Subscribe to read
Make informed decisions with the FT
Keep abreast of significant corporate, financial and political developments around the world. Stay informed and spot emerging risks and opportunities with independent global reporting, expert commentary and analysis you can trust.
Did Vodka Cause the Russian Revolution?
Prohibition is among the most misunderstood chapters in world history, especially since we falsely assume it was a uniquely American history. In reality, more than a dozen countries banned the liquor trade around World War I. The first to do so was actually imperial Russia, five years before the United States—a policy decision that would hasten the empire’s demise.
Russia’s prohibition came not through legislation or imperial decree, but rather via a telegram dated Sept. 28, 1914, from Tsar Nicholas II to his favorite uncle, Konstantin Konstantinovich Romanov, which proclaimed “I have already decided to abolish forever the government sale of vodka in Russia.”
To understand Russian prohibition, context matters. For centuries, going back to Ivan the Terrible, the tsarist government maintained an incredibly lucrative monopoly on the vodka trade. No less than one-third of all state revenue of the mighty Russian empire came from selling vodka to its own people. Consequently, any temperance movement to promote the health and well-being of the peasantry was quickly snuffed out, lest the tsar’s revenues be diminished.
In 1904, the Japanese attacked Russia’s Far-Eastern outpost at Port Arthur, beginning the Russo-Japanese War. What the Russians thought would be a quick victory against a non-European foe quickly turned into an embarrassing debacle. At mobilization points across Russia, the call-up of peasant conscripts often turned into drunken and murderous riots. The front was even worse. At the disastrous defeat at Mukden, Russian newspapers described how, “the Japanese found several thousand Russian soldiers so dead drunk they were able to bayonet them like so many pigs.”
With the Revolution of 1905 brewing in St. Petersburg, Russia was forced to sue for peace. “The Japanese did not conquer,” wrote Vienna’s Neue freie Presse, “but alcohol triumphed, alcohol, alcohol.” Military experts around the world suddenly realized that drunkenness could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Even German Kaiser Wilhelm II declared in 1910 that “in the next war, the nation which drinks the least alcohol will be the winner.”
So when World War I broke out in 1914, virtually all of the belligerent countries—including Russia—restricted alcohol to conserve foodstuffs and ease mobilization. Indeed, thanks in part to a temporary prohibition, Russia was able to put its armies in the field much quicker than their German and Austro-Hungarian foes, securing early victories in East Prussia and Galicia. That early momentum would not last.
The once heavy-drinking Tsar Nicholas II had increasingly been won to the temperance cause. Members of the royal family—including the tsar’s rather bohemian favorite uncle, the aforementioned Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich Romanov—began patronizing temperance. Even the notoriously drunken and debauching Siberian mystic Grigory Rasputin argued: “It is unbefitting for a Tsar to deal in vodka and make drunkards out of honest people. The time has come to lock up the Tsar’s saloons.”
In January 1914, Nicholas appointed as minister of finance Sir Peter Bark, with the charge of making the treasury no longer “dependent on the ruination of the spiritual and economic forces of the majority of My faithful subjects.” It was an unenviable task to wean the mighty empire off of its greatest source of revenue, even before the added expense of assembling the largest fighting force in world history later that year.
Get your history fix in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME History newsletter
One of Russia’s ten million troops was 22-year-old platoon commander Prince Oleg Konstantinovich Romanov, son of the temperate Grand Duke Konstantin. In pursuing retreating German forces in Lithuania in September 1914, Prince Oleg was shot through the right hip—a wound that quickly became infected. The Grand Duke rushed to Vilnius to be by his dying son’s bedside, but was too late. Prince Oleg died on Sept. 27, 1914, making him the only Romanov to die in battle in World War I.
Tsar Nicholas‘ prohibition telegram to Konstantin—“abolishing forever the government sale of vodka in Russia”—was dated the following day. Ultimately, this proclamation of Russia as the world’s first prohibition country was little more than Nicholas’ consolation to his temperate uncle who grieved the loss of his beloved son.
