Sunday, May 17, 2009

American “Drys”: Loving the Russian Czar

In 1914 members of the American Prohibition movement fell in love with the Russian Czar, He was Nicholas II, shown here in his prime. With the outbreak of World War One, Nicholas was convinced by his ministers to prohibit all forms of alcohol because of its assumed detrimental impact on the readiness of Russia’s military forces. Drinking vodka, as shown in this prewar photograph, was a daily ritual in the Russian Army and Navy.

The ease with which the Czar could cut off the alcohol spigot was aided by the fact that since 1894 the Russian government had controlled all production of vodka and other spirits, reaping huge revenues in the process. American Prohibitionists took admiring notice of the Czar’s action.

Under a 1914 headline entitled, “A Despot Need,” one American Dry commentator rhapsodized that: “Enlightened Russia knows the way, great Russia, with her tyrant czar; he twists his wrists and in a day the lid is placed on every bar....I wish we had a despot here, just long enough to kill Old Booze.” The Washington DC Evening Star editorialized that a “miracle” had occurred in Russia, noting cheerfully that the miracle had been made possible by Russia’s autocratic form of government.

As two cartoons published by the Dry lobby suggest, the Czar had become someone to be looked up to and emulated. In the first a Cossack has arrested a vodka bottle and is marching it off to detention. In the second “King Alcohol,” personified as a wicker covered bottle, salutes a Russian official while four Americans look on approvingly.

Seen in the light of history, however, the Czar’s decision was a disaster. Fully one-third of Russia’s revenues came from the sale of vodka, even then an annual billion dollar business. Without the funds from alcohol sales, the government entered World War One with substantially less money than it needed. Second, prohibition made large segments of the population angry. The rich still were able to buy vodka and other drinks at their clubs and in fancy restaurants. Only the lesser classes were forced to give up drinking.

Russia’s poor showing in the war and the growing unpopularity of Czar Nicholas gave rise to the Russian Revolution of 1918 in which the Communists came to power. The Czar and his family were executed. The new rulers, led by Lenin, initially were opposed to drinking but Russians gradually had ceased to worry about the ban on vodka. Just as Prohibition in the U.S. (1920-1934) gave rise to bootleggers, in Russia potatoes were everywhere and so were illegal stills. Numbers skyrocketed, by official count tripling from 1922 to 1924.

Gradually the Communist government eased up. Wine was legalized in 1921, beer in 1922, other alcohol in 1923, and, finally, in 1924 vodka sales again were permitted. Russians, as shown here, now could drink and drink and drink. And do it legally.

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