Sergey Khestanov: ‘People in the USSR began drinking from the 7th-8th grade, especially in the countryside’

The economist on motives of Gorbachyov’s anti-alcohol campaign and reasons for its failure

Sergey Khestanov: ‘People in the USSR began drinking from the 7th-8th grade, especially in the countryside’

An anti-alcohol campaign began in the USSR 35 years ago, on 17 May 1985. A resolution of the government On Measures to Combat Binge Drinking, Alcoholism and Eradicate Illegal Moonshine Production was published on that day. The document envisaged strict fines for alcohol drinking at work and in public places; sale of wine and vodka only in specialised stores after 14 o’clock, and criminal liability was imposed for making moonshine. It was planned to stop wine production by 1989, vodka production annually reduced by 10%. The campaign ran from 1985 to 1987 — and thanks to it the traffic accident rate decreased (from 47,000 in 1984 to 39,000 in 1986) and natality went up. At the same time, the production of illegal alcoholic drinks increased, as a result of sugar, sweets, eau de cologne disappeared from shop shelves, and the youth became interested in drugs. Within the project dedicated to the 35th anniversary of the beginning of Perestroika, Realnoe Vremya discussed the topic of the anti-alcohol campaign and its failure with economist Sergey Khestanov.

“Gorbachyov miscounted financial consequences”

Mr Khestanov, how true is it that the idea of the anti-alcohol campaign could be prepared as early as under Secretary General Andropov and his team, while Gorbachyov began to implement a ready-to-use idea as well as a number of other economic ideas? You must admit that Gorbachyov couldn’t come up with such an idea within two months after he came to power and immediately launch it.

It is hard for me to judge the contribution of Andropov to this idea. Andropov chaired the country during a very short time, had health issues and didn’t have the time to use some of his already launched ideas in practice because he simply didn’t have enough time. Anyway, Mikhail Gorbachyov was historically the main activist of the anti-alcohol reform — he ardently supported this idea and kept backing it because a big part of the population of the country immediately approved the reform. Yes, not all liked it, but the percentage of support for the fight against binge drinking was quite high.

But despite the social benefit of the campaign, Gorbachyov miscounted two things. Firstly, financial consequences. The share of the influx of money from alcohol in the union’s budget was quite sensitive, and when it fell (Editor’s Note: from 60 billion rubles in 1985 to 36 billion in 1987), this landed a notable blow on the budget.

The thing is that alcohol price had quite many excises (Editor’s Note: 87%), which replenished the USSR budget. Moreover, the Soviet Union was a country with a permanent deficit of everything, and there was such a concept as “monetary overhang”, that’s to say, a surplus of money supply that wasn’t provided with goods. So alcoholic drinks played a role of the absorber of this “overhang” very well, and these sums were taken from the population as excises and ended up in the budget.


By a twist of fate, the anti-alcohol campaign coincided with the beginning of a reduction in prices for oil. On 8 September 1985, Sheikh Ahmed Yamani, oil minister of Saudi Arabia, appeared in front of journalists and announced that from that moment his country would fight for a place in the oil market, so oil price began to fall. It fell four times during the year in 1986 — from $36 to $9 per barrel. The USSR’s good incomes from oil revenue decreased, a fall in alcohol excises were added to this. There would have been budget losses without the anti-alcohol campaign too, but the scale of these losses would have been smaller. Consequently, this would have unlikely led to a collapse of the country, so to speak. There would have been difficulties, but much fewer.

Secondly, any thing can be done with a different degree of rationality, but here everything was done stupidly. Everything was done mechanically, without understanding. For instance, amazing vineyards producing brand wine in Crimea were logged.

But there were berry beverages in the USSR (a disgusting thing) that mainly heavy drinkers drank, and here it becomes possible to achieve a positive effect — fortunately, their production completely stopped.

“According to Soviet legislation, it was a long and almost impossible case to fire an alcoholic”

Nevertheless, was it a hot-button issue?

