Prohibition might have been a mistake for the United States, but it was an unmitigated disaster for the Russian Empire. It’s a well-known fact that Russians love their vodka. They love it so much that 25% of Russians die before the age of 55 because of it. So it seems like it might be a good idea to outlaw it, right? Wrong.
In the run-up to Russia entering the First World War, outlawing vodka seemed like the thing to do, and there was a lot of evidence that supported this conclusion. It affected the outcome of Russia’s war with Japan and Russia needed the food that would have been used to make vodka for the new war effort. So, Tsar Nicholas II decided he would end vodka sales in the empire – and look what happened to him.
For starters, it was just a bad idea economically. Sure, Russia needed food for the troops to fight World War I, but it also needed money to finance the war. Back then, vodka sales were dominated by the monarchy, as they had been for centuries dating back to Ivan the Terrible. Vodka sales amounted to a full third of the Russian Empire’s state income. Before Nicholas II’s decision to end vodka, prohibition movements were quelled for this reason alone.
Nicholas wasn’t wrong about vodka’s effect on the Russian population, however. When Japan attacked the Russian Eastern Fleet at Port Arthur in 1904, the Russian Empire tried to conscript its massive civilian population to fight the ensuing war. The peasants arrived at mobilization points so drunk that most of the conscription calls turned into drunken riots. This was nothing compared to what happened on the battlefields.
The 1905 Battle of Mukden in Manchuria saw the Russians fight the Japanese on land for a little over two weeks. The Japanese were outnumbered in what was one of the largest land battles before the outbreak of World War I. The Russians were not only beaten, there would not be another major land battle for the rest of the war. Russian newspapers reported that Russian soldiers were so dead drunk that thousands were easy pickings for the Japanese, who simply bayoneted their passed out enemies.
Alcohol was widely blamed for the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, more than anything else. Around the world, countries began to believe that anyone who went to war should drink less of it if they wanted to win. When war finally came in 1914, all countries involved outlawed or restricted alcohol to either preserve their food supplies or constrain the worst aspects of their conscript armies.
At first, prohibition worked for the Russian Army. It mobilized quickly and made fast advances against both Germany and Austria-Hungary on the Eastern Front. The Tsar tasked his finance minister with altering the economy so that vodka wasn’t such an important aspect of it. It was a bad time to attempt to remake the entire Russian economy in the first place, but to fill the gap, Russia just printed more rubles, which led to hyperinflation.
Vodka also clogged vital shipping methods. Trains could no longer deliver food or supplies to the front or to the people, because aristocrats were filling the rails with shipments of vodka destined for foreign ports. Facing a devastating war, devalued currency and feeling powerless to do anything about it, discontent with the Tsar only rose and Russians no longer had vodka as an outlet – so they revolted against him.
The Bolsheviks weren’t better in the vodka department, though. They outlawed vodka until the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924. Stalin brought it back for easy access to capital. The vodka flowed freely in the newly-formed Soviet Union, and still flowed until 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev outlawed it once more. Six years later, the Soviet Union fell too.