For the Western people vodka is the main Russian national brand: speaking about Russians, a foreigner implies that vodka affects the majority of them.

But how far is it true? Is it a primary tradition? How it became so popular among Russians?

The key answer is given in a rare and little-known book of Russian historian Ivan Pryzhov: the man, who issued the real national and officially covered history of Russian people. One of the central questions was history of vodka and alcohol culture.

In his book ‘The history of kabaks in Russia in relation with history of Russian people’ the writer shows that the original alcohol culture was quite different from its modern state. Shortly, it was common European or Northern-European, likewise the existence of ancient Russians.

We need to do a mention for the Western reader: early medieval «Rus’» (Russian Land) was another thing from the more late «Russia».

Russia, which was established in the XVI century by Tzar Ivan the Terrible after destroying Golden Hord and annexing the last Russian independent states like Novgorod, became Empire, which landscapes were and are more Asian, than European, including the occupied nations of Northern Eurasia (Tatars, Bashkirs, Finn, Mongolian and Caucasian demoses). We mean, it was not a national state, but centralized empire with the Orthodox messianic ideology, expansionist geopolitics and quite authoritarian, or better say, despotic power.

The “Rus’” of early medieval stage was dissimiliar. First of all, it situated on the landscapes of Nothern, Eastern and South Europe between Baltic and Black seas. Second, it was populated by the people mainly of Indo-European origin: Slavic, Celt, Norman, Baltic, Iranian. Last – it was not the centralized state, nor the empire – the unity of Russian Lands were resemble to the Sacred Roman Empire of German nation, it was a symbolic confederation of different and independent lands.

Serious changes came after two events: the bysantinisatian of Rus’ and it’s mongolisation. First was the kind of spiritual occupation of Northern-European people by the eastern Greek empire, which defeated the army of Svyatoslav and baptized Rus’ in Greek faith. After that Rus’ became a weak spiritual colony of Byzantine empire and was conquered by Mongols, the 5 centuries of whose dominantion finished with foundation of new Russian empire by Ivan the Terrible, who himself was descendant of Chingiz Chan and Greek dynasty Paleolog.

So, returning to our main issue, Ivan Pryzhov shows that alcohol culture of Russians changed together with their political culture and stage. The specific of alcohol culture in Rus was following:

  1. Russians used to drink weak alcohol from 5% to 20% made of natural ingridients like honey and berries, but not vodka (which is 40% alcohol, mixed with water).

  2. Publically Russians tippled in Korchma, the Slavic analogue of Pub, where they spread the table gathered with their families and children for the rest.

  3. Privately, men made traditional weak drinks like – “sbiten’”, “medovukha” themselves at home, for greeting a guest or for holidays.

All changed in the Russian Empire. Tzar Ivan the Terrible, who together with Tatar Kazan state (1552) massacred Russian republic of Novgorod (1569) with it’s five centuries of history and totally forbid Korchma, prohibited to make the traditional drinks and established two things: vodka and kabak.

Vodka – is an 40%-alcohol drink, very harmful for both physical and spiritual health, and most harmful vodka without lunching. And then was the essence of kabak, enrooted by Ivan the Terrible together with Russian centralized government. Korchma for good-time spending and family-oriented, was removed by kabak, the dirty place, where people drank to become drunk and nothing more.

Russia as a centralized state together with the state Orthodox church destroyed traditional Russian culture of drinking and other cultures (e.g. Folk martial arts, akin to boxing in England). Deformation of religion culture also was part of that process – ancient Russian Orthodox faith was too dangerous for the State as a potential form of Russian Puritanism. That’s why Moscow tzars smashed old Russian Orthodoxy and established in 1650 year new modernist state Orthodox church, leaded by Greek and Ukrainian servilists-immigrants. Together with this starts the process of enslaving of huge majority of Russian peasants.

That’s why we can say, that Russia – emperial state, leaded by foreign dynasties and servilists, enslaved Russian people, oppressed it and deformed its national culture, which was removed by the kitsch of pseudo-Russian culture.

Centuries past and majority of Russians obey to this power and accepted its official “Russian culture”. But not all – thousands and thousand resisted, running with oldfaith-followers to the forests of Siberia (tayga), going out of Russia, making peasants and kozaks riots together with another oppressed people of Russia: Tatars and Bashkirs like Razin and Pugachev did.

Returning to the problem of alcohol, from that moment alcohol and kabak became huge problem for Russians. Most interesting is the fact that the absolute minority of simple Russians were fans of vodka – the main distributor of it was the state, which had monopoly to produce and sell it.

Moreover in 1859 the government faced to the mass antialcohol riots of Russian peasants, who demanded to prohibit vodka! What was the state answer? It massacred the revolts, because selling vodka was one of the main sources of the state budget. The leadership needed vodka to have money not in interest of Russian people, 48% of which were enslaved till 1861, when slavery was abandoned (in same time as in the US!). Government was interested in money for imperialist expancy to non-Russian lands and nations, it had a demand for obedient soldiers, not free citizens, vodka was a brilliant instrument to get a brave and unthinking dumb soldier.

That’s why we see, that when first Russian national movement rised in the beginning of XX century one of the most important aims was the struggle for the soberness of Russian people. To compare – if the gatherings of German Nazis in 20-30 years of last century were organized in beer-pubs, public meetings of the Union of Russian People in the beginning of XX century were organized like tea-clubs and were absolutely alcohol-free.

The importance of such a struggle can be explained by the development of capitalism in Russia that brought the new wave of alcoholism. After the victory of communists in 1917 year it became even more because of the civil war, which destroyed social life and stability of nation.

But what about Stalin epoch? Logically we expect such a dictator is to limit or even prohibit alcoholism. But quite opposite – Stalin stimulated producing and selling vodka to population, because again it was an important financial recourse for the militarization of new, Soviet Russia. The most hard-line rulers of Russian empire like Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Stalin were the most intensive promoters of mass-alcoholisation.

The actual situation in Russia is nothing but a tragedy – we are witnessing depopulation of ethnic Russian (Slavic) population with the speed minus 1 000 000 every year from the beginning of 1990-th. The main reason of high mortality especially between male population – cardiovascular deceases and suicidal alcoholic culture. Except vodka today among Russians are popular different synthetic alcohol drinks, which are very harmful for health and for genofond of future generations, especially because alcoholism in Russia becomes more and more young.

What is position of state in that question? It doesn’t care. Even if Russian people, who were always numerous, are rapidly declining, the population will be removed by immigrants from postSoviet Central Asian republics, which have growing, young and unemployed population. Minority of Russians, social activists try to solve that problem themselves, but faced with quite unfriendly reaction from the state. As an example – permanent police pressing against Russian scampers – actions of young Russian patriots, who call Russian youth to be sober and not to drink and have a moto „Russian means sober“. In St. Petersburg organizer of such Russian scampers Maxim Kalinichenko was even arrested and imprisoned till now for „extremism“. That is pretty logical: when all mainstream Russian culture promotes ideal of Russian, who loves to drink vodka and do it a lot, to declare, that Russian must be and can be sober is real extremism.

Conclusion: vodka as a whole Russian alcohol culture, is a product of Russian imperial autocratic state. But Russians as the bearers of healthy blood and mind, who remember their roots from Rus’ (not from Russia!), resisted to that alcoholisation all their history. And new generation of such Russians now intensively opens history of their people, oppressed by“its“ own state and hidden by it.

Haroun ar-Rusi (Sidorov)

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