100 years of Latvians and alcohol: Part One

Alcohol consumption in Latvia is periodically brought to the attention of our society. There is good reason - statistics show that we are among the leaders in consumption in Europe. Historians Gatis Krūmiņš and Ilmārs Mežs present a historical overview of how different governments have tackled the alcohol problem in Latvia over the last 100 years, and what has or has not been achieved.

The overview is split into three parts. Part 1 covers the period before and during WWII.

Part 2 covers the period of the USSR occupation after WWII and is available here.

Part 3 covers the independence period and is available here.

According to the Disease Prevention and Control Center (SPKC), in 2017-2022, the average consumption for every person aged 15 or over in Latvia was between 12 and 13 liters of absolute alcohol. This compares with 8 liters in Finland and the Netherlands in 2022, 10 in the UK, around 10.5 in France and Germany, 11.1 in Estonia, and 12.1 liters in Lithuania. 

Centuries of Latvian fight against booze 

One hundred years ago, in December 1924, the Saeima adopted and President Janis Čakste promulgated the "Law on Combating Drunkenness". Many of its provisions are still relevant today - they set strict limits on the advertising, purchase, and consumption of alcohol. Alcohol could not be sold or consumed in places of sale after ten o'clock in the evening and on Sundays. On Saturdays and public holidays, it was only sold until 12. The government was also concerned about clear political choices - alcohol sales were banned on referendum days and during local elections. No such restrictions were imposed for parliamentary elections.

However, some articles of the law make us smile today: Article 3 stipulated that "dancing, variety shows and similar entertainments shall be prohibited in places where alcoholic beverages are sold for consumption on the premises. Music shall be permitted in these places only with the consent of the local authority."

The consumption of alcohol in educational establishments and at events organized at the expense of the State or local authorities was prohibited. The penalties for being under the influence of alcohol in public places were severe: one could be arrested for up to a month while drinking alcohol in public places (streets, squares, etc.) was punishable by up to 14 days' arrest. In general, all these measures were stricter than today, as the sale and consumption of alcohol were prohibited in food outlets, theatres, markets, and all kinds of public events.

The process of adopting the law was quite public and the subject was discussed in the free press satire publications of the time. In November 1924, after the 2nd reading of the law had been approved, "Libra" wrote:

"Gentlemen, you are sensible people, and therefore consider for yourselves - at what time, so to speak, should I take my shot? I am a working man, I have no leisure on weekdays, but when on weekday evenings I come home at 8, I have to wash off the smithy soot and eat first, and then the clock strikes half past ten and the pubs are banging their doors shut. On Sundays, on the other hand, when it's time to relax and have a drink, the pubs will be closed all day. It turns out that you can drink alcohol, but you can't get it. Just like in the dog and the hay story. You don't eat it yourself, but you don't let anyone else eat it either. You will say – drink in the house. Gentlemen, I do not believe that married life is smiling on you all like the sun and that you will therefore understand what a wife like mine means. She growls when I go to a restaurant, but when I start bringing friends home, that's it! Then I'll be trampled to death!"

The ability to look at the fight against alcohol with humor is also demonstrated by other arguments of the time:

"Does it not sound like a mockery of our enlightened times that alcoholic beverages should not be advertised with special illumination in the viewing windows? How can this be reconciled with civilization's great inclination towards light, towards clarity? And why do you attack music, dance, the young women of variety? What harm have these beautiful women done to you, and how does it fit in with the emancipation of women, which you will not deny?"

The attempts of the 1920s to limit alcohol consumption were not born in Latvia. Other countries at the time were introducing much stricter regulations, up to and including prohibition, as was done in the USA. Stricter laws also existed in the Baltic Sea region, for example in Finland and Sweden.

The fight against alcoholism continued under the authoritarian regime of Kārlis Ulmanis, and as far as is known, Ulmanis himself did not consume alcohol and was intolerant of users. He dedicated the following words to the participants of the 5th Latvian Anti-Alcohol Congress in 1935:

"Our work for the good of the restored Latvian state and for the people requires people of great dedication, vigor, fresh and sound judgment; it requires workers whose will and strength have not been weakened and broken by the destructive temptations of alcohol. And especially the youth of Latvia, who hold the brightest future of our nation, must be warned, restrained, and turned away from the dangerous path which leads man to the servitude of mind and body to the idol of our time, alcohol."

The restriction of alcohol was also shown by statistics: in 1937 there were 370 places of purchase and consumption of alcohol in Rīga (820 in 1925). A special course on "Abstinence Education" was to be given to schoolchildren].

