In This Review

Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State
Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State
By Mark Lawrence Schrad
512 pp, Oxford University Press, 2014
Purchase

Schrad’s startling claims about vodka’s central role in shaping Russian history might seem implausible. But he marshals 500 years’ worth of evidence so relentlessly that even a skeptic is likely to concede his basic argument: for centuries, vodka has served as a cynically employed instrument of power, a key to state finance, and a source of Russian society’s backwardness. Schrad seems to overreach only in suggesting that vodka consumption determined Russia’s victories or defeats in various wars and that the prohibition of vodka was a principal cause of the 1917 revolution. Readers will be left agog by Schrad’s tales of the bacchanals hosted by nearly every Russian tsar (and tsarina) and Joseph Stalin, and by the stunning cruelty those leaders inflicted on their loyal courtiers. Then there are the numbers: in 1680, 53 percent of state revenue came from a tax on vodka and salt, and that number remained roughly the same for much of the next two centuries. Every year, roughly 300 Americans die of alcohol poisoning; in 1994, 55,000 Russians did.