The First Time in History

VIII. The War with Alcohol

HAS Russia gone back to vodka? The rumours fly this way and that way. You hear them in the cafes of Moscow; on January first, they say, the state monopoly opens and vodka becomes legal. There is a secret mobilisation of empty bottles and corks, so that the State can get them cheap and undersell all competitors!

Rumours and whispers like this leak out to the world. Sometimes in very official guise, such as a decree about the state wine trust or a license to make cherry liquor. And questions are constantly arriving in Moscow, from temperance organisations all over the world, who want to know the facts.

"Has Russia gone back to vodka?" I asked Semashko, the people's commissar of health. He is the "Pussyfoot Johnson" of Russia, the man who runs the anti-alcohol propaganda. He does it as an official of the government which has pronounced against drink.

"Certainly not," he told me. "We shall never go back to vodka. What is more, we shall go forward, as soon as we are financially able, and forbid even the wines that are now allowed." "Has Russia gone back to vodka?" I asked a jovial American, who had been doing the cafes of Moscow in late December.

"Gone back," he laughed. "You can buy it in every cafe."

"But is it legal?" I persisted.

"Not so you could notice it," he said. "A billion roubles was the fine he paid--the restaurant owner where I got mine last week. They raided his place; I go somewhere else now.

"You've got to hand it to these Moscow police," he went on. "They do a neat little job. We were sitting in a little private room and we told the waiter to bring it along and make it plenty 'krupki' (strong). He made it krupki all right, so that we had to sip it. And there we were with the stuff on the table when bang goes the door, and in comes a hand and grabs our glasses and pours the stuff into a big bottle.

"I didn't have a chance to hide my glass and I thought I had experience in that game. They could even give pointers to the New York police. They had the evidence all right."

"What did they do to you?" I asked.

"To us? Nothing. Just took our names from our passports and jotted them down. It was the restaurant man that got it. He had to pay a billion roubles.

"They are edging up on it all right. It has to be done on the blind, as we used to in Kansas years ago. The waiters now protect themselves by bringing it hidden in a napkin and stand holding the door while you drink it. You have to gulp it down right away; it's not as much fun as it used to be. But you can get it, you can get it anywhere."

There you have the different sides of the question, which are, after all, not contradictory. For Russia is in a state of struggle with the drink question, a struggle which sprang almost full grown into existence in the last two months of 1922.

Before the war, in the Russia of the czar, vodka was a state monopoly and brought in a large part of the state budget. The peasants bought it in the little State shops, and then, going outside, struck the tops off the bottle and drank it. You could see them in lines, all drinking at once; the temperance posters were full of such pictures.

But when the war came, with its vast increase in expenses, met chiefly by loans from the Entente, the proportion borne by vodka was not so important, while the demoralising effect of the drink became still more noticeable. As a war measure the czar abolished vodka, but allowed the finer grades of alcohol which were consumed by the richer sections of society.

Everyone knows how the Revolution smashed the wine cellars of the czar, and poured the wine into the gutters. It is not so well known, perhaps, that this act was not a mere protest against wine, but an act of desperate self-defence, in order to preserve discipline in Petrograd.

"We should have preferred to save the wine and sell it abroad," said Trotsky to me, "for it was valuable stuff. But it was a definite policy of the counter-revolution to try to create disorder and anarchy and wreck the discipline which seeking to establish. That kind of thing is dangerous in a revolution. It starts with the dregs of the population, but it draws in next the less stable of the workers, until a whole population is corrupted.

"The men who wanted that wine were so mad for it that even machine guns would not keep them back. So the comrade in charge turned the machine guns on the bottles and destroyed them. The wine rose to the tops of his hip-boots so that he was wading in it. He used to be a drinker himself before he became a Communist, and it hurt him to see that good wine destroyed. But it was necessary to preserve order in Petrograd."

Red soldiers have described to me how, in marching through the Ukraine, they unearthed and destroyed hundreds of private stills manufacturing illicit booze. But these also were not measures against alcohol as such; they were measures for preserving order in war-time.

