The Disgusting Stuff Desperate Russians Drank During Soviet Prohibition

Cologne, toothpaste, and industrial solvents all provided cheap thrills for Soviet citizens.

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Dec 8 2014, 5:00am

Photo via Flickr user ​goucho74

"'Drinking,' the Prince said, 'is the joy of the Rus'. We cannot exist without that pleasure.'" ​Tale of Bygone Years 

As a teenager skipping school, I once drank a shot of cologne. It was cheap stuff called Triumph and it made me vomit, profusely and violently. But I had grown up with the tales of bohemian Russian immigrants, writers, and artists who boasted of defeating the obstacles to inebriation by which the wicked Communists oppressed them, equating their theft of laboratory ethanol and consumption of perfume with the principled opposition of political dissidents. Getting wasted when Moscow's dictators didn't want them to was their victory of wits. I might have been born an American citizen, but it was my history too.

My friends doubted that even Russians stomachs could handle Triumph, and mine certainly couldn't. Despite practicing on cheap malt liquor, I was nurtured on fine American food and couldn't hold down the cologne. Now I'm a bit more experienced with foreign substances, having spent two years as an intravenous addict who once had dope but no water to cook it up in, and so took a shot using Sunkist. Though terrified of death by carbonation, there was no harm done, and I strangely tasted citrus from inside my tongue. 

Prohibitions have odd consequences.

My uncle and his friends began nights out in Latvia—when it was still a Soviet republic—with a trip to the railway station and a pocketful of kopeck coins. The station featured a machine that would spray cologne for a low fee; some users put their mouths right to the nozzle and fed as many coins into it as they could handle. There was always a line. Older passersby chuckled, but no one found this shocking. It wasn't illegal, and there was nowhere to buy beer.

After winning themselves a country, the revolutionaries that once shared Europe's demimonde with pimps and smugglers rewrote their history. Stalin ​may have robbed a bank once, but those romantic days were over. The perfect Communist was depicted as a sober worker who spent his free time on self-improvement. In the posters that survive from those days, abstinence is clearly a virtue, along with exercise and study. The resemblance to Germany's ideal Aryans is uncanny. Totalitarian moralities, whether in China, Korea, or George Orwell's 1984, all share a common temperance. Sexless, temperate, driven, and devoted—these fantasies of ideal "new people" invented by murderous regimes never took hold among the Russian population. But Stalin, for his part, was quite the realist; during World War II, 100 grams of vodka ​were issued to troops moments before an attack. (The red monarch himself ​reportedly preferred to drink Georgian wine.)

Over the four decades of Communist rule that followed Stalin's demise, campaigns to discourage Russians from drinking occasionally sprang up; they were usually poorly enforced and never successful. But alcohol shortages had the same effect as American Prohibition, with arguably worse consequences. Whereas we tend to think the US Prohibition years birthed the Mafia, in Russia the struggle for a drink united with the war against the state and encompassed a greater swath of the population. When seemingly normal people are extracting alcohol from industrial glue, it's safe to say the criminal has become mainstream.

The educated classes invented many table-side rituals to polish up this substance abuse. There are ways to pour a shot with respect or disdain, foods to chase certain beverages with. That was termed drinking "culturally," but things really got interesting when the water of life itself wasn't available.

A population of highly skilled and educated alcoholics tackled the problem. The engineers and chemists of the USSR derived alcohol with ingenuity and disregard for the stomach lining. Nostalgic for Soviet toothpaste, my uncle confirmed that the gunk contained ethanol, but swallowing an entire tube caused vomiting. So the toothpaste was spread on bread; eventually a crust dried and was removed. The alcohol-sopped slice could then be eaten. 

In the villages, fermenting pots of low-proof hooch stood in every hut.

The Russian cold provided other opportunities. Industrial chemicals, like solvents, were deadly to ingest. But if poured on steel chilled by the winter, all of the ingredients except for the ethanol would freeze into a ball, leaving pure alcohol for the lucky imbiber. Even machinery was used: A certain glue had an alcohol content, as well as poisonous binders. Inserting a drill into the can and running it for a while would separate the alcohol from the gluey mass which encrusted the bit. 

In the villages, fermenting pots of low-proof hooch stood in every hut. Sugar, yeast, water, and a barrel were enough to make an unpleasant beverage that the peasants drank. Many had learned the method in labor camps. At least in American prisons, grapefruit juice is used; Russians stole animal feed to ferment. Out in the provinces, when there was beer, they couldn't resist strengthening it. For a few extra kopecks, three sprays of insect repellent were added to your mug. I declined this offer myself as late as 1999, although no one around me did.

