The idea of a Russian obsession with vodka is both caricature and historical fact. Among the stereotypes of Russians that have accrued in western art and literature through the years, the notion of a people rendered forever catatonic under an endless flood of vodka has been the most enduring. As Sterling Hayden’s General Jack Ripper puts it in his diatribe against “Commies” in Dr. Strangelove: “Vodka. That’s what they drink, isn’t it? Never water?” Beneath this absurdity, however, lies the reality of a people whose very national identity has historical ties to alcohol. Heidi Brown has pointed out that Orthodox Christianity became the national religion of the nascent Russian territory in the year 988 “partly because it allowed the consumption of alcohol.” Today alcoholism continues to be a major issue in Russia. Brown placed the Russian situation in stark terms in 2011: alcohol poisoning was then the cause of death for 23,000 Russians each year, compared to 1,500 Americans, stemming from a massive discrepancy in per-person consumption between adult Russian males, who drank almost eight gallons of alcohol each year, versus four gallons in the US.
Vodka’s necessity was especially acute for those attempting to find an escape from the grip of crushing destitution, starvation, and policing under dictator Joseph Stalin in the second quarter of the twentieth century, particularly in the years of his Great Terror, which reached its apogee eighty-five years ago, in 1937-38. In this period alone, almost 700,000 Soviets were executed; many more were sent to Gulag labor camps, although the exact extent of Stalin’s devastation continues to be a matter of scrutiny. The terror arrived upon the heels of Stalin’s mass collectivization movement in the late 1920s—and such attendant policies as massive grain and property appropriation from the Soviet countryside—which led to the starvation of millions in the 1930s. The nation and its people, particularly in rural areas, were devastated. It is little surprise that those who could afford it (or knew how to make their own) turned to alcohol amidst the deprivation.
Early Soviet leadership staunchly attempted to curtail drinking; during his time in power, Vladimir Lenin upheld the prohibition decree instituted by Emperor Nicholas II in 1914. But in 1925, the year after Lenin’s death, the ban was lifted. In an interview two years later, Stalin justified removing the prohibition as an economic necessity, telling a group of foreign delegates that it was vital to establish “the vodka monopoly in order to get the necessary revenue for the development of our industry with our own resources.” During the period that followed, which saw Stalin consolidate control and carry out a variety of movements of mass repression, alcohol likely served a crucial numbing function for those who could get their hands on it. Stalin was obsessed with rooting out and eradicating internal enemies, and everyone but the vozhd (leader) himself was vulnerable to denunciation at any time for offenses against his regime.
Yet where alcohol served as a coping mechanism under Stalinism, vodka also served a complex political purpose. As Heidi Brown notes, “During the Soviet period, vodka drinking was an important trust-builder. Since vodka removes inhibitions, drinking made it easier to ascertain whether a fellow drinker was a government agent.” For Stalin, vodka’s utility as an “unmasking” tool was particularly keen. Alcohol, and the socialization into which its consumption is inscribed, was for him both personal and political. He would often hold large drinking parties at his various homes, as well as smaller gatherings with his closest associates. These parties were not only opportunities to unwind, they offered clandestine means of coaxing those in the dictator’s inner circle to reveal themselves and others. In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev recollected that Stalin’s deliberate use of vodka escalated over the years, to the point where “time came when you not only could not refuse a drink, but they’d simply force it on you, pump you full, fill you to the brim deliberately. Yes, Stalin knew how to do that.”
Critiques or mocking of Stalin could lead to decades-long exile or, more straightforwardly, execution, and the pressure to snitch, or to invent offenses when real ones were not handy, was immense. Oftentimes such denunciations were no more than attempts to prove one’s own loyalty, though there was little reassurance to be had of the long-term efficacy of this. In such a climate, any drinking games, especially those undertaken in the presence of the highest arbiter of life and death himself, had deadly serious undertones. Oleg Khlevniuk, in 2015’s Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, notes that even beyond the years at which the great terror peaked in intensity, Stalin relished opportunities to relax the tongues of underlings:
As he aged, Stalin moderated his own consumption of spirits, but he liked to spur others to overdo it and then watch their behavior. He had several ways of forcing his guests to drink more heavily than they might have wished. Toasts were proposed in rapid succession, and failing to empty one’s glass was unacceptable. “If someone didn’t participate when a toast was made, he was ‘fined’ by having to drink another glassful and perhaps several glasses.” The Yugoslav politician and writer Milovan Djilas later recalled a drinking game he witnessed at Stalin’s dacha during a visit in January 1948: “Everyone guessed how many degrees below zero it was outside and then, as a penalty, downed . . . a glass for each degree he was off. . . . I remember that [Lavrentiy] Beria missed by three and claimed that he had done so on purpose to get more vodka.
The possibility of refusing such a toast, of course, was unthinkable, for one ran the risk not only of offending the host, but of thereby “unmasking” themselves. It would not have been a leap for Stalin or other partygoers to conclude that refusing a toast to the Soviet state unwittingly exposed anti-Soviet sentiment, or its corollary—sympathy for capitalist imperialism. Yet the dangers of accepting the toasts were likewise great; if one became too drunk and said too much or became overly familiar with Stalin, the repercussions could be swift and brutal.
