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- Alcohol could have influenced the defeat of Russia during the 1853 Crimean War.
- As Russia fights in Ukraine, alcohol abuse is again becoming a concern.
- A historian told Insider that drinking and the Russian military have a long history.
Almost exactly 15o years ago, in a battle against the Ottoman Empire, Russia suffered a catastrophic defeat in the Crimean War — in part due to the drinking habits taken up by the military during the fighting.
Mark Lawrence Schrad, director of Russian Area Studies at Villanova University and author of Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State, wrote in 2014 that drunkenness plagued the Russian army under Tsar Nicholas I, from the lowly rank and file soldiers to the high command military leaders, as they stumbled their way through battles, only to lose 100,000 soldiers and the war itself.
Schrad, in the book, details instances of befuddled Russian armies left to fight without commanders, hospitals drenched in the scent of vodka, and soldiers complaining after being deprived of their vodka rations.
The Crimean War would become another example of the county’s war drinking problem cataloged in the annals of Russian history. Another example Schrad writes about includes the Russo-Japanese War, which Japan won despite being heavily outnumbered. Schrad cites a St. Petersburg newspaper writing, “the Japanese found several thousand Russian soldiers so dead drunk that they were able to bayonet them like so many pigs.”
Although not the sole reason that these wars were lost, Schrad argues that vodka played a significant part in Russia’s failures.
During World War I, the Tsar instituted Prohibition that lasted until Joseph Stalin took power, but Schrad writes of riots over conscription and looting of liquor stores, warehouses, and distilleries.
Drinking and military history have always been entwined — the practice fueled by myths that drinking would grant soldiers courage — but Schrad argues that Russia has a particularly unique history with drinking that follows many through lines, particularly the country’s history dominating the vodka trade, and the Russian conscription system, a relic of the 17th-century ruler Peter the Great.
Why does it matter now? A recent UK defense ministry intelligence update reported that many Russian troops are dying in Ukraine due to non-combat issues such as alcohol consumption, among other things. The death toll among Russian troops is now two times that of their opponents, estimates from leaked US intelligence documents reveal.
Schrad told Insider that he doesn’t want to make “direct analogies with stuff that happened 150 years ago,” but the parallels are there.
“The alcohol angles are interesting. I don’t think it’s nearly as important nowadays, as it was during the Russo-Japanese War or World War One, but it’s significant, right?” Schrad told Insider. “It’s not something that you can just kind of brush aside either, right? You’ve got a demoralized Russian army and they’re going up against a very enthusiastic Ukrainian fighting force that’s there to defend their homeland defend their turf.”
In an interview with Insider, Schrad expanded on the history of Russian drinking during wartime.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
I read one of your articles from last year and you had basically — I don’t know if I want to say called it — but you used historical precedent to predict that alcohol would play a role in the war. I want to hear from you why you felt that this was going to be an issue coming into the Ukrainian war.
A lot of it is the consequence of my research topic, which has been alcohol and Russian history. It’s been my bread and butter for ages. And a lot of it kind of revolved around my book “Vodka Politics.” The thesis of the book was “Why do Russians drink so much?” Yes, there are cultural stereotypes. But the explanation I came up with was that it wasn’t so much some sort of cultural or genetic trait, as much as it was the consequence of generations of autocratic decision-making that put the interest of the Russian state ahead of the health and well-being of the Russian people.
Historically, the thing that was most profitable to the Russian state was vodka. The monopolization of alcohol and tavern trade in Russia, going back to the czars, constituted 1/3 of all the income of the Russian state under the czars, and then even into the Soviet era, one-quarter of all revenue came from selling vodka to their own people. I think a lot of where it comes from. The book traced this thread of alcohol through all sorts of different things, including war-fighting, and you find that every time that Russia goes to war, there is this alcohol calamity. The Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, in particular, were all drunken fiascos.
And so as that gets into sort of the current scenario with Russia and Ukraine. Ukrainians inherited a lot of that legacy as well — I suppose, a kind of societal alcoholism — but has also moved in a lot of ways towards more European systems, not only when it comes to alcohol use, but also regulation.
When the war started, on the Ukrainian side, they instituted kind of a blanket prohibition during the first months of the war. The idea was that alcohol wasn’t necessary to maintain discipline and morale in a time of crisis.
Obviously, on the Russian side, you had just the opposite. You had people stumbling into the war, completely drunk. You have a lot of these reports coming out of Ukraine from survivors of Russians committing mass atrocities, oftentimes while drunk, which is another consistent theme of history.
When Russia started later on in 2022, with mass conscription, it was the same thing as what we saw in 1904-1905 or 1914 with World War I — that people would show up half drunk and get into fights with the draft officers and continued the drinking straight through till they get on the battlefield.
One thing that in history we’ve seen is there have been a lot of cultures that drink during wartime. What circumstances make Russia’s current drinking problem unique?
What’s fascinating is that Russia becomes the first Prohibition country after World War I because it learned its lesson after the Russo-Japanese war, and that kind of became the cult of military sobriety. All countries that got involved in World War I were restricting availability to alcohol because all these militaries around the world learned their lesson, like Russia did, that whether you have a good fighting force or a drunken fighting force can really make the difference between victory and defeat. So I would say since World War I there has been more of an international consensus towards limiting alcohol in the ranks, especially when it comes to warfighting.
I think when it comes to especially more modern forces, Russia is still very much stuck in the past of having that pervasiveness of alcohol whereas a more modern army might not have that. Russia’s armies in a lot of ways are kind of a relic of the past. It’s still pretty much a conscript army. It’s not a modern volunteer army. And so you’ve got a lot of those holdovers from the past, and I think that that might be part of it as well. But the fact is that you’re getting people in wartime positions, who really didn’t sign up for this, as opposed to American soldiers or British soldiers who choose this lifestyle right for one reason or another.
You know, the last time that we had a draft in the United States, during Vietnam, there was a lot of drug abuse and alcoholism that came with that as well. That could be part of the dynamic, too.
It seems like Russia is aware of this. Why does Russia continue to hold on to this conscription system despite evidence that it could lead to drinking issues among servicemen?
I think it’s been hard to reform for one. But then, more importantly, Russia has also, in more recent years, been undergoing something of a demographic crisis. When the Soviet Union falls apart in the early 1990s, there was just, economic decay, disorder, and depression. In Russia, they had sort of a baby bust from the ’90s through the mid-2000s. That’s the generation now that would be coming up for military service, and there are just not enough people there.
When it comes to this demographic crisis that’s plagued Russia for a long time the military has been sort of the most astute at this. They’ve been sort of raising alarm bells for the last 20 years, in terms of wanting to reform and make a more modern army, but also recognizing that they needed to sort of maintain conscription just because if they were to give it up, they wouldn’t have enough warm bodies to man all the turrets and field all the positions that they need.