I’m getting to the end of my second novel, and the climax is going to be a real heart-breaker. I’m not going to spoil anything for you, but I will give you a hint. It has something to do with the kind of “civil war” that I recently read about in an incendiary Russian pro-temperance book called Do You Respect Me? No, my novel has nothing to do with temperance. But I’m fascinated by the idea of a nation willing to subject their own people to moral degradation just for the sake of money. A timely subject, no? Here’s a translation of one of the chapters (the original Russian post is here):
This was a war you won’t read about in history books. Oh, it was a real war, with real artillery barrages, with fatalities and captives, with vanquishers and vanquished, with a judgment over the defeated, with plenty of booty for the victors. The battles of this silent war raged all over the twelve regions of the Russian Empire from 1858-1860.
Temperance poster from the 19th century
The 146 Wine Merchants
Historians generally prefer to call this period the “revolt of the teetotalers,” because during this time period, some peasants stopped buying wine and vodka entirely. Instead, entire villages vowed to stop drinking. Why did they do this? Because they didn’t want their declining health to line the pockets of the 146 people who were responsible for the sale of alcohol over the entire territory of Russia. These people were incredibly pushy in their sales. Theirs was such a monopoly that if someone didn’t’ want to drink, he’d still have to pay for the alcohol. Those were the rules then…
In those years, a very strange practice prevailed in the villages. Every male was assigned to a certain tavern, and if he didn’t drink his “quota,” or if he didn’t pay enough in a given time period, then the owners of the tavern would charge that amount to the local village. If someone didn’t want to pay or couldn’t pay, he would actually be flogged publicly.
Temperance poster from the late 19th century
The alcohol sellers, seeing how successful this system was for raising money, kept raising the price of wine and vodka. By 1858, a bucket of bad moonshine (which used to cost three rubles) now cost ten! Finally, the peasants got sick of the system, and they started to boycott the sale of alcohol completely.
Impromptu Temperance Movement
This was not so much a decision based on greed or love of money; rather, it was a matter of principle. People could see how the young men in the villages were all becoming alcoholics. Their wives, their children all suffered, and that meant the entire community suffered. As a result, village after village officially announced: “In our village, no one will drink anymore!”
What could the wine merchants do? They started by lowering prices. But the peasant’s didn’t budge. It got so bad that innkeepers started to give out vodka for free, just to put a dent in the new temperance movement. But it didn’t work. “We will not drink anymore!” the villagers continued to say.
Here’s a concrete example. In the Balashov uezd of the Saratov gubernia (region), 4,752 people refused to drink in 1858. The village councils put a constant guard on the taverns so that no one would buy wine. If anyone broke and did buy it, they would be subject to fines from the village council or even beatings.
The villagers were joined by city folk as well. Workers, civil servants, even nobles joined in. Most importantly, many priests got involved by giving blessings to their parishioners to join the impromptu temperance movement. This is what really scared the wine merchants, and they made an official complaint to the government.
The Official Response
In March 1858, the Russian Empire’s minsters of finance, domestic affairs, and state property issued a series of laws that effectively prohibited temperance. The local authorities were told not to allow any local chapters of any temperance movement to form, and any existing village council rulings concerning temperance were declared null and void.
Then, the war began. Beginning in June 1859, in West Russia, peasants began to riot and destroy local taverns. In Vol’sk, three thousand people destroyed all stands selling wine at a local market. In answer, the local police, along with members of the army stationed nearby, tried to calm the rioters. But the peasants managed to disarm both the police and the soldiers. They then proceeded to free all prisoners from their cells. Only after a few days, when the regular army arrived from Saratov, did the riot calm down. Twenty-seven people were arrested.
All of those arrested were condemned based only on the testimony of the wine merchants, who did not bother to back their testimony with any proof. Interestingly, historians note that there are no official records of anyone stealing money during these riots. Instead, tavern owners stole money from their own taverns, then blamed the loss on the rioters.
During this particular riot, thirty-seven taverns were torn down, and for each one of these the local peasants were heavily fined and forced to pay for the reconstruction. The few soldiers who took the side of the temperance rioters were deprived of their freedom and all honors they may have received. Some were even sent to Siberia.
All over Russia, over 11,000 people were jailed for trying to stop their own people from becoming alcoholics. Riots were everywhere calmed by Imperial armed forces, who were even given the order to shoot to kill. All over the country, violent reprisals took place against those who dared to protest what was an officially sanctioned “alcoholization” of the populace. Judges gave furious convictions. They were commanded not merely to punish the rioters, but to make examples of them, lest anyone strive to begin any movement of “temperance without official authorization.”
That still left the problem of future riots, so the authorities decided to buy the cooperation of the peasants. They instituted an excise tax on alcohol, and basically allowed anyone (not the 146 specially licensed merchants) to sell alcohol as long as they paid the excise tax. After that, they had much fewer problems with temperance activists…
Scary, isn’t it? As much as I love to study the past, and as much good as I can see in it, there were plenty of terrible things going on in the Russian Empire, just as there are today. The scary thing about today is that I no one would ever start up such a spontaneous chain of temperance movements, seeing the gradual descent of their neighbors into alcoholism and dependency. You only need to go visit any inner city to know the truth about that.
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