Updated: Nov 11, 2020
There aren’t many things that evoke as immediate an association with Russia as vodka. "Vodka giveth and vodka taketh away," says Russian author Viktor Erofeyev, "it is the Russian God." The word itself is a diminutive of voda, the Russian word for water, and the prominence it takes in Russian culture reflects this essential place it takes in the language. Vodka has for some time now played a peculiar and decisive role in the wending of Russian history. Many countries have attempted prohibition in the past to varying degrees of success, but Russia, as always, presents something of a puzzle: what happens when a state monopoly in spirits decides to prohibit itself?
Back in the late 1700s, Catherine the Great created a state monopoly on vodka, and she was playing the devil’s game. As planned, significant funds were raised for the royal treasury, but she began a precedent of tying the Russian budget to the alcohol consumption of its constituents that would last until the end of the Soviet Union. When the Soviets finally shucked off Nicholas II’s Prohibition order in 1925, the monopoly resumed, though it was now accompanied by a state monopoly in almost everything else. And this time, there was robust distilling underground – purveyors of samogon, or Russian moonshine – an entire infrastructure of moonshiners that had emerged in the last decade of prohibition, which was not terribly eager to change just because the laws did.
Keep in mind that even after prohibition ended, the bootleggers’ activities were illegal. The monarchy’s prohibition laws carved out special punishments for Russians found bootlegging, and they were maintained and compounded by the Soviets. Originally, possession of alcohol was punishable by up to ten years in prison, with a hard-labor addendum if you were involved in distilling. Now, these rules only applied to moonshiners. Russia suddenly found itself in the precarious position of having more than 12% of its state budget hinge on domestic alcohol sales while competing with a black market nearly as big as its own, a state of affairs that would persist well into the 1980s.
The samogonshchiki - moonshiners - were not merely participating in illegal activity anymore, but had become the government’s only competition in a seller’s market. As the years marched on, the black market for liquor became even more competitive. Illegal imports from the West began to trickle in. In an attempt to curb the public’s characteristic drunkenness while maintaining revenue, the Party levied a series of tax hikes on spirits. This led to yet more Russians either turning to the black market or, more and more, to home-distilling. In this atmosphere of desperation, a certain ingenuity was born: as homebrewing grew in practice, it occurred to Russians that they could distill from just about anything. Apples, potatoes, rye, barley, sugar beets; if it could be grown in a modest plot or doled out on a rations card, someone someplace had a recipe to distill it into something drinkable.
Today, even after switching to a market economy, even after the perestroika, the black market persists: as much as 37% of the vodka consumed in the Russian Federation is ‘bootlegged’, though in the absence of the former prohibitive laws (production for personal consumption has been legal since 1997) the practice has taken on a different timbre.
Much like America’s recent home-brew boom turned into a craft beer renaissance, so too has the industry exploded in response to this change in policy. To this day, Stolichnaya recalls their former role in the state apparatus with a faux-military style ad campaign, while some newer, privately-owned brands adopt minimalist packaging with a mock-handwritten script. “The first samogon with a license,” winks one brand, and with that, alludes to the nearly two centuries of history that put it on the shelf in the first place.
WATCH NOW on YouTube: Images from Soviet film Samagonschiki aka Moonshiners (1961)