Prohibition is among the most misunderstood chapters in world history, especially since we falsely assume it was a uniquely American history. In reality, more than a dozen countries banned the liquor trade around World War I. The first to do so was actually imperial Russia, five years before the United States—a policy decision that would hasten the empire’s demise.
Russia’s prohibition came not through legislation or imperial decree, but rather via a telegram dated Sept. 28, 1914, from Tsar Nicholas II to his favorite uncle, Konstantin Konstantinovich Romanov, which proclaimed “I have already decided to abolish forever the government sale of vodka in Russia.”
To understand Russian prohibition, context matters. For centuries, going back to Ivan the Terrible, the tsarist government maintained an incredibly lucrative monopoly on the vodka trade. No less than one-third of all state revenue of the mighty Russian empire came from selling vodka to its own people. Consequently, any temperance movement to promote the health and well-being of the peasantry was quickly snuffed out, lest the tsar’s revenues be diminished.
In 1904, the Japanese attacked Russia’s Far-Eastern outpost at Port Arthur, beginning the Russo-Japanese War. What the Russians thought would be a quick victory against a non-European foe quickly turned into an embarrassing debacle. At mobilization points across Russia, the call-up of peasant conscripts often turned into drunken and murderous riots. The front was even worse. At the disastrous defeat at Mukden, Russian newspapers described how, “the Japanese found several thousand Russian soldiers so dead drunk they were able to bayonet them like so many pigs.”
With the Revolution of 1905 brewing in St. Petersburg, Russia was forced to sue for peace. “The Japanese did not conquer,” wrote Vienna’s Neue freie Presse, “but alcohol triumphed, alcohol, alcohol.” Military experts around the world suddenly realized that drunkenness could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Even German Kaiser Wilhelm II declared in 1910 that “in the next war, the nation which drinks the least alcohol will be the winner.”
So when World War I broke out in 1914, virtually all of the belligerent countries—including Russia—restricted alcohol to conserve foodstuffs and ease mobilization. Indeed, thanks in part to a temporary prohibition, Russia was able to put its armies in the field much quicker than their German and Austro-Hungarian foes, securing early victories in East Prussia and Galicia. That early momentum would not last.
The once heavy-drinking Tsar Nicholas II had increasingly been won to the temperance cause. Members of the royal family—including the tsar’s rather bohemian favorite uncle, the aforementioned Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich Romanov—began patronizing temperance. Even the notoriously drunken and debauching Siberian mystic Grigory Rasputin argued: “It is unbefitting for a Tsar to deal in vodka and make drunkards out of honest people. The time has come to lock up the Tsar’s saloons.”
In January 1914, Nicholas appointed as minister of finance Sir Peter Bark, with the charge of making the treasury no longer “dependent on the ruination of the spiritual and economic forces of the majority of My faithful subjects.” It was an unenviable task to wean the mighty empire off of its greatest source of revenue, even before the added expense of assembling the largest fighting force in world history later that year.
One of Russia’s ten million troops was 22-year-old platoon commander Prince Oleg Konstantinovich Romanov, son of the temperate Grand Duke Konstantin. In pursuing retreating German forces in Lithuania in September 1914, Prince Oleg was shot through the right hip—a wound that quickly became infected. The Grand Duke rushed to Vilnius to be by his dying son’s bedside, but was too late. Prince Oleg died on Sept. 27, 1914, making him the only Romanov to die in battle in World War I.
Tsar Nicholas‘ prohibition telegram to Konstantin—“abolishing forever the government sale of vodka in Russia”—was dated the following day. Ultimately, this proclamation of Russia as the world’s first prohibition country was little more than Nicholas’ consolation to his temperate uncle who grieved the loss of his beloved son.
It was a decision that would hasten the end of the Romanov Empire itself. In the February Revolution of 1917, the tsar was returning from the front to address an insurrection that was roiling his capital of Petrograd. Mutineers stopped his train and forced the tsar’s abdication in favor of an ill-fated Provisional Government.
In addition to Russia’s disastrous losses on the war front, historians generally point to three factors that brought down the Russian empire: discontent with the tsar, hyperinflation and the breakdown of Russia’s transportation infrastructure. Prohibition exacerbated each.
Forcing poor Russians to quit cold turkey amid the horrors of war likely didn’t enamor the peasant, worker or soldier to the tsar.
The revenue effects were even worse. In 1915, the head of the legislature’s finance committee boasted that “never since the dawn of human history had a single country, in a time of war, renounced the principal source of its revenue.” Finance Minister Bark busily cobbled together fictitious reports about a “miraculous” upsurge in Russian economic productivity, now that the yoke of vodka had been lifted. Yet in reality, the gaping budgetary hole was patched by the printing press, exacerbating hyperinflation. “What if we do lose eight hundred million rubles in revenue?” rhetorically asked Premier Ivan Goremykin. “We shall print that much paper money; it’s all the same to the people.”
Even Russia’s infrastructural paralysis was exacerbated by prohibition. Rather than delivering grain to the starving cities, or necessary war materiel to the front, Russia’s anemic railroad system was clogged by carloads of vodka. Since they couldn’t legally sell their alcohol to the state retail monopoly, well-connected gentry distillers sent their warehouses of vodka by train to the Arctic port cities of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk, hoping to ship them to consumers in allied France, or to Japan and the Pacific across the single-track Trans-Siberian Railway.
While there were many proximate causes for the Russian Revolution, the prohibition of the tsarist vodka trade was undeniably one of them. And yet—during the exigencies of wartime—prohibition along with grain requisitioning were the only policies maintained not only by the conservative Romanov regime, but the liberal Provisional Government, and the radical Bolshevik regime of Vladimir Lenin as well. Beyond demanding sobriety and discipline amidst the October Revolution and ensuing Civil War, Lenin was ideologically opposed to building socialism on the livers of the proletariat. “We should not follow the example of the capitalist countries and put vodka and other intoxicants on the market,” he argued, “because, profitable though they are, they will lead us back to capitalism and not forward to communism.”
But ultimately, Russia’s prohibition experiment died with Lenin in 1924. Swayed by the allure of easy money, his successor, Joseph Stalin, revived the old tsarist vodka monopoly, rebranded with a hammer and sickle. The dynamics of alcohol politics in the Soviet Union were almost identical to those of the conservative empire that preceded it. In terms of popular drinking practices and the government’s profits, it was almost as if the prohibition period had never happened. In terms of Russian history, however, the consequences of that decade of temperance are impossible to ignore.
Mark Lawrence Schrad, an associate professor of political science at Villanova University, is the author of the book Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition, available now from Oxford University Press, from which this piece is adapted.