It was a decision that would hasten the end of the Romanov Empire itself. In the February Revolution of 1917, the tsar was returning from the front to address an insurrection that was roiling his capital of Petrograd. Mutineers stopped his train and forced the tsar’s abdication in favor of an ill-fated Provisional Government.
In addition to Russia’s disastrous losses on the war front, historians generally point to three factors that brought down the Russian empire: discontent with the tsar, hyperinflation and the breakdown of Russia’s transportation infrastructure. Prohibition exacerbated each.
Forcing poor Russians to quit cold turkey amid the horrors of war likely didn’t enamor the peasant, worker or soldier to the tsar.
Read more: ‘You’re Not a Person if You Don’t Drink.’ How This Tiny European Country Developed the World’s Worst Drinking Problem
The revenue effects were even worse. In 1915, the head of the legislature’s finance committee boasted that “never since the dawn of human history had a single country, in a time of war, renounced the principal source of its revenue.” Finance Minister Bark busily cobbled together fictitious reports about a “miraculous” upsurge in Russian economic productivity, now that the yoke of vodka had been lifted. Yet in reality, the gaping budgetary hole was patched by the printing press, exacerbating hyperinflation. “What if we do lose eight hundred million rubles in revenue?” rhetorically asked Premier Ivan Goremykin. “We shall print that much paper money; it’s all the same to the people.”
Even Russia’s infrastructural paralysis was exacerbated by prohibition. Rather than delivering grain to the starving cities, or necessary war materiel to the front, Russia’s anemic railroad system was clogged by carloads of vodka. Since they couldn’t legally sell their alcohol to the state retail monopoly, well-connected gentry distillers sent their warehouses of vodka by train to the Arctic port cities of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk, hoping to ship them to consumers in allied France, or to Japan and the Pacific across the single-track Trans-Siberian Railway.
While there were many proximate causes for the Russian Revolution, the prohibition of the tsarist vodka trade was undeniably one of them. And yet—during the exigencies of wartime—prohibition along with grain requisitioning were the only policies maintained not only by the conservative Romanov regime, but the liberal Provisional Government, and the radical Bolshevik regime of Vladimir Lenin as well. Beyond demanding sobriety and discipline amidst the October Revolution and ensuing Civil War, Lenin was ideologically opposed to building socialism on the livers of the proletariat. “We should not follow the example of the capitalist countries and put vodka and other intoxicants on the market,” he argued, “because, profitable though they are, they will lead us back to capitalism and not forward to communism.”
But ultimately, Russia’s prohibition experiment died with Lenin in 1924. Swayed by the allure of easy money, his successor, Joseph Stalin, revived the old tsarist vodka monopoly, rebranded with a hammer and sickle. The dynamics of alcohol politics in the Soviet Union were almost identical to those of the conservative empire that preceded it. In terms of popular drinking practices and the government’s profits, it was almost as if the prohibition period had never happened. In terms of Russian history, however, the consequences of that decade of temperance are impossible to ignore.
Oxford University Press
Mark Lawrence Schrad, an associate professor of political science at Villanova University, is the author of the book Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition, available now from Oxford University Press, from which this piece is adapted.
Contact us at email@example.com.
UK warned not to replicate Australia’s ‘dark and bloody chapter’ on asylum
The British government has been warned not replicate Australia’s “dark and bloody chapter” on immigration in light of Priti Patel’s new asylum plans.
Lawyers, former civil servants and doctors in Australia have told The Independent the UK risks undergoing “international embarrassment” if it goes ahead with its proposed “overhaul” of the asylum system, which will see the rights of thousands of asylum seekers reduced.
The UK home secretary Ms Patel announced in March that, under her proposed reforms, refugees who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes will be denied the automatic right to asylum and instead be regularly reassessed for removal to safe countries they passed through.
People who cannot immediately be removed are to be offered a temporary status, up to 30 months, with abridged rights and benefits and limited family reunion rights.
Ms Patel also said she would amend the law so that it is possible to move asylum seekers from the UK while their asylum claim or appeal is pending – paving the way for offshore asylum processing. Media reports suggest Gibraltar, the Isle of Man and Rwanda are being considered.
