Home Brewers

Russia is no stranger to alcohol; in fact, it is known for its consumption of alcohol in day-to-day life, events, and celebrations. Alcohol served as a large portion of state revenue up until 1985 which is when Russia’s entered into a dry period. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as the General Secretary of the Communist Party 1985 and in May he launched an anti-alcohol campaign. Gorbachev soon was referred to as mineral’nyi sekretar’ which means “mineral-water-drinking secretary). Soviet receptions were used to set the example by not allowing alcohol to be served. The campaign was started in hopes of progressing soviet society since alcohol had been associated with acts of child abuse, divorce, suicide, accidents, and rising mortality rates. The anti-alcohol movement goals were to reduce the sale and consumption of alcohol, primarily focusing on vodka. This resulted in many shops losing their license to sell alcohol, restaurants not being allowed to sell alcohol prior to 2 pm., and the closing of vodka distilleries. Gorbachev’s movement may have seemed worth-while on paper, but reality soon showed otherwise.

The All-Union Voluntary Temperance Society was created in order to lead society by the good example of sobriety. This group was supposed to encourage people to leave the alcohol behind them and make the step in the direction toward a sober life. In order to succeed with this effort the group was ordered to educate the masses of all the harms alcohol brought to the body. The belief was that an educated society would not want to put that “poison” into their bodies. The Temperance Society showed the negative influences and impacts of alcohol through propaganda. Posters during this time promoted saying no to alcohol and ideas that alcohol was the evil that existed in society. The poster below is showing how vodka only brings troubled people who will pull down society. Both posters wanting people to reject the alcohol and live a life of sobriety.

“Vodka Brings With It”

Gorbachev’s movement did bring about the lessening of consumption, but unfortunately it also brought the increase in samogon (Russian moonshine). Home brewers started to pop up everywhere, first in the rural areas then in the urban areas. Small villages in rural areas were able to use a system of rationing for vodka. Yellow coupons would be handed out to selected people of the village. A list of names would be posted in public for people to see who could not purchase any alcohol. A committee was called upon to determine the names placed on the list which mainly consisted of alcoholics, hooligans, those with histories of domestic disputes, and pregnant women with chronic illnesses. The coupons allowed the customer to buy 1-2 bottle of vodka each month. The problem that accompanied this plan was the selling/redistributing of coupons to people who they were not allotted to originally. Businessmen took full advantage of this system; for example, they would buy a bottle of vodka then turn around and resell it for a personal profit. The system of coupons was meant to be seen as a compromise where in reality it was flawed and corrupt.

The rise of home brewers caused society many problems. A majority of people who engaged in distilling their own moonshine did it for two primary reasons. First, the alcohol would be used for their own consumption. Secondly, they could use the moonshine as a medium of exchange for services. The second reason for home distilleries is what constituted more than half of the home brew convictions. Another problem that surfaced with home distilleries was the fact that samogon required grains and sugar in excess. People began to steal sugar from neighbors in order to produce their moonshine. The use of home distilleries and ingredients led to the fear of an epidemic breakout from raw vodka. Gorbachev’s decision to launch this campaign caused the government to lose any control over the alcohol market they once had and left individuals fearful of how/if the epidemics or crime outbreaks would be handled.

As many flaws as there may have been in the campaign there were also some positive outcomes as well. Within the first year of the campaign there was a 37% decrease in accidents involving drunk drivers. The population had seen a decrease in the death rate which had not happened since 20 years and crimes related to drinking had also seen a decrease. However, Gorbachev’s campaign for a dry country only lasted for two years. The campaign had caused economic turmoil (losing drastic state revenue) and rise in home brewery. These two years look very similar to the United States’ Prohibition era that occurred during the 1920s.


Picture: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1985-2/anti-alcohol-campaign/posters-of-the-anti-alcohol-campaign/#bwg276/1346

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