Budem Zdorovi! Na Zdravi! Prost! The Uses and Abuses of Alcohol in the Communist Bloc.
A new study claims that heavy drinking and cases of alcoholism were widespread in communist East Germany. Extracts from a forthcoming book by Thomas Kochan, The Blue Strangler: Drinking Habits in the GDR, recently published in Deutsche Welle describe how drinking to excess was ‘the norm’ in the GDR, with alcohol consumed ‘at the workbench, in the office and at party headquarters’. Kochan also estimates that by the close of the 1970s around 5% of all adults were suffering from alcohol addiction (four times the rate in West Germany) and that by the 1980s the average GDR citizen was drinking 23 bottles of liquor (double the average in West Germany), 12 litres of wine and 146 litres of beer annually. Recently, I too have been reading about the uses and abuses of alcohol in the communist bloc, in relation to an article I’m writing about social deviance under communism, so news of Kochan’s study caught my eye. The GDR was by no means an isolated case however, and many of Kochan’s findings can be more broadly applied across the Soviet bloc.
Alcohol Consumption in the Communist Bloc.
Kochan’s analysis of drinking habits in the GDR paints a rather contrary picture to the image that the East European regimes attempted to cultivate. Alcohol dependency was presented very much as a ‘western problem’. Alcohol, it was claimed, was used as something of a placebo, to dull proletarian perception and inhibit the formation of revolutionary consciousness, while excessive drinking was portrayed as a product of the inequalities and frustrations of capitalist society. Under communism, the authorities confidently predicted that levels of alcoholism would soon begin to decrease.
Even gauging the true level of alcohol consumption in the communist bloc is something of a difficult task however. Only limited statistical information is available. Sales of alcohol were often recorded under the more general classification of ‘other foodstuffs’ (a category which also included ice cream, coffee and spices) and the official statistics collated also failed to account for the popular consumption of samogon – varieties of illegally produced ‘homebrew’, distilled from potatoes, grain and sugar – which was cheaply produced and readily available on the black market. By the 1980s samogon is estimated to have accounted for up to 50% of total alcohol consumption in the USSR (Treml, Alcohol in the USSR, 1982). From the 1960s no statistics relating to alcohol production, consumption or addiction were openly published and the state-controlled media gave only occasional coverage to drunkenness, which tended to be presented as a small scale ‘aberrant’ behaviour, only afflicting a minority of citizens.
However, the available evidence points to a clear increase in the consumption of alcohol generally and in cases of alcohol abuse and dependency more specifically, throughout the communist bloc. McKee’s study Alcohol in Russia (1999) suggests that Soviet consumption more than doubled between 1955 and 1979, when the average annual level of alcohol consumption reached 15.2 litres per person. Stephen White’s book Russia Goes Dry (1996) estimates that during the 1970s expenditure on alcohol accounted for 15-20% of the average households disposable income in the USSR (a figure he describes as ‘exceptionally high by international standards’), and from the 1970s to the 1980s legal sales of alcohol rose by a total of 77%. A similar trend was also recorded across Eastern Europe: between 1960 and 1985 levels of recorded alcohol consumption tripled in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and doubled in Bulgaria and in Poland during the 1970s, food spending increased by just 4%, while spending on alcohol increased by as much as 45%! (Volgyes, Social Deviance in Eastern Europe). Although this increase can partly be explained by inflation and general price rises, these figures still represent a disproportionate increase in consumption.
I’ve been giving some thought as to why levels of alcohol consumption may have remained so high in the communist bloc:
Social Acceptability: Although the regimes’ officially tried to discourage heavy drinking, in practice social attitudes remained much more tolerant. Alcohol continued to play a significant role in the social sphere under communism, remaining popularly associated with a wide range of public holidays, festivities and celebrations involving family, friends and workmates. Social drinking was common practice regardless of an individuals’ socio-economic status, level of education, age or gender. While heavy drinking was traditionally perceived as being a male activity, it also became increasingly acceptable for women to drink socially and cases of alcoholism among women increased across the communist block For example, in 1940 only 4% of women were classed as ‘heavy drinkers’ in the USSR but by the early 1990s this had increased to 15%, while almost 90% of women admitted to more moderate consumption of alcohol on a regular basis (White). In The Blue Strangler Kochan even talks about womens’ magazines promoting a ‘Vodka and Sausage Diet’ to East German readers in the 1980s!