With peace came relaxation of tension. Vodka and all strong liquors over twenty per cent. alcohol content were still prohibited, and the scarcity of grain through famine acted also as an automatic prohibition. But wines were allowed; they were manufactured by a state trust from the grapes of the Crimea and the Caucasus.

Then suddenly in autumn of 1922, a fair harvest, with the increase of grain in the villages and of money in the cities, let loose an epidemic of bootlegging. This is the form of the struggle in Russia at present.

I talked with Semashko about it. No one could have looked less like a violent propagandist on any subject. A little short medical man, with a stubby beard, he received me in a large, well-lighted office in the Health Commissariat, in that central section of Moscow which is reserved for government buildings. He never raised his voice, he put no passion and hardly any emphasis into his remarks.

I have heard men say of him: "There'll never be booze in Russia as long as there is Semashko. But it was clear that to him alcohol was not a question of exclusive interest. It was one of the problems of public health. It was bad for people; it must be got rid of. Just as simple as that.

"In our campaign against drink," he said, "health is our only aim. Alcohol is bad in any form. In some forms it is worse than others. We can't do everything at once, so we start with the worse forms.

"If we have a typhus epidemic, and insufficient doctors, we don't bother to invent new quarantines for measles. So we are not bothering with wine and beer yet, because our worst enemy is samagonka, this vile illicit drink that is being made so widely now in Russia. It is against samagonka that our main attack is at present.

"Wine is not a worker's or peasant's drink; it is too expensive. It makes a show in the cafes of Moscow and it brings in money to the government. But only the profiteers and the rich can buy it. It is not undermining the health of the masses of the people. So it is not so dangerous as samagonka," That is the cheerfully cold-blooded attitude in Russia. They want to safeguard the health of the workers and the peasants. If the profiteer ruins his health, they are not so much concerned. "But wine also must be stopped eventually," said Semashko. "As soon as we can afford the means for handling it. One thing at a time."

The fight just now is with samagonka. You hear little in Russia of general questions of total abstinence, or liquor as a moral problem. But all the papers are full, even on the front pages with "The War on Samagonka." The police have special weeks of raids and clean-ups. Letters with specific accusations are printed. And the courts are full of cases.

In the month of December there were 2,412 raids in Moscow, of which 1,175 were successful. In the first ten days of January, the police carried out a special ten-day campaign, concentrating on booze. They made 1,846 raids in those ten days, three-fourths as many as in the whole month of December; and found evidence in 782 cases.

Strong and picturesque and definite are the letters of complaint that come in from workers all over Russia to help on the fight. "Smolensk is an ocean of samagonka," writes one. "They are even using their co-operatives to buy extra-size kettles. The village named 'Good Inn' has apparatus to distill a ton at one time and is supplying booze over the border to the provinces of Gomel and Briansk. There are cases of police protecting it."

Another writes with stinging irony from Rostov in the far southeast of Russia. "There is a chemical drug trust here with a factory named Veritas which manufactures a good and gladly drunk eau-de-cologne! But this method is not of great significance. Eau-de-cologne after all is a drink for intellectuals! We are chiefly interested in what is used to poison the peasant and worker. That is bootleg. It spreads solely through negligence.

"I myself can point out that in Rostov near the car barns there is a 'Black Sea' where the workers leave the greater part of their earnings. A similar institution is in the second house from the water supply station on Donskoi St. If these addresses are known to me, are they not known to the local police?"

That's the way they carry on fights in Russia, by giving names in the papers. These names frequently lead to arrests and prosecutions.

Trials of bootleggers are interesting affairs, especially now that the feeling of the public is aroused on the subject. Here is a typical case. Two women sit in the tribunal of judges who hear the evidence--that is something new since the revolution. The bootleggers plead guilty; they were caught with the goods. But they make the excuse of extreme poverty.

This is a recognised plea in the courts of Russia. If you can prove that you have committed a fault under pressure of dire need, you can hope for more mercy than if you have done it for profit. But the working-women in the audience show scant mercy to the bootleggers.

