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Why Did They Ban the Booze?*

In 1985, newly elected General Secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, started the anti-alcohol campaign. This quick and intense campaign attempted to solve a problem that had been effecting Russia for hundreds of years: alcoholism. Today I want to give a little background of the problem, how it effected the Soviet Union both socially and economically, and why it eventually failed.

Drinking in Russia

It seems that whenever I think of Russia, Vodka always comes to mind. It is interesting how we make such a strong association between a country and a drink but there is a reason for it. Alcoholism has plagued Russia for quite some time. V. A. Bykov wrote an article about the problem in 1986. He spoke of eleven factors that he think set up society to be so inclined to drunkenness:

  1. The leisure interests of unskilled, poorly educated workers — especially the vast army of maintenance workers — are limited to drinking, “shooting the breeze,” and playing cards and dominoes.
  2. With the five-day workweek, available leisure time has increased for most workers to about 100 days off per year; students have even more. And many workers’ shifts end at 4 p.m.
  3. The traditional Russian three-generation family, with its close supervision of all members, especially the young, has disintegrated. Separate apartments, social boon though they are, have the disadvantage of isolating the nuclear family from the broader community; a wife alone cannot keep her husband away from negative influences. The day has passed when this role was performed by the extended family, relying on the authority of its older members and the threats of the church, which wanted the family’s coins in its coffers, not swallowed up by a tavern.
  4. The high wages paid for unskilled labor paralyze workers’ desire for vocational growth and further education.
  5. Wives are so overburdened with housekeeping and child care that husbands rarely spend leisure time in their company. As a result, spouses’ interests begin to diverge, and the men seek diversions outside the family and out from under their wives’ control.
  6. The population of some areas of the country is disproportionately male (the Far North, construction sites, etc.) or female (“textile towns,” etc.) — one result is more opportunities for heavy drinking.
  7. Influenced by the poorly organized work flow and the penchant for a clean record of achievements on paper, work supervisors tolerate employee misbehavior. Bosses often close their eyes to absenteeism because they know they can draw upon the errant workers later for rush work and overtime. Having misbehaved yesterday, the workers will willingly work overtime tomorrow and thereby cover up gross supply problems and blunders made by the administration itself.
  8. For several decades, job performance was emphasized to the detriment and even exclusion of moral criteria in appraising the individual, and public opinion in turn came to reflect this undue tolerance of immorality. Such excessive rationalism inevitably allowed certain negative behavior traits to take root. This lopsided value system is steadily but slowly being supplanted by a more balanced one.
  9. Upbringing work failed to deal adequately with the acuteness and complexity of the processes that occurred in public awareness in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Party redoubled its struggle for strict adherence to socialist legality, state and Party norms and the principles of collective leadership. Failures of upbringing have taken new forms now: The school and the family are not dealing well enough with the contradictory influences that bombard young people hourly.
  10. Urbanization is a major trend, bringing with it high stress and the need to relax, overcome one’s sense of anonymity and “be somebody” in a small group. By virtue of many of the factors listed above, most such groups form by chance rather than through work-related interests, and their members rapidly turn into drinking buddies.
  11. The personal responsibility of each member of the rural population for production performance has been reduced. The often unwarranted practices of supplanting rural workers with city residents and supervising their every step have altered many rural residents’ work attitudes. The enormous advantage of a planned economy, which saved the rural population from starvation in the years of the worst harvests, has also created loopholes for idlers confident that society will always take care of them without even asking what they have contributed to the common effort. And where rural labor was badly organized an irresponsible attitude developed, vast stretches of “free” time appeared and an opportunity for heavy drinking opened up.

These eleven factors are mostly summed up with there being too much free time, not enough to do, no motivation to pursue a better career, and a system that tolerates misbehavior and does not reward good behavior. Bykov claims these are not reasons for drunkenness but how they almost pointed society towards a “tolerance” of it.