The plans bear hallmarks to much-derided asylum laws in Australia introduced over the past decade.
A ‘national shame’
Australia’s offshore asylum policy first began in 2001, lasting several years, and was reintroduced by the Labor Party in 2013, when the then prime minister Kevin Rudd famously announced that asylum seekers arriving by boat without a visa would “never be settled in Australia”.
In the subsequent years, the country sent more than 4,000 people to state-sponsored immigration detention centres in the tiny Pacific state of Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
At least 10 have taken their lives while being held in Australia’s offshore processing centres. Two have been murdered, including a 23-year-old Iranian who died of head injuries after being hit by security guards following a riot in 2014 at the Papua New Guinea detention centre.
Dr Nick Martin, a former senior medical officer on Nauru, who spoke out publicly against Australia’s offshore immigration regime, said it was a “national shame”.
“The human cost is unbelievable. These people are often traumatised anyway, and then they’re then stuck in a prison environment that makes their trauma worse and worse,” he said.
“It’s ruinously expensive because you need to keep people offshore and have staff out there. An insane amount of money has been thrown at it just to keep people out of sight. It has created a problem where there doesn’t need to be one.”
The human cost is unbelievable. These people are often traumatised anyway, and then they’re then stuck in a prison environment that makes their trauma worse and worse Dr Nick Martin, former senior medical officer on Nauru
Australia has spent in the region of $12bn on offshore processing in the last eight years – considerably more than it was forecast to cost.
Addressing Ms Patel’s plans, Dr Martin said: “Australia has undergone international embarrassment for this. Does the UK really want to take on a policy that even most of the politicians in Australia are trying to move away from it now?”
Paul Stevenson, a traumatologist who has offered psychological support to both staff and refugees in Australia’s offshore detention centres, echoed these remarks.
He sent shockwaves through Australia when he disclosed that, in his decades working at the scenes of terrorist attacks, bombings and mass murders, he had never seen more atrocity than in Manus and Nauru.
The psychologist said Australia made a mistake in not having an “end plan” when introducing the reforms – prioritising efforts to “appease the electorate in the short-term” but without establishing an ultimate goal.
“If I could encourage the British government to do anything it would be to work right from the beginning towards a resolution. Find that first, know where you’re heading,” he added.
“If you can’t find that you know you’re going to be doomed if you start a process that you can’t finish.”
‘Slow and tortuous’
Up to three quarters of asylum seekers being held in Australia’s offshore camps were ultimately determined to be refugees, but the government denied them any prospect of resettlement to the country.
Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, human rights defender, writer and film producer, was detained on Manus Island from 2013 until the detention centre’s closure in 2017. He now has refugee status in New Zealand.
Describing the offshore regime as a “tragedy”, he said: “I don’t think the people of the UK want their government to create the same tragedy in their name. They have damaged hundreds of innocent people and also damaged the political culture in that country.”
The detention sites were closed in 2017 and 2018, but around 300 people remain offshore, temporarily resettled. Hundreds are in Australia after being evacuated for medical treatment, more than 750 have returned voluntarily to their home countries and 20 were forcibly deported. Some 900 have settled in a third country including 870 in the US. Thirteen former detainees are dead.
I don’t think the people of the UK want their government to create the same tragedy in their name. They have damaged hundreds of innocent people and also damaged the political culture in that country Behrouz Boochani, detained on Manus Island for years
Abul Rizvi, who was a senior official in Australia’s Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007, said the first phase of offshore processing, which took place while he was working for the government, was relatively successful, because nearly all individuals were processed within two years and settled in Australia.
But he said that when the policy was reintroduced in 2013, it was “much slower and much more tortuous”, largely due to the fact that the Australian government refused to take in any of those in the camps, instead leaving them in a state of limbo for years on end.
The former immigration official warned Britain risked a similar fate, saying: “The UK proposals still has too many holes. If you’re looking at this purely as stopping the asylum seekers and removing those who are unsuccessful, I’m not sure Patel has a solution. It’s half-baked.”
David Burke, a lawyer at Australia’s Human Rights Legal Centre, explained that throughout 2018, he and other lawyers were running court cases to get people who needed medical treatment not available in offshore detention transferred to the mainland.
