One of the most dramatic and revolutionary changes in Russian history is the restriction of the consumption of alcohol. Mikhail Gorbachev instituted his anti-alcohol campaign on May 16, 1985 in order to decrease alcohol consumption by Soviet citizens and instead teach them the rewards of moderation. Some such rewards were a better life at home with their families, more advancement in their jobs, and better overall health. Although Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign was effective in generating some positive changes, it eventually failed, causing resentment toward the leadership, worsening health issues, creating illegal alcohol production markets, and increasing the budget deficit.
When Gorbachev was fifteen, he went out one day with his father and his harvesting team. The mechanics decided that it would be funny to play a joke on the young boy. They gave him a drink of pure alcohol, and told him that it was vodka. He drank it, and it utterly disgusted him. This was an important lesson to him. It made him not like alcohol, therefore making him want others to stay away from it. This could have saved his nation. Gorbachev noted, “After that experience I have never felt any pleasure in drinking vodka or spirits” (Gorbachev 37). That is important because if he had liked alcohol, there most likely never would have been any anti-alcohol campaign. “Temperance was the rule in the Gorbachev household on holidays, the men might take one shot glass of vodka or cognac in celebration, no more” (Smith 38). The Gorbachev family is an example of how alcohol should have been used in Russia. They drank in moderation, as opposed to others who drank simply to get drunk and were unable to control themselves while drinking. Gorbachev wanted others to be able to drink as they did, and he tried to set a good example in order to get his point across. However, his plans didn’t work out as he had suspected. “Gorbachev saw alcoholism as an offense to the Soviet ideal and a symptom of weak personal morals rather than a failing of the Soviet order” (Galeotti 58). He thought that people should be able to control themselves while drinking, and if they didn’t it was their own fault. It is not unusual that he would initiate, as one of his first priorities after taking power in March 1985, an anti-alcohol campaign.
Alcohol had always been a large part in a Russian’s life. “The Russians have always drunk vodka,” former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev once said. “They can’t get by without it” (Sudo 14). Drunkenness had been a plague in Russia since the Middle Ages; that is no secret. However, for years the communist leadership refused to acknowledge the fact that alcohol abuse posed any problems. Periodically, in pre-revolutionary times and even during the first years of Soviet power, the authorities initiated missions against alcoholism, none of which resulted in success.
By the time Gorbachev got to power, the drinking problem was very much out of hand in Russia. “Until Gorbachev clamped down on the consumption of alcohol in June 1985, the Soviets were literally drinking themselves to death” (Naylor 194). Alcohol was putting a profound strain on society. Consumption had skyrocketed during the Brezhnev era. This is especially significant considering it was already considerably high at the beginning of his era. In 1984, state revenues from the sale of alcoholic beverages reached fifty-three billion rubles, four times what it had been twenty years before. The alcohol issue became disastrous. “Nearly one hundred and sixty-three million out of a population of two hundred and eighty million drink regularly; as many as twenty million are alcoholics” (Sudo 14). With that many people in a society having problems with alcohol, obviously something had to be done. The annual loss to the economy from drunkenness was an estimated eighty to one hundred billion rubles. Alcoholism was the third most common ailment, after heart disease and cancer. The life expectancy of men was declining. Infant mortality rates were rising. Health of present and future generations was being corrupted. “It was also responsible for most marriage breakups” (Morris 48). Wives had become desperate trying to save their marriages, with their husbands practically drinking themselves to death. Crime, corruption, and cynicism were all increasing. Drunk drivers were responsible for fourteen thousand traffic deaths per year. “Alcoholism was probably the largest single cause of a stunning increase in the Soviet Union’s crude death rate” (Kaiser 101). In 1964, there were about seven deaths per one thousand citizens. This statistic grew to almost eleven deaths per one thousand citizens in 1985.
There are many causes for this widespread drunkenness. One reason is the poor living conditions. Another is the hardship of every day Russian life. Economic conditions were very difficult. A third reason is the cultural backwardness. A fourth cause is the “oppressive social atmosphere which pushed weak natures to use alcohol to drown their feelings of inferiority and their fear of harsh reality” (Gorbachev 220). The people were so vulnerable to alcohol; they needed it to feel superior and to step away from the truths of life. They looked for another outlet, alcohol. A last reason is the leaders’ example. It is very common to find alcohol at their banquets and receptions.
In the early 1980s, there was a strong public pressure on Party and governmental agencies. They were receiving a flood of letters, mainly from wives and mothers. In these letters, there were frightening examples of family tragedies, industrial accidents, and crime due to drunkenness.
“It was impossible to read these women’s bitter outpourings without shuddering. The saying that the wives and children have shed as many tears as men have drunk vodka is apt indeed” (Ligachev 336). The women were begging for something to be done about this horrific alcohol problem. They were becoming desperate to save the lives of those whom they loved. They now left the problem in the government’s hands.
A decision was made to begin a campaign against the evil alcohol problem. A list of decrees was written and brought to the Politburo:
However, when the draft of the decrees was submitted to the Politburo for discussion, its members, driven by a noble desire to wipe out evil without further delay and rendered even more zealous by their own fiery oratory, decided that the proposed measures were inadequate and that more needed to be done (Boldin 101).
It is a possibility that if the Politburo hadn’t been so enthusiastic and passionate, they wouldn’t have failed. I think that they should have started off with small changes. So many drastic reforms in such a short amount of time frightened the people, and they had nothing other to do than to turn to the bottle. They needed time to get used to the idea of living without alcohol, and the government didn’t take this into account. I think that they were being impractical in these reforms, and they should have taken smaller steps in order to accomplish their task at hand.
Officials of Gosplan, the Ministry of Trade, the processing industry, and farmers defended the cause of alcohol as best they could, arguing that the proposed measures would cost the state budget billions of rubles, ruin the grape growers, and close down much of the capacity of the wine-making i