Russian specialist and Oxford historian Dan Healey spoke to a large crowd about the role of vodka in the Russian Revolution and Soviet Union
A hundred years ago to the day, Russians awoke to find the Provisional government under arrest and a new Bolshevik regime in its place.
What unfurled over the following 74 years, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, was so controversial and such a human tragedy that Russians reportedly don't know how to mark the centenary. The public don't want to go there, while President Putin has been bland in his remarks, deliberately so.
He said recently,
‘When we look at the lessons from a century ago, we see how ambiguous the results were, and how there were both negative and positive consequences of those events,’ said Putin, speaking last month. ‘We have to ask the question: was it really not possible to develop not through revolution but through evolution, without destroying statehood and mercilessly ruining the fate of millions, but through gradual, step-by-step progress?’
Vodka consumption in the Soviet Union is a non-trivial subject because as Professor Dan Healey told an audience on the evening of November 7th, it is almost a way of benchmarking the Soviet Union in the different phases of its history.
The Bolsheviks, he noted, were 'not exactly fans of pleasure.' Like other idealists - say Methodists in England - they frowned on alcohol at the very moment in world history when prohibition was gathering momentum.
Alcohol was already heavily politicised in Russia. Under the Tsars, alcohol taxes had comprised as much as one third of state revenues, but the Great War saw heavy restrictions.
The unintended consequence was a steep accumulation of stocks, with as much as $5 million-worth of wine racking up in the cellars under the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Professor Healey noted that this was one of the first ironies of the October Revolution (Russia operated to the Julian calendar at the time: it was November elsewhere).
Not wanting the aristocracy to get their hands on the booze, Lenin sent successive regiments of the army to guard the stocks, and they invariably became insensible with drink after about five minutes of standing guard.
The early Bolshevik state was as poor as a church mouse and stuck with the ultimate difficulty, of 'trying to figure out how to complete a revolution premised on heavy industrialisation (Marxist theory) in an agrarian state consisting of 80% peasantry.'
Prohibition officially continued until the mid-1920s, but by the end of that decade, with Stalin in charge, it was very much business as usual with the state relying heavily on alcohol taxes.
The rest, as they say, is history right through to Boris Yeltsin whose heavy drinking is the stuff of legend and peaked at the same moment that the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.
But, noted Healey, it is not silly to link vodka to the one undeniable achievement of the regime, victory in World War Two. Accounting for as many as 27 million Russian lives, the war was fought on vodka. 'It was much easier to fight and to die with 100ml of vodka in your system.'
Later, as the regime came under pressure in the 1970s and 80s, vodka production and consumption soared by 200%, but by then it was less an index of courage and more of failure.
Healey gave his talk in a freezing 18th century barn packed with the general public, all of whom had been invited to the opening of Oxford's first licensed distillery, called 'Toad'.
The Toad distillery in Oxford opened in 2017. Master distiller Cory Mason explains how the vodka is made.
The drink of the night was needless to say the Moscow Mule.
The same distillery is making an Oxford Dry Gin, bottles of which are being given away in a competition (link below), and in 2018 a Physicke Gin utilising botanicals from the Oxford Botanic Gardens – but of course the drink of the night was Toad vodka.
Pictures by University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse: Top, Professor Dan Healey. Middle, Joy Le Fevre (Hertford, 1978, event coordinator). Bottom, Cory Mason
To enter the Oxford Today competition go here: http://bit.do/oxfordgincomp
Dan Healey is Professor of Modern Russian History. In December 2017 he publishes Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi, (Bloomsbury Academic), a book that looks at the recent politics of homophobia in Russia in historical perspective. Taking the view that modern political homophobia began in Russia with Stalin’s rule, the book explores the fate of the queer in Stalin’s Gulag camps, the social and psychological worlds that queer men and women inhabited under the Soviet regime, and the rise in visibility of LGBT Russians at the end of the twentieth century. It concludes by examining the obstacles to understanding Russia’s queer past, and considering prospects facing LGBT Russians hoping for a queerer future.