“We had tens of children trying to kill themselves, but the government refusing to transfer people. Parents were sleeping in shifts because they couldn’t leave their child, aged under 10, alone,” he said.
In a development echoed by the UK government with Ms Patel’s use of the term “activist lawyers”, Mr Burke said that the legal representatives – as well as doctors supporting asylum seekers in the offshore camps - began to be “vilified” by the Australian government.
“The idea of any country looking to it as a model is honestly terrifying when you know the realities of what has happened in Australia,” he added.
Nick McKim, co-deputy leader for the Australian Green Party and a member of the Australian Senate, urged the UK to “learn from the mistakes” of his country and rule out using offshore processing, describing it as a “horror show”.
He added: “This is a really dark and bloody chapter in Australia’s national story, and one that I urge the UK not to write for itself. Learn from the horrors of offshore detention, where people’s lives have been destroyed.”
‘Taxpayer funded cruelty’
Another feature of Australia’s crackdown on boat arrivals was its introduction of Temporary Protection Visa (TPVs), introduced in 2013, a form of transient settlement issued to recognised refugees who arrived in the country by boat before the offshore system came into play.
TPV holders have the right to work, study and access some state benefits, but they are barred from accessing refugee family reunion mechanisms and can only travel overseas in compelling circumstances.
Like the UK’s proposals, Australia’s TPV policy requires refugees to have their cases periodically reviewed to assess whether they can be deported.
“The idea that you can treat protection as a three-year agreement to be reviewed is obviously an abhorrent concept for people who come here seeking safety, but it is also a bureaucratic nightmare for the government David Burke, human rights lawyer
However, people granted TPVs in Australia are rarely removed from the country.
Mr Burke described the temporary visa policy as a “complete failure”, explaining that nine years on from its introduction, there were still thousands of people who haven’t even had an initial hearing for their protection claims yet.
“The idea that you can treat protection as a three-year agreement to be reviewed is obviously an abhorrent concept for people who come here seeking safety, but it is also a bureaucratic nightmare for the government,” he said.
Research by the University of New South Wales in 2019 found that refugees on Australian TPVs had significantly worse mental health than those on secure permanent visas, with half having a probable diagnosis of PTSD, compared to 30 per cent of permanent visa holders.
The findings also showed that people on temporary visas were 2.4 times more likely to report suicidal intent than permanent visa holders.
Sangeetha Pillai, senior research associate at the Kandor Centre, which studies refugee law, said people on TPVs in Australia were “effectively kept in limbo”, and urged the UK government and voters to “think about the human cost” of such a system.
Mr Rivzi, the former immigration official, described TPVs as “taxpayer-funded cruelty”, adding: “They don’t work. All they do is create suffering. They don’t slow the numbers coming, they don’t force people to go home. I can’t see what they have ever achieve other than suffering and costs.”
All options on the table
A Home Office spokesperson said it was “looking at what other countries do to deter illegal migration” and that it would “not rule out any option” that could help reduce the problem.
Earlier this week, media reports suggested the department was considering plans to create an offshore asylum processing centre in Rwanda. The department subsequently denied there was such a plan in place, but did not rule out the idea.
It has also been reported that Ms Patel is considering sending asylum seekers to processing centres in Gibraltar, the Isle of Man and islands off the Scottish coast.
Meanwhile, more than 1,500 asylum seekers in the UK have already been told this year that their claims will not be processed by the Home Office and that they will instead be considered for removal to European countries they travelled through.
But Britain currently has no mechanism to carry out these returns, and of EU countries – including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden – have told The Independent do not intend to make bilateral deals with Britain.
It is presumed these asylum seekers, even if they are deemed to be refugees, will be granted Ms Patel’s new form of temporary protection visa if the UK is unable to remove them from the country.
The Home Office spokesperson said its new immigration plans would “welcome people through safe and legal routes, while preventing abuse of the system and the criminality associated with it”, adding: “Our asylum system is broken and we cannot sit idly by while people die attempting to cross the Channel.”
The Australian government had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.