How it affects society

There are many ways that alcohol negatively affects society. In an article he wrote,  I. Zakirov talks about how drunks are destroying parks and damaging property. A woman he interviews speaks of how she is scared to go to the park now that a liquor store opened up next to it. She claimed that the drunks would go to the liquor store and then go to the park and break bottles and trample down the flowers. Alcoholism also has adverse effects on the society due to what it does to people’s health. E. A. Babayan, an official of the USSR Ministry of Public Health, conducted a study that showed the average life expectancy for drunks was 55 years old, 20 years lower than the average life of any given individual. In 1982, 800,000 soviets lost their driver’s licenses due to drunk driving. In 1984, a study showed that 270,000 burning accidents happened due to drunkenness (Bykov). The Soviet Union also battled against tuberculosis during this time period. A large portion of medical spending was spent towards the research and treatment of tuberculosis. A study showed that drunks were 16 to 18 times more likely to get tuberculosis than those that did not drink. Tuberculosis was also much more severe for those that drank (Yu). I found article after article speaking of terrible stories of suicides, alcohol poisoning, and accidents due to drunkenness. Alcohol seemed to be taking over society (Yaskov).

Economic Effects

Not only did alcohol have a negative effect on society, it effected the economy as well. Alcohol plays a huge part in the Soviet economy. In 1979, more money was acquired from indirect sales tax on alcohol than was acquired from income tax (Geldern). However, alcohol hurt the economy just as much. Prof. B. M. Levin estimated that at least 1% of the entire Soviet workforce does not show up to work on any given day because of drunkenness. He also showed that productivity goes down around holidays, after paydays, and after weekends. If you do the math, there are more than eighty work days that have about a 15% to 30% decrease in productivity. This amounts to about 7 billion rubles a year just from low productivity. There are also a lot of indirect effects that drunkenness has on the economy. Costs such as repairing machinery damaged due to drunkenness, defective products, healthcare, education for their mentally challenged children, and even the expansion of law enforcement due to the rising rates of alcohol influenced crimes (Bykov).

The Ban

Gorbachev’s anti-alcoholism campaign went in to effect in 1985. It immediately funded the destruction and punishment of home-breweries, limited the places alcohol could be served, banned restaurants from serving alcohol before 2 p.m. and raised the drinking age to 21 years old (1985). The campaign also called for the opening of more rehabilitation clinics, and types of “drunk safe-zones” where drunks could go instead destroying property or going home to assault their wives and children (which was also a very big issue) (Fedotov). The ban saw initial success on paper with a 62.7% drop of state alcohol sales between 1984 and 1987. The death rate in the Soviet Union dropped for the first time in 20 years in 1985 and 1986. Statistics would say that during the five years the campaign was active, over 1 million lives were saved. However, the campaign did not last. Home breweries became more and more prevalent, and due to the illegal breweries, the 62% drop in state sales only equated to a 25% drop in consumption (Aleksandr) (Sidirov). This is still a huge deal, but it wasn’t enough. Gorbachev realized that to solve the issues of alcohol, he had to change society as a whole. The campaign bit off more than it could chew, and eventually it cost more money than it was worth (1986). So for the sake of a bad pun, raise your glass, and pour one out for Gorbachev and his valiant efforts at making Russia a better place.


A. Sidorov. (1985, February 13). ALCOHOL IS SOCIETY’S ENEMY: VILLAIN WITH NO STIGMA. Current Digest of the Russian Press, The . Retrieved from

Aleksandr Nemtsov. (1993, October 6). DO PEOPLE DRINK A LOT IN RUSSIA?. Current Digest of the Russian Press, The . Retrieved from

A. V. Fedotov. (1977, March 23). SOCIAL PROBLEMS IN THE STRUGGLE
AGAINST ALCOHOLISM. Current Digest of the Russian Press, The . Retrieved from

(1985, June 12). IN THE CPSU CENTRAL COMMITTEE: ON MEASURES TO OVERCOME DRUNKENNESS AND ALCOHOLISM. Current Digest of the Russian Press, The . Retrieved from


Geldern, J. (2015, September 2). Anti-Alcohol Campaign. Retrieved from

I. Yaskov. (1985, June 12). ALCOHOL IS THE ENEMY OF SOCIETY: DON’T STEP INTO THE ABYSS. Current Digest of the Russian Press, The . Retrieved from

V. A. Bykov. (1986, February 12). SEEING THE PROBLEM IN ALL ITS COMPLEXITY. — SOCIAL FACTORS INFLUENCING DRUNKENNESS AND ALCOHOLISM. Current Digest of the Russian Press, The . Retrieved from

Yu. Fisher. (1985, September 18). ALL TOGETHER AGAINST DRUNKENNESS: A TERRIBLE AILMENT. Current Digest of the Russian Press, The . Retrieved from

23 thoughts on “Why Did They Ban the Booze?

