. The abolition of the old kiosks, the increase in alcohol prices, penalties for drinking on the street, a president whose personality cult revolves around a healthy, all-action lifestyle; all these things have helped.

Street kiosks selling strong liquor have been banned

As with other countries, alcoholism will never be eradicated in Russia. Nor will it stop being an important part of the nation’s culture…nor should it. Still, in an era where Vladimir Putin seems intent on making the world a less stable place, potentially leading his people on a path of economic ruin, his reign has at least begun to address an important balance.

Pleasure vs over-indulgence. We all struggle to find that balance now and again. Whether the debilitating plague of alcoholism is dispersing from Russia on the Arctic wind remains to be seen, but at least the promise is there. The chances of other opportunities arising for the people under Putin, on the other hand, is far less likely.

Wild and Wealthy: the Past and Future of the Caspian Sea

I have been advertised that the chief trade of Persia is into Syria, and so transported into the Levant Sea [Mediterranean]. The few ships upon the Caspian Seas, the want of mart and port towns, the poverty of the people and the ice, maketh that trade not.

So commented Anthony Jenkinson, intrepid representative of the English Muscovy Company during his epic journey through Russia and Central Asia in 1558-1560.

In search of new trading partners and an overland route to the wealth of China, Jenkinson’s explorations were not only a remarkable feat of adventurism but they also allowed for some of the first English-language accounts of a region still oft-overlooked thanks to their inclusion in Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation.

The land encompassing the Caspian Sea – a still controversial designation for this massive landlocked body of water – rarely makes the headlines, only momentarily garnering attention for a recent agreement hashed out Aktau between Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran.

The five heads of state celebrate the deal in Aktau

After decades of dispute, the five littoral states bordering the Caspian have agreed to share its resources and work together to prevent outside powers from setting up military bases on its shores. Rich in oil and gas, it is a prudent step to douse this particular geopolitical flame.

When Jenkinson – a native of the quiet Leicestershire town of Market Harborough – travelled the region in the mid-1500s, he encountered a wild land of nomads and bandits, whose conceptions of commerce differed widely from his own ‘sophisticated’ notion.

From the Caspian Sea unto the castle of Sellizure aforesaid, and all the countries about the said sea, the people live without town or habitation in the wild fields, removing from one place to another in great companies with their cattle, whereof they have great store, as camels, horses, and sheep both tame and wild.

Yet if the Caspian of the 16th century was beyond his comprehension, imagine what the merchant would think of today’s Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan, with its sparkling modern facades and nouveau-riche adornments.

Baku’s elite status has been confirmed by its hosting of a grand prix on the Formula 1 calendar

Not that the oil wealth of the Sea was completely unknown to Jenkinson’s contemporaries. Thomas Bannister and Jeffrey Duckett (also English traders) commented that the area was:

a strange thing to behold, for there issueth out of the ground a marvelous quantity of oil, which serveth all the country to burn in their houses. This oil is black and is called nefte. There is also by the town of Baku, another kind of oil which is white [petroleum] and very precious.

Indeed the modern petroleum industry threatens to wreak environmental disaster on the Caspian, with oil run-off and chemical disposal poisoning its waters at an alarming rate. If the five signatories do not take action soon, then the Caspian threatens to follow the Aral Sea into ecological oblivion.

Oil wells near Baku: with great wealth comes environmental responsibility

Jenkinson thought that the Aral ran into the Caspian, yet today the former is barely recognisable as a water body, its desiccated plains more reminiscent of a desert.

What was, and remains, true about his observations, however, is the ‘wildness’ of the Caspian. Beyond the oil wealth there is impoverishment and turmoil. Iran sits on the Sea’s southern border, scheming to bend the region to its will. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan remain mired in post-Soviet decay to the east, whilst to the north is the restive Russian province of Dagestan, long a source of discontent that Moscow has sought to quell.

This Astracan is the furthest hold that this Emperor of Russia hath conquered of the Tartars towards the Caspian Sea, which he keepeth very strong, sending thither every year provisions of men and victuals, and timber to build the castle.

Jenkinson could almost be writing about Vladimir Putin and his determination to ensure the loyalty of his southern lands (many Muslim-dominated), albeit substituting the castles for tanks and modern artillery.

A map based on Jenkinson’s descriptions: note the misshapen Caspian

Central Asia is imbued with huge economic and political potential, yet few seem to realise it. A massive disparity in wealth and opportunity exists between the elite and the citizenship, whose ambitions have been thwarted by dictatorial and repressive regimes.

Whether the ground-breaking achievement of this month will make a difference to the lives of ordinary citizens remains to be seen. Will the state-level sharing trickle down to the poor and needy? Without international attention, their governments may not see the immediate value in concession. A desire to protect the Caspian’s precious sturgeon population (the caviar conduit) may be a stronger incentive to clean-up the lake than the wants of those who rely on its waters for sustenance.

Successful fisherman in the Caspian Sea in 1949, before the oil boom

On his return across the Caspian from the fabled Silk Road town of Bukhara, Jenkinson and his men were buffeted by a storm during which they were:

driven far into the sea, and had much ado to keep our bark from sinking, the billow was so great: but at the last, having fair weather, we took the sun, and knowing how the land lay from us, we fell with the river Iaic, according to our desire, whereof the Tartars were very glad, fearing that we should have been driven to the coast of Persia, whose people were unto them great enemies.

With the agreement of Aktau, it should no longer matter which way the winds blow.