Georgi Dimitrov, General Secretary of the Communist International during the Great Terror, provides in his diaries a sense of what it was like to play a part in Stalin’s drinking games. Giving an account of a lunch of party officials on November 7, 1937, Dimitrov demonstrates that alcohol-based sparring with the vozhd was not merely a question of the amount of liquor consumed. The giving of ideologically correct toasts was itself a game requiring formidable strategy, which often involved the risk of exposure before the vicissitudes of Stalin’s whims. Here Dimitrov recounts a toast he raised in response to one of Stalin’s, in which he praised the dictator as a man of “unswervingness and genius.” Stalin was unimpressed, responding coldly, even threateningly: “I respect Comrade Dimitrov very much. We are friends and will remain friends. But I must disagree with him. He has even expressed himself here in an un-Marxist fashion.” Luckily for Dimitrov, the tension was smoothed over by a diplomatic remark from Khrushchev, and the slip-up apparently forgotten—or more likely filed away.
Understandably, Stalin’s associates have reported that such gatherings were extremely stressful. Mark Schrad, in his book on the role played by alcohol throughout the history of Russian autocracy, Vodka Politics, remarks that, “Eternally suspicious of plots to do him in, Stalin used alcohol to keep his inner circle off balance.” While Jonathan Daly counters Schrad’s broader argument, contending that “alcohol abuse was primarily a symptom not a cause of the troubles of the USSR,” the link between politics and vodka under communism is difficult to overstate, and to parse cleanly. Schrad’s emphasis on vodka politics as a driving force of Soviet and Russian history at large, however, runs the risk of obscuring how Stalin uniquely put alcohol to use under the Great Terror and into the war years as a symptom of a concentrated political strategy serving an ideological purpose that was all his own.
Stalin’s strategies of inebriation were applied not only to his own people; foreign dignitaries and even Winston Churchill were subjected to interminable bouts of drinking that might put them off their guard. This included, as Schrad relates, a celebration of the signing of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact with the Nazi delegation in which every individual delegate, of which there were twenty-two, was toasted before the meal. American presidential hopeful Wendell Willkie reported an even more grueling session when he visited Stalin in 1942. At a dinner in Willkie’s honor, as John Jordan describes it, he purports to have withstood a death-defying “fifty-three vodka toasts with the Soviet leader.” In this case, Stalin used the occasion to unleash some resentment of his own, criticizing the British government’s interference in the American Lend-Lease act that provided military support to the USSR, which upset a British ambassador also on hand. Willkie’s tactic for mollifying both sides was predictable, but apparently effective: “a pointedly worded toast to wartime unity.” In these interactions, Stalin’s alcoholic manipulations took on global importance, as the tensions of wartime politics were amplified under the pressures of heavy drinking, and the sober calculations of careful statements and rhetorical positioning were refashioned into an uninhibited theater within which the dictator could wield forceful control.
Surely the most famous Soviet drinking party, however, began some seventy years ago, on the night of February 28, 1953, continuing into the early hours of the next day. At this point, Stalin’s core group was down to five, including his short-lived successor, Georgy Malenkov, and Khrushchev, the man who would eventually consolidate post-Stalin power. On this night, as was common for such gatherings, Stalin hosted a film screening at the Kremlin. As Khlevniuk relates, after the film the group retired to Stalin’s favored nearby home, affectionately (though uncreatively) nicknamed the “near dacha,” for dinner.
It was unlikely that this was a night of raucous partying, but by the time the group broke up in the early morning of March 1, Stalin at least seemed to be happily drunk—by Khrushchev’s account. During the day that followed, Stalin—alone in his room under the guard of subordinates too afraid for their own lives to check on him—suffered a catastrophic stroke. When they finally summoned the courage to go in, staff found him on the floor, unconscious. Khrushchev and Malenkov returned, along with Beria, a longtime secret police official, but no doctor was summoned. This was at the height of Stalin’s paranoia that members of the medical community were conspiring to murder Soviet leaders; indeed, fervor over the “doctors’ plot” led to the widespread purges of their ranks. Once doctors finally did arrive, there was little they could do. Stalin’s brain had hemorrhaged, and he died from complications four days later.
Stalin may have been gone, but his “vodka politics” lived on. No drinking party could yet take place that wasn’t haunted by his ghost. As Susan Corbesero notes, even in the twenty-first century his visage has appeared in vodka advertisements as a specter of power, potency, and terrible resolve. While it might be imagined that Stalin was just one in a long line of rulers who have found vodka a useful political tool, his idiosyncratic blend of binge-drinking with rhetorical sparring on the global stage, backed up at home by the threat of a comprehensive terror apparatus, enabled him to put vodka to work not only in shaping the will of fellow Soviet bureaucrats, but in dictating the form of the post-war consensus to come. This was, you might say, a cocktail of the most dangerous kind—but like the driest of martinis, it was undiluted, frosted over with an icy clarity of purpose determined to reshape the world in Stalin’s own image.