Russia was once ruled by lords in estates. Their manor houses all became museums after the Revolution, and each had a wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. Filled with antiquities, relics, or natural curiosities, like double-headed snakes and malformed fetuses preserved in jars of alcohol, the 19th century fashion for these collections has insured that every local museum in Europe has one. But in Russia they are full of dry husks, as the pre-revolutionary alcohol preserving the rarities was all repurposed for the "caretakers' parties" by the 1970s.

Chocolates with a drop of liqueur inside were bought by the box and consumed in haste. Men with international reputations for scientific discoveries and accomplished doctors drank alcohol provided for the sterilization of laboratory tools with gusto. Many a retired nuclear physicist or hydro-engineer, once responsible for the construction of dams or missile silos, emigrated to enjoy an American retirement in the 90s. This allowed me to hear their nostalgic recollections of imbibing pure, experiment-grade ethanol. Of course, there was a method to this as well—after swallowing down firewater, never breathe before chasing it with some water. The alcohol dries out the throat instantly and breathing without re-moistening causes a brutal burning sensation.

The last official attempt at prohibition was a campaign initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev right before the breakup of the Soviet Union. He didn't ban vodka but made it hard to get by  restricting ​hours of availability and supplies. In response, stills sprang up even in Moscow apartment buildings. Citizens often used a rubber glove to vent off the vapors, and the shimmering white hands in the windows were nicknamed "Gorbachev's Wave." Then the USSR fell apart and Russia's new leader, Boris Yeltsin, was an alcoholic himself who had no such Puritan ideas.

Alcohol was the  ​Soviet drug of choice because of a paucity of options. The common Russian pharmaceutical narcotic was ​Pantopon, an old derivative of opium rarely used outside the Third World. Access to it was restricted to the medical field. Some of the Central Asian former khanates and Tatar lands in the underpopulated east had traditional histories of poppy cultivation, and cannabis was well known in the three republics that straddle the Caucasus range of mountains, but there was very little distribution of drugs within the Soviet Union. Only with the wave of troops returning from Afghanistan in the 1980s did heroin make its debut. It seemed the Russians had to learn the lessons of Vietnam for themselves.

During the years when both the curtain and the ruble's value fell, a certain chaos took over the country. Rumors arriving with immigrants claimed that an injection of crow's blood got you high. Putin has the trains running on time, but clever Russians have made innovations of their own.  ​Nicknamed "Krokodil" for its propensity to cause the skin to scale and rot at the injection sites, this relatively recent innovation is made from codeine and condemns its users to a single-digit life expectancy and reptilian appearance. But it's very cheap.

The lengths to which the Soviet people went for their booze is all too familiar to anyone who has ever faced addiction. While the intelligentsia made drinking classy by surrounding it with rigmarole and chasers— zakuski—they also turned to it from hopelessness. Soviet drinking was no celebration. Escape would be a better term, the same haven invoked by those looking to numb themselves in narcotics. In the West, to be a proper countercultural deviant, it was de rigeur to smoke grass. With this possibility unavailable to most Soviet youth, they turned to drink and fetishized it. Russian countercultural art—the songs, poetry and novellas of the 60s and 70s that many know by heart—enshrines drunkenness alongside derision for the Communist Party.

In America, desperate junkies are kept from infection by needle-exchange programs, while in Russia the population most at risk is unaware of the dangers.

By linking a legitimate movement against a monstrous state with a cultural acceptance for inebriation, the Russian people were very susceptible to addiction once stronger drugs than ethanol showed up. Ten years ago I witnessed a group of young heroin addicts share a steel and glass hypodermic needle of Soviet vintage. I refused a go with it. Before I could explain why, their teenage chief told me, "Don't worry, we all use it." The harsh lessons learned by the Western world's experience with HIV had passed him by. In America, desperate junkies are kept from infection by needle-exchange programs, while in Russia the population most at risk is  ​unaware of the dangers.

Raised with tales of fighting the Soviet dragon while drinking the preserved marsupials from the town museum, I drank all through my youth. When I found a door to the shadows, I moved on to stronger things. It wasn't long before I paid a price. But this is America, the land of second acts. Having paid my debt to society and luckily preserved my health, I get to try again. Russia is not as forgiving. Those not killed by Krokodil are often hideously disfigured, often before even reaching their 20s. The inheritance of a substance-abusing zeitgeist has arguably made Russian culture its own enemy, one strong enough to convince a teenage Manhattanite to drink cologne.

Follow Daniel Genis on ​Twitter.

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