  1. Jake, this was a great post about the anti-alcohol campaign! I found the information very informative and the use of the political cartoons were great! Do you happen to know if Russia has since then lowered the drinking age or is it still 21?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Natalie, thanks for your comment. From what ive researched, there is technically no minimum drinking age in Russia. However, it is illegal to sell alcohol to people under the age of 18. Therefore, it is legal for kids of any age to drink alcohol that they did not buy at parties/family events. Some stores choose to not sell hard liquor to people under the age of 21.


  2. Jake, I really enjoyed your post! I liked the photos that you used, and I learned a lot from you post. I never realized that alcoholism was so bad during this time period in the Soviet Union. Like you, whenever I think of Russia, vodka comes to mind! I do appreciate the steps that Gorbachev took to try and remedy the situation though. I think that it was a very good concept, especially the “drunk safe zones”. Nice job!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Lauren, thanks for your comment. Yeah, it actually surprised me as well. I guess I never really connected that the strong association of Vodka with Russia meant that alcoholism was a big problem. It is crazy to me that at one point in time, 10%-15% of the population were drunks. That seems like such a high number.


  3. Agree with Lauren and Natalie! Your post does a really wonderful job of discussing the social ills associated with excess alcohol consumption, and I love the way you’ve deployed the Current Digest to support your analysis. Why do you think this reform was so unpopular? And were there any other options for enhancing workplace productivity (which was the main objective — even though the social consequences were talked about and generally well known?
    I will raise a glass to Gorbachev for this well-intentioned, but ultimately failed attempt to address a very complex issue. I hope you had a chance to check out the Pizza Hut commercial (which is all about the controversy of the reforms) as well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was the first time I really used the Current Digest and It served me well. There is a lot of good information there. As for why it was so unpopular, I think a main reason was because it effected so many businesses. You were practically allowed to sell alcohol anywhere in Russia before the campaign. You could sell it on the street corner, in a book store, and on public transportation. Also, It made it harder for everyone to get alcohol, not just the drunks. As for production in the work place, they tried to become more and more strict about the workers being drunk or still hungover while working. Some of the things I read mentioned businesses changing their workplace contracts to being more strict about alcohol and insurance companies supported these types of movements. And no I did not see the commercial but I will definitely look it up after this!


  4. I found your post really informative on the economic impacts of alcoholism on Soviet society. It was interesting to learn about how it was subtly tied to so many factors of the economy. After the campaign was ended, do you know if things returned to as bad as they had been previously, or if was there some lasting impact from the campaign?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The campaign seemed to have no lasting effect. The numbers in 87-88 were practically just as high as they were before the campaign. One of the main reasons were that so many people turned to home breweries, a lot of these home breweries stuck around after the campaign along with more places being allowed to sell alcohol again. It was easier than ever to get alcohol after the campaign. One thing the campaign did do though is raise awareness of the issue.


  5. Hey Jake! I absolutely loved your post! It was so well-informed and detailed, and I loved how you tied the issues of alcoholism to the effects it had on society and the economy. Your post brings up a memory I have from high school when I had to read “A History of the World in 6 Glasses,” which explains six prominent drinks that are largely tied to the course of history, with half of these glasses being filled with alcoholic beverages. I think Gorbachev was noble in his efforts to combat the effects of widespread alcoholism, but I also think people will take matters into their own hands when they really want to (i.e. the Prohibition and modern-day moonshiners), which is something you brought up with the Russian people taking up home breweries as a hobby . I also think there’s something to be said about how societies often turn to substances that will lower their inhibitions when times get tough. I mean, there’s a reason ABC stores have been deemed essential during this pandemic. All around great post and a terrific read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! I definitely agree with you here. Alcohol is an “escape” that many Russians indulged in. Especially the factory workers and low income households. Like I mentioned in my post, they really didn’t think there was much else to do. It was nice to see a leader bring light to the problem and try to effect some change. It eas just too sudden and extreme for it to stick.


  6. Really interesting read. It is so intriguing to see the increase in homemade alcohol production when the government banned legal purchases. This lead to dangerous concoctions that seemed to hurt more than the legal alcohol, do you think banning was the right option?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Paul, thanks for your comment. Yeah the people seemed to get really creative during the campaign. Not only did they turn to homemade brews, they started consuming things like perfume and cologne because of the alcohol content and effect it had on the body. I do not think banning alcohol as widely as they did was the right move. You can’t solve a problem by making it illegal. We see it here in the states with drugs and the same logic applies. You have to change society as a whole, its more of a mindset and a culture if anything.


