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  • Under the Influence: Working-Class Drinking, Temperance, and Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1805-1932
  • Jeffrey Brooks
Under the Influence: Working-Class Drinking, Temperance, and Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1805–1932. By Kate Transchel (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. 224 pp. $35.00).

What social ritual rivals drinking in Russian life? The answer is probably none. This is a book about a major issue in social and cultural history. The volume will strike a familiar note with anyone acquainted Russian social life or with its representation in the popular media. From the cheap lithographs of the mid to late nineteenth century known as the lubok to the melodramatic television serials of today, drinking has occupied a prominent place in representations of the social order. The author of this compact study explores two features of the phenomenon in the late Imperial and Soviet eras. The first involves patterns of drinking among workers and to a certain extent peasants as well. The second concerns the efforts of the government, the Church, and various reformers to manage the consumption of alcohol and in that respect control the lower classes. The study is arranged chronologically so that the two themes are somewhat entangled.

The discussion of Russian drinking rituals and taverns is an illuminating feature of the book. The author distinguishes between the practices of rural and urban consumption, notes the rise of the tavern, and explains the uses of vodka as payment and reward into the Soviet era. She contrasts heavy drinking among peasants on Church holidays, at weddings, and on other noteworthy occasions with the more regular guzzling by workers. As she shows, the peasants operated in an economy of shame and honor in which alcohol was a key currency, and therefore peasant families needed to maintain a certain balance with their neighbors. The rise of a cash economy led to tavern drinking, however, which was of a very different sort. The taverns became emblematic of lower-class urban culture and a male preserve from which women were excluded except on holidays or when they had to haul their men folk home. Not surprisingly the use of liquor as a currency in an economy of scarcity became a characteristic feature of Soviet life, and new workers discovered they were expected to treat their better established colleagues and even pay for training with bottles of vodka. In fact, the author suggests that skilled workers commonly demanded vodka as payment for training their newly arrived colleagues from the countryside during the Five [End Page 809] Year Plan. In this respect, it would have been interesting to know something about the movement of vodka between the collective farms and the factories. In discussing the Soviet period, the author raises the issue of whether new workers were more likely to take to drink than established workers, an issue explored by Soviet authorities as well. She concludes that drinking was ubiquitous among all workers.

Liquor was long a source of state revenue in Russia. The author describes the shift from the tax farming of vodka to an excise system by which distillers and retailers paid license fees and then to a state monopoly in which the distillers had to buy raw materials from the state and the state regulated standards and sales. She notes some interesting instances of lower-class protests and boycotts of liquor in response to high prices and low quality. She found that suspicions in the government and also the church that abstinence was linked with religious dissidence led officials for a time to promote moderate drinking. The author identifies this solution to the problem of mass drunkenness with the "tippling" theory according to which Russians needed to drink but with moderation (p. 41). The sad story that she tells encompasses various commissions and organizations designed to combat drunkenness, none of which made much difference. Neither of course did the few supposedly "dry" years during World War I. Interestingly, the author demonstrates how Soviet authorities also came to promote moderate drinking once they gave up on various programs to transform the culture and values of the working class. The chapter on propaganda reveals what was true in the press more generally, namely...


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