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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kicking the Vodka Habit

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Soviet dissident Mikhail Baitalsky once quipped: "Fighting against the increasing consumption of alcohol is like Don Quixote's campaign against the windmills. Sensible people don't engage in such tomfoolery."

Yet this week, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov initiated another round of tomfoolery with his suggestion that the proper remedy for the recent spate of alcohol poisonings lies in the state monopolization of the liquor trade. History suggests that such centralization is not a sustainable remedy for Russia's vodka woes and has ultimately led to deleterious long-term consequences. Indeed, it is this long history of failed liquor centralization initiatives that has led to the current situation where Russia's leaders continue to grapple daily with the "liquor question" decades after the issue had been put to bed in virtually every other country on the globe.

Russia's first vodka monopoly, instituted under Ivan III in 1472, proved to be unsustainable, given the ease of shirking and corrupting local officials far from Moscow. Similar liquor monopolies were attempted in 1545 and 1754 with the same results. Sergei Witte began the last imperial vodka monopoly in 1894 with the noble aim of reigning in alcohol consumption, and making a pretty penny for the state on the side. By the outbreak of World War I, the monopoly had actually facilitated the rise of vodka consumption to around 14 liters per capita from roughly 8 liters when the monopoly began. The monopoly's only benefit was to the treasury: contributing over 800 million rubles per year -- or roughly 30 percent of total imperial revenues. A similar, and even more disastrous top-down temperance measure came with Nicholas II's prohibition decree at the outbreak of World War I, which blew an enormous hole in the state budget at a time of crisis. The state tried to remedy this shortfall by printing more money, ultimately increasing inflation and the popular discontent that in part contributed to the downfall of the imperial regime.

In 1924, citing the very same public health and revenue issues raised recently by Gryzlov, Liberal Democratic Party Leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and other Duma leaders, Josef Stalin decreed the reinstitution of the vodka monopoly. Did the Soviet monopoly solve the problem? From 1962 to 1982, per capita alcohol consumption in the Soviet Union rose by 5.6 percent per year, while the government reaped 15 percent to 25 percent of its budget revenues from the sale of alcohol. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's well-meaning, top-down anti-alcohol campaign, like its imperial predecessor, blew an enormous hole in the state budget, which the state tried to remedy by printing more money, ultimately increasing inflation and popular discontent with perestroika that in part contributed to the downfall of the Soviet regime.

So why would a state liquor monopoly introduced under President Vladimir Putin succeed where Ivan III, Witte, Nicholas II, Stalin and Gorbachev all failed? Ultimately, it won't. This is not to say that there wouldn't be some short-term benefits of centralization: Even Gorbachev's doomed anti-alcohol campaign led to noticeable improvements in public health indicators -- increasing life expectancy for men by almost three years (62 to 65) in as many years (1984 to 1987) -- before the widespread availability of surrogates and illegal production brought these indicators, and the campaign itself, crashing down.

The simple lesson is that the state cannot decree that people be sober. Top-down solutions to the alcohol problem simply do not work. The failure of prohibition in North America and Europe suggests that this is the case. The experiences of different autocratic Russian leaders over the past five centuries confirm it.

Historically, this kind of talk about concern for public health by key decision makers often masks a political power play to control the extremely lucrative liquor-revenue stream. While the recent epidemic of alcohol poisonings is deplorable, it bears mention that alcohol-related deaths this year remain lower than in recent years. What is more deplorable is the lack of concern as alcohol poisonings have claimed 20,000 to 40,000 Russian lives per year since the end of the Soviet regime and that the only political response is a proposed centralization or monopolization scheme -- a suggestion floated every couple of years since the mid-1990s.

Ultimately, the solution of the Russian liquor problem -- if indeed there is one -- lies in localization and municipalization rather than centralization and monopolization. While there is truth in the usual assertion that the alcohol situation will not improve until the material conditions of the middle and lower classes improve, this does not suggest a concrete course of political action. Moreover, it overlooks international experience where increased grass-roots temperance activity and municipal control of liquor traffic were promoted as effective means of reducing the harmful social and demographic impacts of widespread alcohol abuse. While the government cannot decree effective grass-roots temperance organization -- having failed miserably in the 1890s, 1960s and 1980s -- it can grant issues of alcohol control to local administrative bodies.

Here, the example of the Swedish Gothenburg System of municipal liquor control provides a possible alternative: local bodies were entrusted with conducting the liquor trade, while the enormous (and corrupting) liquor revenues formerly claimed by the state or private liquor interests were earmarked for the promotion of local charities and agricultural concerns. This system produced positive results throughout Scandinavia both in terms of dramatic decreases in alcohol-related morbidity, mortality, and crime produced by alcohol, and in the flowering of local civic associations.

In the contemporary Russian context, such a system would require trustworthy local administrators, but could provide a tremendous stimulus to the development of civil society in confronting Russia's current demographic catastrophe by giving local health care facilities, charities and other social organizations a much-needed infusion of resources to battle the frightening array of diseases and social ills that are at the root of the country's unprecedented demographic implosion.

The main obstacle to such an alternative is not the people's traditional addiction to vodka, but rather the chronic (and stronger) addiction of the state to the revenues produced by the vodka trade itself. The current economic windfall resulting from the rise of world energy prices provides a unique opportunity for Putin to kick the habit and foreswear the lure of state alcohol revenues. The first step in Russia's recovery begins with the realization that the proper place for the vodka revenue is with neither the treasury nor private alcohol producers and retailers, but rather with local health care organizations, self-help groups, charities and nongovernmental organizations that are on the front lines of the demographic war.

If Putin, Gryzlov and their supporters in the Duma are serious about confronting the country's alcohol woes, they stand at a unique moment to actually do something meaningful about it. Russia can either remonopolize, recentralize and repeat the Quixotic legacy of the past 500 years, or achieve a genuine breakthrough by turning its greatest vice into an instrument in confronting its greatest challenge. Such optimism must be tempered, however, by the realization that the state has been even more chronically addicted to alcohol than the society it governs. Like any addiction, a dependence on alcohol is notoriously difficult to break.

M. Lawrence Schrad is a lecturer and doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.