Vodka Politics

The prevalence of drunkenness in Russia is often dismissed as cliché— a cultural quirk of little political significance. But just as vodka plays a central role in Russian society, so too is it central to understanding Russian history and politics.

In this pathbreaking work, Mark Lawrence Schrad explains how the persistence of Russia’s alcohol problem is not an ethnic or genetic trait, but rather the consequence of a remarkably enduing Russian political arrangement that built the institutions of autocracy atop a cornerstone of vodka. Through a series of interconnected historical investigations stretching from the sixteenth century through the present day, Vodka Politics presents the secret history of the Russian state itself—a history that is drenched in liquor. By scrutinizing instead of dismissing the role of alcohol in Russian politics, we get a more nuanced understanding of Russian history itself: from palace intrigues under the tsars to the drunken antics of Soviet and post-Soviet leadership, vodka is there.

Yet beyond vivid anecdotes, Schrad scours original documents and archival evidence to answer provocative historical questions. How have Russia’s rulers used alcohol to solidify their autocratic position? Did prohibition cause the Bolshevik Revolution? Could the Soviet Union have become a world power without liquor? How did vodka politics contribute to the collapse of communism? Was Boris Yeltsin really as big of a lush as we thought?

Viewing Russian history through the bottom of the bottle helps us to understand why the “liquor question” remains an important issue in Russian high politics even today—almost a century after the issue had been put to bed in virtually every other modern state. Indeed, coming to terms with vodka’s devastating consequences will be the single greatest political challenge for this generation of Russia’s leadership, as well as the next.


  1. 1.Introduction

2. Vodka Politics

3. Cruel Liquor: Ivan the Terrible and Alcohol in the Muscovite Court 

4. Peter the Great: Modernization and Intoxication

5. Russia’s Empresses: Power, Conspiracy, and Vodka

6. Murder, Intrigue, and the Mysterious Origins of Vodka

7. Why Vodka? Russian Statecraft and the Origins of Addiction

8. Vodka and the Origins of Corruption in Russia

9. Vodka Domination,Vodka Resistance...Vodka Emancipation?

10. The Pen, the Sword, and the Bottle

11. Drunk at the Front: Alcohol and the Imperial Russian Army

12. Nicholas the Drunk, Nicholas the Sober

13. Did Prohibition Cause the Russian Revolution?

14. Vodka Communism

15. Industrialization, Collectivization, Alcoholization

16. Vodka and Dissent in the Soviet Union

17. Gorbachev and the (Vodka) Politics of Reform

18. Did Alcohol Make the Soviets Collapse?

19. The Bottle and Boris Yeltsin

20. Alcohol and the Demodernization of Russia

21. The Russian Cross

22. The Rise and Fall of Putin’s Champion

23. Medvedev against History

24. An End to Vodka Politics?



--Tyler Cowen



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