100 years of Latvians and alcohol: Part Two

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 and is available here. 

Part 2 below covers the period of the USSR occupation after WWII.

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. 

USSR occupation – a renaissance for alcohol?

Shortly after the end of World War II and the consolidation of the USSR occupation, alcohol production and consumption increased rapidly in Latvia, despite the declared incompatibility between alcohol and socialism. Within seven years (1950-1957), state revenue from alcohol sales doubled from 648 million roubles to 1.34 billion roubles (data in comparable prices). The share of alcohol sold in the food trade in 1957 was 25%, and in total trade - 12.6% of the turnover of goods. In 1957, the consumption of spirit alcohol in Latvia exceeded the USSR average (7.6 liters per capita in Latvia), and beer was consumed in Latvia at twice the USSR average.

What explains this rapid increase in alcohol production and consumption?

Not everything that was produced and consumed in the 1940s made it into the statistics. But still, the data for 1940 and 1957 are comparable: for roughly the same population, twice as much alcohol was produced in 1957. One of the answers lies in the demographics: the numbers were similar, but they were no longer the inhabitants and its descendants they were in 1939. Between 1945 and 1957, more than 400,000 immigrants from the USSR arrived in Latvia, statistically filling the demographic gaps left by the repression of the two totalitarian regimes (the USSR and Nazi Germany), the flight from repression and the wars. The immigrants from the USSR brought a different culture to Latvia, and this can also be applied to alcohol consumption. The local population also changed its habits. Recently published excerpts from a Latvian's account of a visit to Rīga in August 1956 as part of a Swedish caravan state that "most of them do not hope for anything and adapt to the Russian way of life - with wild drinking".

Alcohol production in occupied Latvia continued to increase and reached its peak in 1983 when 3,773 thousand decalitres of vodka and liqueurs (4.5 times more than in 1940) and 9,959 thousand decalitres of beer (5.2 times more than in 1940) were produced. A wide range of wines was also produced. Some of the production was not destined for the domestic market, but most of it was sold in Latvia.

Not surprisingly, until the mid-1980s, alcoholism was positioned in the press and films of occupied Latvia as a problem of individual degradation rather than a systemic problem of the state.

The alcohol industry accounted for about a tenth of the USSR's budget revenue. Alcohol at least partly filled the empty shelves of shops. Alcohol consumption grew despite the relatively frequent criticism of alcohol in both the media and the film industry. Bright works such as director Ivars Selecks' documentary highlighting the problems of alcoholism, The Mirror of Pain (Sāpju spogulis) (1976), appeared every year. The number of articles on alcohol in newspapers also numbered in the hundreds. In 1971, Pēteris Zvidriņš, a candidate of economic sciences, published data that highlighted alcohol as one of the main causes of family breakdown. In 27% of divorces of young people (under 25 years of age), the husband's heavy drinking was the cause. Among women, infidelity was the biggest problem.

The excessive prevalence of alcohol was also highlighted by the exile press. The newspaper "Latvija" reprinted an excerpt from a letter sent from Latvia: "Alcohol consumption here has taken catastrophic proportions. Not only vodka but also cheap colognes, window and bath cleaners, even muriatic acid. Everything that smells of alcohol." In the same issue of the newspaper, an excerpt from the October 1984 magazine "Soviet Latvian Woman" (Padomju Latvijas Sieviete) was reprinted, in which a doctor at a regional hospital painted the situation in Latvia in gloomy colors:

"I look with concern at slovenly, negligent women. The concept of a woman's honor, pride, and maternal duty is beginning to be forgotten. Children suffer the most. What kind of mother can the woman be who, in autumn, was brought straight from the potato patch to give birth so drunk that she could not tell morning from evening? When she came to the next morning, she was wondering where she was and where her child had come from."

Mikhail Gorbachev and the fight against alcohol

On March 11, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-2022), whose name is rightly associated with both the attempts to reform the USSR and the collapse of the USSR, became leader of the USSR - General Secretary of the Communist Party (CPSU) Central Committee. Just a couple of months after Gorbachev came to power, on May 17, the Central Committee of the CPSU adopted a decision on "Measures to prevent binge drinking and alcoholism".  

The media reaction to this decision "from above" can be likened to the chaotic recovery from a severe hangover following decades of heavy drinking at the national level.

Criticism of alcoholism had been frequent in previous decades, but now, in the light of the decision of the higher authorities, the tone became much sharper and alcoholism was urged to be ruthlessly combated. The media were saturated with articles headlined 'Vodka is the brother of misfortune', 'More initiative and perseverance', 'Strengthening discipline and order', 'Temperance must become the norm of life', etc. The article 'Who will play the piano?' was published in the newspaper "Literatura un Māksla" (Literature and Art) on July 5, 1985, in which Jānis Strazdiņš, chief narcologist of the Ministry of Health of the Latvian SSR, gave the problem a systemic framework by analyzing the increase in alcohol consumption. For the first time in the press of occupied Latvia, Jānis Strazdiņš published shocking statistics: alcohol consumption had increased 2.5 times between 1960 and 1980, and the number of alcohol-related diseases had grown more than eight times.

It is worth mentioning here that Gorbachev was not the author of the idea of combating alcoholism. Yuri Andropov (1914-1984), who took the helm of the USSR after the death of Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982), was already keen on the subject. Andropov had been head of the KGB for a long time and saw the lack of discipline as one of the problems of the USSR's development, in which, in his view, the excessive consumption of alcohol played a major role. Andropov, when he became head of the USSR, was already too ill to be able to initiate this change in political attitudes towards alcohol himself. Gorbachev took over his ideas. The anti-alcohol campaign was one of the most striking policy initiatives of Gorbachev's first years in power. Economic growth of the USSR had been stalling for a while, and the war in Afghanistan required more and more resources.

Gorbachev's logic was simple: less drinking - better working, and the country would be pulled out of stagnation.

But this did not happen. Cutting down vineyards and strictly limiting the production and sale of alcohol did not help because society was not given alternatives. Boriss Pugo (1937-1991), the leader of the Latvian Communist Party, even pointed to the increased demand for sugar as a positive side-effect in his official report to Gorbachev on the results of the anti-alcohol campaign. Pugo attributed this to the desire of the population to stock up more for the winter, as they now pick berries in the forest and in their backyard gardens during their free time from drinking. Illicit revenues from alcohol sales provided an excellent profit niche for organized crime.

The article will continue with Part 3.

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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