This article originally appeared on VICE Poland
The stereotype about Russians is that they can drink vodka like water. However, they weren't always allowed to. In 1985, then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a partial ban on alcohol consumption. The idea was to increase health and productivity in the country, but it quickly led to an economic disaster.
Earlier this year, London publishing house FUEL published the photo book ALCOHOL, a collection of posters from the 1960s and 1980s showcasing the Soviet government's futile efforts to deter its citizens from drinking. In the book, historian Alexei Plutser-Sarno also outlines a history of Soviet drinking, and writes about how the "dry law" led to unbridled illegal home brewing.
I spoke to the book's publisher Damon Murray about the far-reaching effects of the two-year partial ban.
VICE: What did the law mean, exactly?
Damon Murray: The 1985 directive was called On Measures to Overcome Drinking and Alcoholism and to Eradicate Bootlegged Alcohol. It was a partial prohibition, known in the Soviet Union as the "dry law". Gorbachev made many distilleries switch to the production of soft drinks and raised the price of beer, wine and vodka. He also restricted the hours and places it was legal to buy alcohol. Shops could only sell alcohol between 2PM and 7PM, so Russians would start queuing early in the morning – sometimes even the night before. Because of the crowds in those queues, you'd often see fights break out – and soon even the smallest shops had a police guard to keep the peace.
Why did the Soviet government decide to partially prohibit alcohol?
The economy had been stagnant for years and alcohol was considered a big part of the problem – workers came to work in the factories drunk, people's family life and social life suffered. By forcing the Russians to sober up, Gorbachev hoped productivity would go up significantly. Another aim was that money that would have otherwise been spent on alcohol would now be spent on consumer goods instead – which would also help the economy. That's not what happened – the balance of supply and demand changed so radically and suddenly that production levels couldn't keep up. To make matters worse, the shortage of goods had a negative effect on people's incentive to work. Why bother working if there was nothing to buy with the money you earned?
How did Russians respond to the ban?
They all started to brew their booze at home. People distilled alcohol from organic waste or cheap, sub-standard ingredients like starch, sugar, low-grade grains, rotten potatoes or beets. And they just looked for alternatives for alcohol to consume – like household chemicals, medication and even cologne. A bottle of cologne with, for example, an alcohol percentage of 64 would cost 98 kopeks in 1988, while a bottle of vodka cost more then ten rubles [there are 100 kopeks in a ruble]. That price difference was all many Russians needed to ignore the smell of the cologne while drinking it. They drank basically anything as a surrogate for alcohol – varnish, boot polish, glue, windscreen wash, anti-freeze, brake fluid or insecticide, for example. Even deicing fluid from military aircrafts – airforce ground crew would drain it from the aircrafts, distill it and drink it. It happened that the deicing fluid was replaced with water – which would of course freeze at high altitudes.
So how did the government impose the ban?
Manufacturing wine or vodka at home became punishable under criminal law and could land you in prison for two years. In addition, anyone found intoxicated could be picked up by police and sent to a recovery centre. During those years, Soviets who had drunk even the smallest amount of alcohol – or who were simply out late at night – could get in trouble. Police generated revenue with fining people who were drinking, so they were pretty happy to catch anyone in the act.
And the government also had these posters made, of course. What do they show exactly?
They're pretty straightforward – they're against drinking alcohol. There are depictions of drunks literally trapped inside a bottle or strangled by a green snake [a Russian symbol for alcohol]. The characters on them are the kind of freeloaders who are bad at their jobs, smashed while pregnant, drive drunk, neglect their families, are violent and a danger to themselves and those around them. But the design is so lively and particular, which makes them so interesting.
Did it work? Did the economy and productivity flourish?
No, the effect on the economy was pretty catastrophic. Before 1985, alcohol sales accounted for between 30 and 40 percent of state revenue, and by 1987 that revenue had shrunk by more than 37 billion rubles in just three years. The campaign was actually a key contributor to the economic crisis of 1987. People hadn't stopped drinking; they had just switched to homemade brew and alternatives for alcohol.
Why did the government eventually withdraw from the campaign?
Well, it wasn't a success. Its effect on the state budget and the dramatic rise in the consumption of alternatives to shop-bought alcohol far outweighed any benefits the campaign had. In 1988 Gorbachev increased the government's production of alcohol again, marking an end to the ban.
Scroll down for more Soviet anti-alcohol posters.