"Critical financial position," they jeer in the intermission. "You should see how he dresses his family on the money he gets out of my man. And how he used to get drunk and ride round in isvostchiks and shout."

"I hope those devils get it," says another woman. "The accursed ones."--And the bootleggers got it. A year in jail for the smaller fry and three years for one ring-leader who was up for the second time.

"The valuable thing," writes a correspondent to the Pravda, "is that the campaign is developing from the depths of the factories and mills. From here start the protests and the plans, from here it goes into the soviets and the press. The workers understand what drunkenness means at present and are raising the alarm. This is our greatest guarantee that the struggle will be successful--but this is not enough; we must have drastic action by the state apparatus."

The war with drink, like everything else in Russia at present, is not a thing by itself, but is tied up with the ideas of the Revolution. The bootlegger is denounced, not merely as a lawbreaker, but as a man who profits in the misery of others. The advocates of strong drink, when they venture to express themselves, are hotly denounced, not merely as mistaken, but as "counter-revolutionists, poisoners of Russia!"

In the summer, when bootlegging was first beginning to be noticeable, a professor named Oserof published a long article in favour of a return to the state monopoly of vodka, or even to private trade in liquor under high taxation. He used the arguments familiar in all countries among advocates of drink, and a few drawn from the bankrupt condition of Russia.

"You have alcohol already illegally," he said. "Why not legalise it, control it and make money from it?" He pointed out that the government of the czar in 1912 made over $300,000,000 net profit from vodka, and that Russia is in dire need of money to stop the fall of her rouble, to start her ruined industries and even for the cause of education against alcohol. He spread alluring prospects of what could be done in the state budget with the money from vodka.

Promptly the official organ of the Communist party, Pravda, retorted in a hot article entitled "This Shall Not Pass." They called Oserof a counter revolutionist. They called attention to the fact that he had opposed the "drunken budget" formerly under the czar; he was advocating it now, they said, in order to ruin the workers' and peasants' Russia.

"Now after our long strain of war and famine, when national health is at a low ebb, legalised alcohol would be infinitely more dangerous than it was before," they declared. "He proposes to get rid of the bankruptcy in our budget. But he would drive that bankruptcy into the bodies and minds and souls of our people. The party cannot overlook such suggestions even in the conversational stage. We understand what you have in view. We have made many concessions because of our poverty, but such a concession as the surrender of our national soberness you will not get. This shall not pass."

The position of the government is clear. But how is it to be enforced? That is more difficult. There are no special dry squads. In the pressure of many other emergencies, drink has not been isolated as a special problem. Until the past winter it has not seemed a great enough emergency to demand special attention.

The Health Commissariat is in charge of propaganda and organising public sentiment against strong drink. Its health centres, scattered all over Russia and only a few miles apart, are charged with notification of cases to the proper authorities. But the Health Commissariat has been fighting for four years the greatest epidemic known since the Middle Ages, the plagues of typhus and cholera, against which it had no medical supplies and insufficient doctors.

The army has its own organisation for fighting drink, under its "Political Department" which handles all questions of education and recreation and general cultural development of the soldiers. The general police are charged with enforcing the law among the civilian population, and the State Political Department in its investigations into smuggling and graft and spying, is also supposed to unearth illegal alcohol.

"I closed down the biggest cafe in Archangel," said one of the employees of this department, "not for selling vodka, but for selling ordinary wine to such an extent that people were constantly coming away drunk. Yes, we have power to do that, even if the wine in itself is legal."

But the bootlegging wave this past winter made evident the need for more organised action. This is taking place now in a temporary way in the special raids by the police. One-fourth of all court cases in Moscow are bootlegging cases. More correlated action may be expected as general organisation improves in Russia.

"The enforcement of this question is too scattered," said Trotsky to me in a conversation late in December. "It is no longer sufficient merely to prohibit; we must organise both repressive and educational measures. We must get together the representatives of health and police and army, who are handling the question now, and form a joint programme." I learned later through other sources that he had called such a committee together.

