Despite a history of prohibition, Russians are still battling with alcohol – and not just vodka

In 1913 five per cent of the Russian population was alcoholic. Today, it's 15 per cent. Mindful of the ailing health of its citizens – and the economy – various governments over the past 100 years have sought to ban alcohol, with mixed results. Mick O’Hare explains

Monday 16 September 2019 16:28
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Khrushchev raises a glass to toast a chess game at the US Embassy in July 1955
Khrushchev raises a glass to toast a chess game at the US Embassy in July 1955

We can probably assume absolutist monarch Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik revolutionary who displaced him in 1917, didn’t see eye to eye. Coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum they were always likely to have their differences. Travellers and Benito Mussolini wanted the trains to run on time, but that doesn’t mean they were constitutional bedfellows. But when it came to imbibing, Nicholas and Lenin were in accord.

They were not drinking buddies ­– one can only imagine the rancorous pub arguments had they been so. Instead both saw merit in the sobriety of their citizens and both saw drunkenness as politically damaging to their aims. And with successive Russian leaders demanding their citizens eschew the bottle, so was born Russia’s era of prohibition, the first of many attempts to get the nation to ditch the drink.

Many people have heard of Al Capone, the American gangster, bootlegger and, ultimately, tax evader who got rich on the back of selling illicit booze in Prohibition-era 1930s Chicago. Probably too many movies and TV shows have been devoted to his life of crime. Indeed the era of prohibition in the US has spawned a folklore all its own. But how many people have heard of Anatoly Gryzlov? No Russians outside the city of Vyatka (now called Kirov) 950 kilometres to the east of Moscow have heard of him, and today most of its citizens have no idea who he was. He doesn’t turn up on Google, and there are no movies and books devoted to his escapades. And it’s possible he had many an alias. Yet, according to Sveltlana Petrova, aged 82, Gryzlov was Capone’s Vyatka equivalent, moonshining his way through the First World War, the Russian Revolution and beyond.

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