Mikhail Gorbachev Essay, Research Paper
One of the most dramatic and revolutionary changes in Russian history is the
restriction of the consumption of alcohol. Mikhail Gorbachev instituted his
anti-alcohol campaign on May 16, 1985 in order to decrease alcohol consumption
by Soviet citizens and instead teach them the rewards of moderation. Some such
rewards were a better life at home with their families, more advancement in
their jobs, and better overall health. Although Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol
campaign was effective in generating some positive changes, it eventually
failed, causing resentment toward the leadership, worsening health issues,
creating illegal alcohol production markets, and increasing the budget deficit.
When Gorbachev was fifteen, he went out one day with his father and his
harvesting team. The mechanics decided that it would be funny to play a joke on
the young boy. They gave him a drink of pure alcohol, and told him that it was
vodka. He drank it, and it utterly disgusted him. This was an important lesson
to him. It made him not like alcohol, therefore making him want others to stay
away from it. This could have saved his nation. Gorbachev noted, "After
that experience I have never felt any pleasure in drinking vodka or
spirits" (Gorbachev 37). That is important because if he had liked alcohol,
there most likely never would have been any anti-alcohol campaign.
"Temperance was the rule in the Gorbachev household on holidays, the men
might take one shot glass of vodka or cognac in celebration, no more"
(Smith 38). The Gorbachev family is an example of how alcohol should have been
used in Russia. They drank in moderation, as opposed to others who drank simply
to get drunk and were unable to control themselves while drinking. Gorbachev
wanted others to be able to drink as they did, and he tried to set a good
example in order to get his point across. However, his plans didn’t work out as
he had suspected. "Gorbachev saw alcoholism as an offense to the Soviet
ideal and a symptom of weak personal morals rather than a failing of the Soviet
order" (Galeotti 58). He thought that people should be able to control
themselves while drinking, and if they didn’t it was their own fault. It is not
unusual that he would initiate, as one of his first priorities after taking
power in March 1985, an anti-alcohol campaign. Alcohol had always been a large
part in a Russian’s life. "The Russians have always drunk vodka,"
former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev once said. "They can’t get by without
it" (Sudo 14). Drunkenness had been a plague in Russia since the Middle
Ages; that is no secret. However, for years the communist leadership refused to
acknowledge the fact that alcohol abuse posed any problems. Periodically, in
pre-revolutionary times and even during the first years of Soviet power, the
authorities initiated missions against alcoholism, none of which resulted in
success. By the time Gorbachev got to power, the drinking problem was very much
out of hand in Russia. "Until Gorbachev clamped down on the consumption of
alcohol in June 1985, the Soviets were literally drinking themselves to
death" (Naylor 194). Alcohol was putting a profound strain on society.
Consumption had skyrocketed during the Brezhnev era. This is especially
significant considering it was already considerably high at the beginning of his
era. In 1984, state revenues from the sale of alcoholic beverages reached
fifty-three billion rubles, four times what it had been twenty years before. The
alcohol issue became disastrous. "Nearly one hundred and sixty-three
million out of a population of two hundred and eighty million drink regularly;
as many as twenty million are alcoholics" (Sudo 14). With that many people
in a society having problems with alcohol, obviously something had to be done.
The annual loss to the economy from drunkenness was an estimated eighty to one
hundred billion rubles. Alcoholism was the third most common ailment, after
heart disease and cancer. The life expectancy of men was declining. Infant
mortality rates were rising. Health of present and future generations was being
corrupted. "It was also responsible for most marriage breakups"
(Morris 48). Wives had become desperate trying to save their marriages, with
their husbands practically drinking themselves to death. Crime, corruption, and
cynicism were all increasing. Drunk drivers were responsible for fourteen
thousand traffic deaths per year. "Alcoholism was probably the largest
single cause of a stunning increase in the Soviet Union’s crude death rate"
(Kaiser 101). In 1964, there were about seven deaths per one thousand citizens.
This statistic grew to almost eleven deaths per one thousand citizens in 1985.
There are many causes for this widespread drunkenness. One reason is the poor
living conditions. Another is the hardship of every day Russian life. Economic
conditions were very difficult. A third reason is the cultural backwardness. A
fourth cause is the "oppressive social atmosphere which pushed weak natures
to use alcohol to drown their feelings of inferiority and their fear of harsh
reality" (Gorbachev 220). The people were so vulnerable to alcohol; they
needed it to feel superior and to step away from the truths of life. They looked
for another outlet, alcohol. A last reason is the leaders’ example. It is very
common to find alcohol at their banquets and receptions. In the early 1980s,
there was a strong public pressure on Party and governmental agencies. They were
receiving a flood of letters, mainly from wives and mothers. In these letters,
there were frightening examples of family tragedies, industrial accidents, and
crime due to drunkenness. "It was impossible to read these women’s bitter
outpourings without shuddering. The saying that the wives and children have shed
as many tears as men have drunk vodka is apt indeed" (Ligachev 336). The
women were begging for something to be done about this horrific alcohol problem.
They were becoming desperate to save the lives of those whom they loved. They
now left the problem in the government’s hands. A decision was made to begin a
campaign against the evil alcohol problem. A list of decrees was written and
brought to the Politburo: However, when the draft of the decrees was submitted
to the Politburo for discussion, its members, driven by a noble desire to wipe
out evil without further delay and rendered even more zealous by their own fiery
oratory, decided that the proposed measures were inadequate and that more needed
to be done (Boldin 101). It is a possibility that if the Politburo hadn’t been
so enthusiastic and passionate, they wouldn’t have failed. I think that they
should have started off with small changes. So many drastic reforms in such a
short amount of time frightened the people, and they had nothing other to do
than to turn to the bottle. They needed time to get used to the idea of living
without alcohol, and the government didn’t take this into account. I think that
they were being impractical in these reforms, and they should have taken smaller
steps in order to accomplish their task at hand. Officials of Gosplan, the
Ministry of Trade, the processing industry, and farmers defended the cause of
alcohol as best they could, arguing that the proposed measures would cost the
state budget billions of rubles, ruin the grape growers, and close down much of
the capacity of the wine-making.