World War II and illegal alcohol production

During the Second World War, Latvia was occupied by the USSR in 1940. Attitudes towards alcohol remained consistently negative, but with alcohol, as with many other things, words and deeds did not match. One of the slogans of the occupying authorities as early as 1940, quoting Vladimir Lenin, was "socialism and alcoholism are incompatible concepts", alcoholism was described as "a phenomenon of the capitalist system". However, no real measures were taken to curb the spread of alcohol, and the USSR occupying authorities nationalized (in fact, seized as spoils of war) all production facilities and main outlets, thereby taking control of all the revenues generated by the alcohol trade.

In the summer of 1941, the occupation of the USSR was replaced for a few years by that of Nazi Germany. The Germans put an end to the destruction of the Latvian financial system. The money in circulation (Ostmark) was worthless and did not fulfill the function normal money should have. Black market and barter trade flourished.

Alcohol was in a sense a substitute for convertible currency, as alcohol could be exchanged for necessities. The more enterprising members of society, unafraid of harsh penalties, began to make their own alcohol. Sometimes it even reached an industrial scale, as in the case of Lēdurga described in the "History of Krimuldas municipality" book:

"The owners were two brothers, they had made a big pool in the barn during the German times, it was warm, they mixed several pūrs [around 50 kg] of rye flour inside, yeast was added to get the brew. Then they poured it inside the apparatus, the poisonous vodka steamed in the front, it came off, then the temperature went up, then pure alcohol came, about 70-80 degrees, they poured it in milk cans, and this (the owner) put it on the market. That was the final product, if you needed something in Riga, bring vodka, or if you needed to bribe someone."

The penalties for making and selling alcoholic beverages were severe, which did not deter some of the public from taking the risk during the war. In 1943 the newspaper "Daugavas Vēstnesis" wrote about the penalties:

"First of all, the secret manufacture of alcoholic beverages itself is punishable with imprisonment for up to one year and with a fine of up to RM 500; the same punishment is also imposed for setting up the apparatus or device or merely preparing the mortar for the secret manufacture of alcoholic beverages. Excuses that the device was made for the preparation of "valenki" [boots], and that the grandmother jumped into the tub for the treatment of rheumatism or another ailment, are of no help here. The manufacturer and his accomplices will not escape the punishment. The sale of home-made intoxicating drinks is also punishable by jail and a fine of up to RM 500. Buyers and possessors of self-made intoxicating liquors are also liable to be fined. So no excuse that the home-brewed vodka was mysteriously found or bought from an unknown person - the penalty is for the mere possession of such a drink by the offender in his or her own home or place of residence. There is only one means of curbing the spread of the vices described: the aggravation of the severity of the threatened punishment."

Inevitably, the self-induced consumption of alcohol also led to serious poisonings and deaths, one of which was described in the newspaper "Tēvija" in 1942:

"13 Jan. a drinking bout took place in D. Adamovičs' apartment at 7-10 Hapsalas Street, attended by D. Adamovičs and his wife, A. Kapeļka and his wife rom Jaunmīlgrāvis, and a few other persons. An acquaintance of Adamovičs said that he had brought alcohol, which the drinkers diluted with lemonade and drank. Adamovičs woke up only on 15 January. He found his wife dead in the kitchen. At the same time, Kapeļka's spouse died in Jaunmīlgrāvis. Mr Kapeļka was taken to hospital with signs of poisoning. As far as has been ascertained so far, more than 3 liters of poisonous "alcohol", which is believed to have been a surrogate, were drunk that evening."

In 1944, the number of desertions of Latvian citizens mobilized for the German army increased significantly, as did the number of evasions from mobilization itself. This situation was not due to Germany's defeats on the battlefield, the difficult conditions at the front, and the clear awareness on the part of many of those mobilized that they were being forced to fight in a foreign army, but to alcohol in combination with unscrupulous fellow soldiers who had encouraged them to desertion. In a special appeal to the Latvian Legion in June 1944, Inspector General Rudolf Bangerski made the following remarks about the growing tendency not to return to their troops after leaving:

"A soldier returning home, having found himself in the environment and under the influence of these people, often persuaded by them and intoxicated by alcohol, commits an offense which rests not only on his own conscience but also on that of his relatives, friends, and relatives. The scourge of alcohol reaps its harvest at such times. Having dodged the bullet of the enemy, he is then brought before the court, where the consequences are sometimes more severe than in the battlefield."

The article will continue with further stories.

The article has been developed within the Baltic Research project "Quantitative data about societal and economic transformations in the regions of the three Baltic States during the last hundred years for the analysis of historical transformations and the overcoming of future challenges" (EEA-RESEARCH-174).

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