Lenin the Prohibitionist
By Bryan Caplan
Mark Lawrence Schrad’s new Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State is more than good; it’s novel. Despite my long-term interest in Russian history, much of what Schrad had to say was genuinely new to me. I’ve read dozens of books about Lenin, but I somehow missed the fact that he was an ardent prohibitionist.
“Death is preferable to selling vodka!” Lenin declared prior to the revolution. True to his prohibitionist principles, he held fast to that conviction after seizing power. Even with vodka’s counterrevolutionary threat subsiding, Lenin’s ruling Sovnarkom, or Council of People’s Commissars… nationalized all alcohol production facilities and existing alcohol stocks. In 1919, Sovnarkom forbid distilling “by any means, in any quantity and at any strength” – punishable by confiscation of all property and a minimum of five years in Siberian labor camps.
Lenin the prohibitionist poet:
“Whatever the peasant wants in the way of material things we will give him, as long as they do not imperil the health or morals of the nation,” Lenin famously declared late in life. “But if he asks for ikons or booze – these things we will not make for him. For that is definitely retreat; that is definitely degeneration that leads him backward. Concession of this sort we will not make; we shall rather sacrifice any temporary advantage that might be gained from such concessions.”
If, like me, you have zero sympathy for prohibition, Schrad’s sordid tale of Russia’s collective drunken stupor over the last century will give you second thoughts. At the same time, though, Schrad’s account will give pause to even the most ardent prohibitionist. The unintended consequences of Russia’s periodic crackdowns on alcohol were straight out of an econ textbook: bootlegging, adulteration, poisoning, corruption, and violence galour. Russian alcoholism is terrifying and sickening – yet Russian prohibition is even worse.
P.S. If you see me at Students for Liberty this weekend, please say hi. I’ll probably be eating at the Bistro at the Grand Hyatt tonight around 7 PM if you’d like to join me.