Economic Function: Good quality Russian vodka, Hungarian palinka (fruit brandy) and French cognac were all popular commodities on the communist-era black market, with bribes involving alcohol commonly used to ‘grease the wheels’ of economic exchange. Kochan points out that in the GDR, a good imported cognac cost around 80 marks at a time when the average workers salary was only 500 marks, so was a popular ‘gift’, often presented to those in positions of authority or influence as a mark of respect, to secure favours and establish beneficial relationships. For those who could not afford access to such ‘luxuries’ however, the black market also provided ready access to the aforementioned samogon – illegally distilled, cheaply produced and often highly concentrated ‘moonshine’.
Escapism: Many individuals who drank heavily claimed they did so because alcohol provided them with a means of escapism; a temporary refuge from the deprivation, drabness and frustrations of everyday life under communism. One report, compiled in 1970s Bulgaria, suggested that ‘the monotonous lives led by many youngsters, disillusionment and imitation of bad Western habits’ encouraged high levels of youth drinking, while a second report, compiled by Charter 77 in 1983, claimed that alcoholism in Eastern Europe was ‘aggravated by the drabness, monotony and regimentation’ of everyday life under communism.
The latter decades of communism saw increasing official concern about levels of drunkenness and alcohol dependency across the communist bloc. Lower levels of economic production were blamed on excessive alcohol consumption. Absenteeism from work was frequently the result of alcohol-related illness and it is noticeable that levels of absenteeism tended to spike on days directly following payday and public holidays! The growing practice of drinking during working hours was also blamed for increasing the number of accidents in the workplace. More broadly, drunkenness was often cited as a causative factor for other social ills including divorce, juvenile delinquency, crime, suicide, illness, birth defects and rising mortality rates. Drunkenness was cited as the biggest single cause of accidental drowning inEastern Europeand each year during the harsh winters there were numerous reports published about hapless drunks who had fallen asleep outside and died due to exposure to the elements.
As time wore on the economic and social ‘hangover’ became increasingly difficult to ignore. However, state policy remained primarily reactive, based on a combination of promoting re-education, disseminating anti-alcohol propaganda (leaflets with such enticing titles as How Drink Corrupts Man were frequently distributed in schools, workplaces and subway stations, while some fine examples of Soviet anti-alcohol propaganda can be viewed here!) and attempts to restrict the availability of alcohol through legal channels. A number of ‘sobriety clubs’ were also promoted across Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Some short-term custodial care was provided, most commonly in the form of meditsinskii vytrezvitel or ‘sobering up stations’, which operated in many communist bloc countries including Czechoslovakia, Poland and the USSR. These ‘stations’ aimed to get drunkards off the streets and provide them with a hot shower or steam bath and a bed for the night while they sobered up, in exchange for a nominal charge. A handful of more intensive rehabilitation centres were established but were under-funded and under-resourced. Generally, little in the way of longer-term treatment to reduce alcohol dependency was developed because ideologically, alcoholism continued to be viewed as a ‘culpable deviancy’ rather than as a medical sickness.
As early as 1958 however, Soviet Premier Khrushchev called for a ‘more determined struggle against alcoholism’. Memorandums encouraged Communist Party officials to ‘set a good example’ by not publicly indulging in heavy drinking or attending drunken parties! Despite this, several communist leaders gained reputations as voracious drinkers – one of Brezhnev’s contemporaries described how, in the evenings, he ‘laced into vodka at a terrifying rate’. A number of ‘anti-alcohol’ campaigns were implemented in various countries across the communist block throughout the 1970s and 1980s but these early campaigns were half hearted at best and met with very limited success, as they failed to tackle the root cause of the problem.
