. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Temperance on the Rocks

Enrico Fermi harnessed the atom in 1942. Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Mt. Everest in 1953. But it wasn't until this year that an academic has attempted to survey one of the last great forces of nature -- the Russian vodka drinker.

Russia Goes Dry, University of Glasgow professor Stephen White's in-depth look at Mikhail Gorbachev's disastrous temperance campaign of 1985, is the kind of book you wish you had been assigned to read in college. White spends nearly 200 oversized, small-print pages explaining in the guardedly ebullient, trivia-obsessed prose of an eccentric history professor, why you can't keep Russians from drinking.

The result is an anecdotal, instructive and often very funny account of how Russians, through sheer determination to resist any move toward self-improvement, drank a catastrophically misguided political initiative under the table and into the history books.

When Gorbachev came to power there was widespread hope he would inject much-needed youth and vigor into the rusty Soviet bureaucratic machine. But, much like Bill Clinton, whose presidency began inauspiciously when he made the protection of homosexuals in the military his first major initiative, Gorbachev surprised and confused his countrymen by making a national sobriety campaign the first priority of his regime.

Interestingly, White asserts that this decision, which would prove to be one of the most disastrous of Gorbachev's career, was probably due to the urging of his wife -- Raisa was said to be distraught over her brother Yevgeny's drinking problem.

Whatever the source of the decision, the result was the largest anti-alcohol campaign in modern history, with the exception of Prohibition in the United States in the 1920s and '30s.

Although Gorbachev did not ban alcohol outright, the prices for vodka and wine were dramatically raised, acres of vineyards were destroyed, plans were made for the gradual phasing out of certain types of alcoholic beverage, liquor was banned from all public ceremonies, a massive temperance society was formed and anti-alcohol ads replaced "Sweet dreams, kids" as the most frequently aired spots on television.

White divides his analysis of this doomed campaign into two parts, both of which are highly entertaining.

The first describes the history of alcohol consumption in Russia. It begins in 980 A.D., when Prince Vladimir allegedly chose Christianity over Islam as the national religion because he believed that a dry religion could not prosper in Russia.

White then describes at length the peculiar excesses of the Russian drunk. And the historical anecdotes are endless. Citing a 19th-century traveler named J.G. Kohl, the book sums up Russia's status as the most permanently intoxicated nation in history:

"A glass of vodka! That phrase should occur 10 times on every page of a Russian dictionary that pretends to convey a proper idea of the frequent use of a word and its importance."

White describes how generations of foreign travelers visiting Russia throughout the ages invariably left with the same stories of astounding excess and debauchery. Everyone from noblemen to the clergy participated in outrageous drunken orgies from sunup until sundown, frequently pawning their clothes for drink. By nightfall the streets of any Russian city were peopled with naked men covering their private parts with their hands as they staggered home in the snow, slurring the words of their drinking songs.

White shows how this legendary capacity for drink began, in modern times, to take a heavy toll on the national economy. In an extremely thorough breakdown of the social costs of drinking, White demonstrates how levels of crime, absenteeism, divorce, sickness and death in Russia rose and fell in near exact correlation to the level of alcohol consumption.

And the social costs were enormous. In wasted man-hours alone, the Soviet Union lost nearly four times as much revenue as it gained from liquor sales. Seventy percent of murders were committed under the influence of alcohol, and 50 percent of divorces were caused by the alcoholism of one or both spouses.

The price of drinking eventually became so great that when the Soviet Union's economy began to reach a crisis stage in the 1980s, reducing the economic and social damage inflicted by alcoholism became a national priority.

But the Gorbachev initiative failed for a number of reasons, some peculiar to the Soviet Union itself and some common to human nature.

The Soviet bureaucratic machine proved too zealous for its own good. In an effort to win brownie points and promotions, local officials strove to be more sober and healthy than their predecessors, until finally the expectations for the campaign were set so high that not even the most ardent teetotaler had any confidence in its success.

Mostly, however, the campaign failed because there is no way, short of putting a police guard at every door, to keep Russians from drinking. White tells tales of MiG airplanes which crashed because technicians had drunk the de-icing fluid and replaced it with water; of plant managers who declared their premises sober and dry, but still maintained mobile guard units to keep drunks away from the machinery on the factory floor.

When shop supplies began to dry up, Russians made alcohol out of everything from shoe polish to tomato paste, and simply drank and drank and drank. The result was "scenes of biblical devastation," even as town leaders were congratulating themselves on their sobriety.

White's writing style is, perhaps appropriately, a little on the dry side, but for an academic text Russia Goes Dry is as engrossing as they come. It should, at the very least, be required reading for crusaders of political correctness and for anyone else who believes that man's bad habits can be legislated away. For the rest of us, it is an entertaining story about how not even absolute power can rid a society of its redeeming vices.

"Russia Goes Dry : Alcohol, State and Society," By Stephen White, Cambridge University Press, 250 pages.