1985: Anti-Alcohol Campaign

Gorbachev's Anti-Alcohol Campaign

Subject essay: James von Geldern

The consumption of alcohol has deep cultural roots in Russia where it typically accompanied celebrations, signified hospitality, and enhanced bonding among acquaintances and friends. It also was a tremendous sources of revenue for the Soviet state which exercised a monopoly on its production and distribution. In 1979, for example, the state derived some 25.4 billion rubles in indirect taxes from the sale of alcoholic beverages which was more than were paid in income tax. Alcoholism, however, was a major scourge in Soviet society, linked to high rates of child-abuse, suicide, divorce (link), absenteeism, and accidents on the job, and contributing to a rise in mortality rates particularly among Soviet males that was detected in the 1970s.

In May 1985, less than two months after becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev launched a campaign against alcohol abuse, backing it up with a series of measures to reduce alcohol production and sales. These included limiting the kinds of shops permitted to sell alcohol, closing many vodka distilleries and destroying vineyards in the wine-producing republics of Moldavia, Armenia and Georgia, and banning the sale of alcohol in restaurants before two o'clock in the afternoon. To set a good example, official Soviet receptions both at home and abroad became alcohol-free. Exhorting Soviet citizens to abide by these measures, Gorbachev became known as the mineral'nyi sekretar' (mineral-water-drinking secretary) rather than general'nyi sekretar' (General Secretary).

While the anti-alcohol campaign may well have resulted in a decline in alcohol consumption, it also precipitated a sharp rise in the production of moonshine (samogon) and, like Prohibition in the United States, an increase in organized crime. Instances of alcohol poisoning also rose, as hard drinkers turned to other, more dangerous, substances. No less serious was the decline in state revenues, which created a budgetary imbalance. This was overcome by resort to printing more money, which fueled inflation. For all these reasons, the campaign was abandoned after 1987.