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Book Review of Vodka Politics

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Book Review of Vodka Politics
by Ted Alston, SMART Recovery facilitator

There is much play on the word “power” in discussions of addiction and recovery. Labor under the heavy influence of alcohol can propagate disempowering serfdom, and powerful tyrants have deliberately or unwittingly manipulated people into becoming addicted consumers. Accordingly, there are generally important lessons in Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State, a 2014 book on Russian history by Mark Lawrence Schrad (Oxford U. Press). I recommend the thought-provoking book as unconventional bibliotherapy.

It is inexpensive to divert agricultural carbohydrate into tyrant-controlled distilled spirits for which addicted agricultural laborers will pay dearly. Schrad finds that Ivan the Terrible hit a lucrative balance in the 1500s and so teed up the enormous wealth of the Romanov autocracy in Russia. Schrad incidentally alludes to parallel situations elsewhere, including the plight of the economically and chemically trapped Chicago meatpackers described by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, 1906.

Relatively sober warriors were sought at the dawn of the first World War, but precipitous Prohibition proved dynasty-shattering in Russia as it would latter prove disruptive in the US. Schrad argues that alcohol issues featured prominently in the Russian turmoil of the early twentieth century. And then came Stalin, an alcohol-poisoned man who deliberately spread the problem nationally and individually. Stalin sought restoration of vodka profits for the state, but Schrad also details many issues at the personal level. The calculating tyrant appears to have deliberately required drunkenness of his political competitors. As the account further unfolds, Schrad proposes that problems with an economy heavily reinvested in vodka went on to disintegrate the former Soviet Union. Schrad also discusses the politics of alcohol in The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave, Oxford, 2010.

Early on, it’s a good idea to personally take full responsibility in recovery. Way down the road, it could be sobering to examine how much of an addictive problem had been set up by powerful political and economic forces.

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