Rationing Vodka

T. Boikova, Rationing Vodka. March 27, 1987

Excerpts from an article

Original Source: Sovetskaia Rossiia, 27 March 1987.

The overall level of drunkenness dropped by more than 50 per cent in Kirov Province during the second half of last year.

This was achieved largely by an orders’ system. All executives without exception-from the chairman of the local Soviet to the secretary of the province Party committee-diligently call it an “orders’ system.” But people queuing in shops, in livestock sections, or in factory stores, simply call it “Coupons.”

How did this begin? When the people themselves were granted the exclusive right to decide-should there be an orders’ system or not-public meetings and assemblies were held in each district, in all communities, at enterprises, on collective farms and state farms. These gatherings made decisions by open ballot, and immediately, they specified how the orders were to be distributed: to whom and in what quantity. Everywhere, alcoholics and “abusers” … were, as decided by the meetings, deprived of the right to buy alcohol. People who had undergone a course of treatment for alcoholism, who had returned from a therapy and labor rehabilitation center or a place of confinement, who had spent time in a medical sobering-up station, who had committed domestic disturbances, or who had been hooligans or violators of labor or public discipline were excluded. In some places pregnant women, young mothers and persons suffering from chronic illnesses were added to the list. At many of the meetings, a number of people publicly refused to take their coupons, decreeing a “dry law” for themselves. But only members of the Temperance Society considered refusal to be mandatory.

Clearly aware of the consequences of the slightest administrative fiat, the organizers tried to eliminate even the hint of any pressure. In short, the remaining people were given the right (the right, let us emphasize, not the command) to buy one or two bottles of alcohol per month (the exact amount varied according to district) …

This system is especially effective in small towns, settlements or villages, where everyone knows everyone else by sight. Many villages are managing without any coupons at all. In these places, lists of those who are not to be sold alcohol have been posted up inside the shops themselves. The lists put those prohibited to shame, as you can imagine. But they’re very effective! …

There were arguments at some of the meetings, but only a handful of individuals complained to the “superiors.” The “superiors” wrote prompt but polite replies: “Dear comrades! The decision of the labor collective can be reversed or revised only by the collective itself.” The “comrades” scratched their heads, swore, and began to look for a way out of the situation. But they discovered, to their great chagrin, that all the easily accessible loopholes had been closed.

A person can go to a neighboring province, of course. Or the yellow coupons can be resold. There have been instances in which local “businessmen” buy bottles of vodka and then put them back into circulation. But here the taut mechanism of public control, which because of its newness has not yet grown rusty, usually works …

The results were made evident rather quickly: figures for crime, hooliganism, lawbreaking, traffic accidents, etc. began to creep downward throughout the province …

Early in January a telegram was telephoned throughout the province, including those districts where the coupon system was already in effect: “Increase the sale of alcohol by 12 per cent.” After several months of painstaking and laborious organizational and propaganda work involving hundreds of thousands of people, suddenly: “Increase the sale of alcohol.” Why? It turns out that over 500,000 liters of locally produced wine which had accumulated in the warehouses of the consumers’ cooperatives was beginning to spoil. People had suddenly stopped buying this wine; and not by accident. Under the order system, they were buying vodka or high-quality grape wines. The “stunner” [strong red vermouth] was to the taste only of the very people who had been deprived of the right to use orders. Now an effort was being made to salvage the stockpiles of this poison. The telephoned telegram had come from the province Soviet executive committee. It was carrying out an order of the Russian Republic Union of Consumers’ Cooperatives.

Do you know what officials in most of the province’s districts did when they received this telephoned telegram? They disobeyed it. But it did its work-it sowed the seeds of doubt: what if the next order was made binding?

Coupons for alcohol are, it goes without saying, a compromise intended to shut off the unrestricted flow of alcohol. They are meant to be a forced, temporary measure (let us emphasize this again), as a supplement to education, legal, administrative, medical and other measures for combating drunkenness. This compromise appears to be justified, and, as the Kirovites’ experience shows, it is producing results.

Source: George R. Urban, ed., Social and Economic Rights in the Soviet bloc: a documentary review seventy years after the Bolshevik Revolution (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1988), pp. 188-189.

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