It was. The thing is that alcoholism in the USSR was not only a problem but also a big problem. People began drinking in the country from senior grades, even from the seventh-eighth grade, especially in the countryside. Why? There wasn’t a lot of entertainment in the USSR. Moreover, alcoholism also played a recreational role. There was more entertainment in capitals, of course. While, for example, even in big regional centres in the 80s there might be only one TV programme, while two or three were a luxury. There were few good films, even Soviet ones, in cinemas, while Western films were rarely shown. The people had a lack of entertainment.

Moreover, for people, it was easier to go on holiday to Crimea or the Caucasus, which was an event. Of course, those who knew how to hunt, fish did it, but a handful had cars, this is why you couldn’t often go outside the city. As for leisure time, the USSR was simply grey. And alcohol became this leisure time — people gathered, drank, played garmon, scuffled (laughing). As I already said, people drank from the school age, and alcohol consumption by 35 years was already quite high. Tribute should be paid to Gorbachyov. Of course, the anti-alcohol campaign couldn’t help a person anymore if he was an alcoholic, but all this had a positive impact on those under 35 years.


Were the Soviet times the root causes of alcoholism and binge drinking that were fought under Gorbachyov?

All this dated back to tsarist times. We know that Peter the Great loved vigorous binge drinking, a lot was consumed both in the 19th and shortly before the revolution. There was even a famous song with the words: “You, brother, the street is drunken!”. A lot was consumed in Russia, and alcohol was a good source of income for the state even before the revolution, though mainly moonshine was consumed in the countryside for a long time. Binge drinking has always existed in Russia, just with different intensity.

But it began to grow in the late 1960s. The urban population increased, as I said, they didn’t have a lot of entertainment, but as alcohol replenished the budget, people began to tolerate binge drinking. In the 80s as a schoolboy I knew several enterprises where alcoholics worked. These people went to work drunken and almost did nothing or did something primitive. Why? The thing is that according to Soviet legislation, it was a long and almost impossible case to fire an alcoholic. As it is known, it was popular in the USSR to be proud of zero unemployment in the country.

And as it was difficult to fire an alcoholic, the problem of alcoholism augmented, and soon it began to grow much more because of the deficit of commodities, inner hopelessness and so on. And when Gorbachyov decided to run the anti-alcohol campaign, binge drinking and alcoholism had already been an existing problem, while the USSR began to fall behind developing countries in life expectancy. People took to drinking, hence often misfortunes, stabbing, serious diseases, death from freezing.

By 1985 alcoholism became a real threat to humans, society and family. You could walk along the street, and a crowd of drunken people could meet you halfway. The drunken youth organised fights, moreover, they were serious, with chains and so on.

“Now alcohol in the USA is cheap, but there isn’t a high alcohol consumption rate

Could the USSR have used some successful anti-alcohol campaigns from the world experience? Or weren’t there any?

Of course, there were campaigns in the same States in the 1920s. But it brought to nothing good. Besides an outbreak of crimes, the prohibition didn’t generate anything: the mafia understood where the benefit was and earned in the USA on the prohibition more than the world drug mafia does now. In the end, the ban in the USA was lifted. Yes, prohibition was imposed in Canada in the 1918-1920s and in Finland in the 1919-1932s, but a negative effect from these campaigns was plain to see precisely in the USA where bootleggers in the 30s produced moonshine full steam and had almost industrial supplies. Yes, now alcohol in the USA is cheap, but there isn’t a high alcohol consumption rate, neither is there in Europe.


Isn’t there a high alcohol consumption rate because people have things to do, unlike the USSR?

Of course. Why did many begin to produce and purchase moonshine? People in the 1985-1987s were offered nothing instead during the anti-alcohol campaign. Soviet people didn’t see any life prospects any more, many already thought the next day it would be worse than it is now.

Or why was it necessary to fight black marketers? They sew good jeans, much better than current cheap Chinese ones, but they were jailed and even fired. It is idiocy. If the same cooperatives had been dismantled not in 1998 but in the same 1985, if khozraschyot had been introduced in the same year, people would have rushed to deal with these things, and this would have decreased alcoholism much more. And when this didn’t happen, this gave little. It is impossible to solve the problem of alcoholism only by administrative methods.