"We must consider what we are able to enforce at present with our present means. In the scattered villages, where the peasants are making it at home, it is impossible to use repressive measures on every house. But this industry develops like other industries. Very soon some man, richer and shrewder than the others, begins to make it for sale. He becomes a petty exploiter of vice, a corrupter of his village. The children and the women hate him for taking their food by debauching their men folk.

"Men like this we can arrest and punish. They are more dangerous than ordinary home-brewing peasants and fewer in number, with public sentiment already somewhat against them. They are the weakest spot in the enemy's ranks and can be attacked with our present resources. As our strength in organisation grows, we can carry our repressions farther.

"But no repressions will solve the problem at the root. The basic cause is the emptiness of the peasant's life and this must be Filed by higher standards of culture, by education and recreation and wholesome social life."

An echo of this sentiment I heard again and again. Every article in the papers that demanded "war on the bootleggers," demanded also the raising of the general cultural standard as the final weapon.

I talked with Antonov Avseyenko, under whom come the problems of drink in the army, where they are treated as part of the problem of education and health and general culture. He showed me all the correspondence and orders issued on the subject during recent months.

There seemed to be widespread interest in the question coming from all parts of Russia. Here were men in a distant regiment who wrote objecting to their commander because "he gets drunk." Here was a group of communists in a Petrograd regiment who voted to expel from the party any man found drunk.

Here were local men organising anti-drink sentiment by mock trials of bootleggers in which the evils of alcohol were discussed. "How drunkenness causes defeat," was the subject of "episodic conversations" and story-telling in soldiers' entertainments. "I give a description of the camp of the 'whites' and how they got licked because they boozed," writes one correspondent.

The orders sent out from headquarters were that "commanders must take part in men's clubs and have evenings of entertainment, inviting in the families and making a home atmosphere." Large quantities of books and lectures and plays on the subject of alcohol were furnished, but even more emphasis seemed to be laid on "sports, wholesome games and general culture" as a means of combating the evil.

There was swift repression also. Some officers in a distant regiment gave a wine banquet to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution. They called in common soldiers to wait on table and clean up afterwards.

Word of it reached Trotsky. He promptly deposed the commander of the regiment and the commander-in-chief of the division and the two commissars, for allowing such conditions to exist in the army. He ordered them brought before courtmartial. The announcement of this punishment and the reasons for it were printed in the papers and read in every regiment. Those reasons were not merely that officers got drunk, but that they did it in a way which injured the morale of the army and the relations between officers and soldiers. Drink is not treated as an individual fault in Russia, but as a social injury!

"The individual drunkard," says one of the many articles now flaming in the official press, "is a sick man, even perhaps a lost man. We should treat him with pity, though our pity need not prevent repressive measures against him in so far as he is a menace. But it is the man who traffics in drink that must be attacked. For him there should be no mercy. If there isn't law enough, we can make some more. What are we Bolsheviks for? We have not yet lacked strength to punish criminals."

That's the state of the war with alcohol in Russia. It is a war with bootlegging, widely demanded and supported by public opinion, leading to a large number of raids and fines and closing of restaurants and imprisonment of owners. But it will be a long fight, for Russia has many problems and small resources, and concentrates on special problems only as they become unusually acute.

Drink is attacked as a problem of public health and national morale, rather than a question of individual morals. Repressive measures are occasionally quite severe and public demand is growing to make them even more stringent. But there is also universal agreement, in every article one reads and every official one talks to, that the final solution can come only by substituting an interesting cultural life for the lower pleasures of drink.

As for state manufacture of vodka, about which rumours from time to time arise, the words of Lenin himself laid down the government's attitude. When the new economic policy was under discussion and the question was raised in the conference of the Communist party how far they were prepared to go in making concessions to the peasants, Lenin outlined the policy as follows:

"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. If he asks for paint and powder and patent leather shoes, our state industries will labour to produce these things to satisfy his demand, because this is an advance in his standard of living and 'civilisation,' though falsely conceived by him.

"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. Concessions of this sort we will not make; we shall rather sacrifice any temporary advantage that might be gained from such concessions."