The old adage "stereotypes exist for a reason" is a conversational red flag. Why's that? Dollars to donuts, anyone using that as a cold opener is probably about to say something offensive. We're going to say it anyway and hope we don't make anyone cross. Stereotypes exist for a reason: Russian people really love vodka. Craft beer is increasingly en vogue among the younger set, but Russia still consumes the most vodka of any country in the world. It's a deadly habit. A 2014 study concluded that vodka was "a major cause of the high risk of premature death in Russian adults," with a quarter of Russian men not living past the age of 55.
Tsar Nicholas II, in the uniform of a Royal Navy Admiral of the Fleet, c. 1909
Putin's not our favorite post-Soviet leader, but he has managed to decrease alcohol consumption by cracking down on labeling laws and raising taxes. You know who was even stricter than Pootie-Poot? Tsar Nicholas II. On July 31, 1914, he straight-up banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol in Russia. The law was introduced as a temporary mobilization measure under the premise that it would prevent the army from dealing with drunken soldiers.
"A friend of vodka is an enemy of the Trade Union" (1926)
Why were drunken conscripts weighing on the Tsar's mind? Because he was convinced that the country's vodka habit had cost him the Russo-Japanese War. In the aftermath of the conflict, there were widespread newspaper reports that many of the soldiers had been too drunk to fight. The rumors gave the Russian temperance movement a pretty substantial boost. It's easy to see why:
"One account from the war that Chelysev used to promote temperance in the military was that the Japanese found several thousand Russian soldiers so dead drunk that they were able to bayonet them like so many pigs.”
Once it was passed, the "temporary" mobilization measure was extended for the duration of the First World War I. Were people upset? Probably, but this Associated Press report from October 7, 1914 paints a pretty rosy picture:
"On that day when the mobilization of the Russian Army began, special policemen visited every public place where vodka is sold, locked up the supply of the liquor, and placed on the shop the imperial seal. Since the manufacture and sale of vodka is a Government monopoly in Russia, it is not a difficult thing to enforce prohibition. From the day this step was taken drunkenness vanished in Russia.The results are seen at once in the peasantry; already they are beginning to look like a different race. The marks of suffering, the pinched looks of illness and improper nourishment have gone from their faces. There has been also a remarkable change in the appearance of their clothes. Their clothes are cleaner, and both the men and women appear more neatly and better dressed."
Prohibition ended up lasting another eleven years. Spoiler: It didn't eradicate alcoholism.
Feature image via The Great War Blog