It was under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev during the final years of the USSRthat the most serious state-led attempt to reduce alcohol consumption occurred, in the form of the infamous Anti-Alcohol campaign launched in May 1985. Gorbachev’s campaign introduced stricter legislation regulating the production and sale of alcohol, higher prices, promotion of a new propaganda campaign and the emergence of a temperance movement which came to boast 12 million members. At the same time, the Glasnost of the 1980s provided the first real indications that the scale of alcohol dependency in the communist bloc was significantly higher than the regimes had previously allowed, as the media began to publish stories that really addressed the true extent of the problem.
Although launched with the best of intentions, the campaign was deeply unpopular, quickly earning Gorbachev the derogatory title of the ‘mineral’nyi sekretar’ – the ‘Mineral-water Secretary’. Long queues formed outside of state sanctioned liquor stores during the limited hours when they were open and illegal alcohol production became ‘big business’. Gorbachev’s campaign thus had an effect similar to that of prohibition in 1920s America, as illegal distillation was quickly taken over by criminal gangs. Methods of production became increasingly sophisticated and much more extensive – even leading to a sugar shortage in 1986-87! As a result, the number of samogon producers prosecuted in the USSR increased from 80,000 in 1985 to 397,000 by 1987 (Tarschys, The Success of a Failure: Gorbachev’s Alcohol Policy, 1985-88, 1993). Many of the most desperate drinkers turned to other substitutes, consuming cleaning products, cologne and narcotic drugs, which placed a larger burden on the already overstretched medical sector. Between 1986-1987 more than 10 million individuals were arrested for violation of the new anti-alcohol legislation. Perhaps most damaging however, were the economic results of the campaign. Between 1960s-1980s sales of alcoholic beverages in theUSSR had nearly quadrupled in value and by the mid-1980s receipts from alcohol equated to about 1/3 of total government revenue (White). The anti-alcohol campaign thus led to a total estimated loss in revenue to the Soviet state of 50-100 billion rubles, at a time when economic revitalisation was seen as a priority. Little wonder then, that the campaign was prematurely abandoned in October 1988!
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About the Author:
Dr Kelly Hignett is a historian and a lecturer at Leeds Beckett University. Kelly’s interests primarily relate to communist and post-communist Eastern Europe.
Kelly’s research focuses on the historical analysis of crime and social deviance, particularly in the central and east European region and the former USSR; crime, deviance and underground movements/sub-cultures in communist regimes; the evolving relationship between state and society and experiences of ‘the everyday’ under communism. Her PhD research drew on a combination of archival research and oral testimony to explore the evolution of criminal networks in East Central Europe from the 1970s to the early post-communist period. Kelly has previously published articles in several peer-review journals and edited collections, contributed a series of shorter articles to publications including New Eastern Europe and Jane’s Intelligence Digest and presented numerous papers about her research internationally, in countries including the UK, USA, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Germany and Morocco.
More recently Kelly has been researching drug abuse and the development of domestic drug markets in late socialist east central Europe. Her next major research project will focus on political repression in communist-era Czechoslovakia.
In addition to continuing to develop her research into crime, deviance and dissent Kelly is also interested in the historical borderlands of Eastern Europe. From initial research into the historical development of crime and attempts to control crime in border regions, she has become increasingly interested in some of the broader historical, political and socio-economic aspects of life among communities who have historically existed on the margins of state control. She plans to develop her initial research into a broader comparative study of this area.
A Few Recent Publications:
K Hignett, ‘Spy Game Diplomacy’, New Eastern Europe, 3/IV (July-September 2012)
K Hignett, ‘Transnational Organised Crime and the Global Village’ in F Allum and S Gilmour (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Transnational Organized Crime, (November 2011):
K Hignett, ‘Crime in Communist and Post-Communist Eastern Europe’, Law, Crime & History, SOLON Online Journal, 1/1 (2011) @
K Hignett, ‘The Changing Face of Organised Crime in Post-Communist East Central Europe’ in Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, 18/1, (April 2010), pp. 71-88
Hignett, ‘Co-option or Criminalisation? The State, Border Communities and Organised Crime’, in M Galeotti (ed), Organised Crime in History (Routledge, 2009)
Major Current/Forthcoming Research Projects:
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