For some reason, the USSR combated Western culture and directly banned records of The Beatles, Rolling Stones and so on in the same idiotic way because it was considered harmful. Though The Beatles were indifferent to politics, they were not in favour and not against Communism, and why should they be fought?

This is why even if oil hadn’t reduced, they would have suffered for a while because of the anti-alcoholism campaign, and everything will have come full circle. And it closed because everything began to dissolve in the country, there was a deficit, and they couldn’t care about the fight against alcoholism.

“I have just once talked with Gorbachyov and understood they his IQ level was like that of a brigadier of harvester drivers”

You mentioned vineyard logging, which became one of the symbols of the misfortune of the anti-alcohol campaign in popular consciousness. Why did the Soviet Union anyway decide to make such a reckless step? Because Gorbachyov was quite a reasonable manager, some managers of wine enterprises managed to reach out to him and stopped the clearance, but not everywhere. Why?

The USSR had a planned economy, and Soviet executives didn’t care about the sense of the operation of some enterprises. I worked in a factory a bit in the 80s to get a work record book, and I was amazed that a worker making a small detail used a huge template. The machine tool cut shavings 20 times bigger than the finished part, there were piles of shavings. I asked: “Lads, can’t you use a smaller template because you will make it faster and there will be fewer shavings?” And one of the workers said: “Oh, you are young yet, you haven’t tasted life. We are paid not for the number of processed metal but for the parts”.


Grapes required a lot of care — to cut, tie, apply solutions in case of a disease, and it is clear that a person who deals with grapes will treat them like a relative. And many considered the vineyard clearance blasphemy, people attacked tractors with axes. But again, there was made a decision, and you dare to disobey — you will be jailed. Everything stumbled over the planned system with its irrationality, absence of competition and so on. And all Soviet managers had only one idea: to build communism so that everybody in the country would take as many things as he needs. Is it possible? No, it is a utopia.

And Gorbachyov was a romantic here too. I have just once talked with him 10 years ago and understood they his IQ level was like that of a brigadier of harvester drivers, while he wasn’t useful for a big state farm. The case is that in the Soviet era people with plough were given an advantage, while Gorbachyov didn’t consume alcohol, was positive, diligent, his system raised him.

Mikhail Gorbachyov isn’t an evil person, he didn’t want anything bad. The thing is that he didn’t have any competence, and as oil prices collapsed, excise incomes fell, it is no surprise that everything dissolved in the end.

What do you think about deceased Boris Nemtsov's words that the anti-alcohol campaign helped to save the lives of millions of people?

Nemtsov was cunning a bit. It was true to a certain degree, lives were saved, but as I already said, it referred to people approximately under 30. The measures helped only the youth, but the collapse of the economy that took place in the 90s caused an outbreak of alcoholism again. Royal popular ethanol was consumed everywhere, women drank fake Amaretto, and in the end, mortality in the 90s was higher than its anti-alcohol campaign decreased.

In modern Russia the problem of alcoholism and binge drinking in general isn’t topical like it was in the USSR — the country is distinct anyway, there is a lot of entertainment, there is the Internet, our economy is based on commodities, the youth lose interest in alcohol. But binge drinking hasn’t disappeared. The criminal chronicle is full of messages about murder as a result of gatherings with alcohol consumption, hooliganism with drunken people, especially in the backwoods. What to do here? Does everything still depend on Moscow or not anymore?

Now everything depends on regional authorities. You live in Tatarstan, a favourable region, your big picture in the topic discussed is much better. I am not speaking about Moscow anymore where the percentage of people drinking alcohol is very low. This can’t be said about neighbouring with you Ulyanovsk Oblast. The roads are poor, broken tractors and rotten cars stand in villages, and such a situation with alcohol consumption like in Tatarstan is unlikely. If a region is poor, there will always be a lot of alcoholics. This applies to both Ivanovo and Kostroma Oblasts.


By the way, the same is about the drug problem. Here the decision is also up to regional authorities. If a region can make drugs, if it has high unemployment and there is no hope for life, drug addiction is serious there. It is especially notable in some southern regions of Russia. When people don’t have professional and life prospects, the picture will be sad.

By Sergey Kochnev