  7. Jake, thanks for the post! I found it interesting how there were some striking similarities with the American Prohibition movement, but also a lot of things that were distinctly Soviet/Russian. In particular, in the 11 reasons you list I feel like the first 5-6 are very similar to the reasons given by pro-Prohibition activists in America, things like more free time and less inclination for self improvement. However, the rest of the list is very Soviet, like where bosses’ tolerance for drinking is driven by their own pressures to meet quotas. It’s really cool to see another country approach a problem we tried to solve, for a lot of the same reasons and with many of the same results.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! It was really interesting to see many similarities. One big similarity I saw was actually the birth of major crime syndicates because of the campaign. Similar to Al Capone, organized crime became a huge issue during the campaign. Also I am definitely seeing more and more similarities between the U.S. and Russia especially through there developmental years.


  8. Good post, Jake. It’s crazy how dependent the Soviet economy was on alcohol! I’m honestly surprised Gorbechev was anti-alcohol. It’s good to see that the program to reduce alcohol in the country saved so many lives though. I also thought it was interesting how it affected the balance of the Soviet economy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think Gorbachev knew that the problem was only going to get worse. This being said, even with how attached it was to the economy, it had the potential to hurt the economy even worse than it was already doing in the future. I think he must have known that the campaign wouldn’t last, but at least he saved a lot of lives in the process.


  9. Jake this post was great. I found the 11 reasons that V. A. Bykov gave and it makes sense. To me, this just seems like a never ending cycle that the Soviets were never going to get out of and as we see it today as well. The cycle being drunkenness and alcoholism were caused by unskilled labor and a poor economy and then drunkenness and alcoholism caused the economy to be poor as well as the lifestyles of the citizens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah exactly! The lower class is definitely stuck in the result of their own doing in that sense. Instead of pushing for better jobs and a better lifestyle, they drank way their ambition. This being said, they are just digging themselves deeper and deeper into this pit of despair. If they continue down this road, it would not surprise me to see a collapse of the lower income class.


  10. Hi Jake, great blog post! It was varying interesting to read that most people drank alcohol because they did not have anything else to do, and having so much free time lead the to drink. This makes me think of how I heard a lot of adults saying that being quarantined at home has made them drink alcohol a lot more to pass the time. No matter if they made alcohol illegal, people will always find a way to get it.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Yeah I can definitely understand why. The problems started almost a century ago now, back when most of Russia either worked in a factory or a field. Professional sports had not really been brought into the country yet and any type of social or community programs were a joke. When you got done with your work day, you drank, and sometimes you drank to help you get through your workday.


  12. Jake, great post! I appreciate how you addressed both the social and economic effects that over-consumption of alcohol had. I also find it interesting to compare Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol movement to Prohibition in America. I know to this day Russia still struggles greatly with overconsumption of alcohol and it’s effects (suicide, domestic violence, etc) and it would certainly be interesting to see how it would have been different today had Gorbachev acted differently.


  13. I heard Russians were big drinkers but didn’t know the problem was big enough to warrant legislation. The fact that the amount of money lost by drunk workers not showing up for work outweighed the profit of alcohol sales and taxes is insane. It sounds to me like there were larger underlying problems considering the amount of alcoholism that occurred.


  14. Andrew Grant – It should also be noted that the Soviet Union had a prohibition campaign early in its existence as well. Lenin and many of the early fathers of the Soviet Union were prohibitionists, who linked alcoholism to domestic abuse and unproductivity. They saw it as a great “progressive experiment”, prohibition was intended to cure society of its many ills. Russian society had for centuries been seen as backwards by many other Europeans, and its industrial output paled to that of its rivals in the West like Britain, many Russian revolutionaries linked it to alcoholism. Alcohol was seen as “decadent”, it was associated with the Tsarist era, and got a negative connotation, all vodka production in the Russian Empire was in the hands of the Tsars, the Royals earned enormous profits off of selling vodka, which was another key reason towards their opposition to alcohol. I never knew about Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, but your post is very interesting, and I could tie many things back to previous eras in Soviet History, where they pursued similar campaigns.


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