Drink today and drink tomorrow,
And if you’re broke, you can borrow.
– 19th century poet Eduards Veidenbaums
When my account’s dry I quench my thirst with fortified wine,
Until I throw a fit like a neurotic.
– Hip-hop band Singapūras Satīns
As early as the 18th century, Baltic-German publicist Garlieb Merkel addressed, in no uncertain terms, the fact that Latvians are intimately familiar with spirits. In his book, The Latvians (Die Letten), he claims the malaise of drinking to be the “secondary general characteristic of the Latvian folk”. He identified the cause of this vice in the miserable conditions Latvians experienced in serfdom, with alcohol being the only thing that could make them forget the dejectedness of their insignificance. To his readers, Merkel depicts a truly apocalyptical scene: “In gentle self-sacrifice, mothers share their own vodka glass with their breastfeeding children. 14-year-old boys and girls drink vodka unflinchingly. There are but a few men and women who don’t get drunk every Sunday, especially after communion.” (But let’s not forget that the Baltic German gentry expanded alcohol production and tavern culture on a national scale – for profit. They had every reason to kick themselves when the peasantry became inveterate drinkers.)
Merkel, of course, could naively hope that, with the abolishment of serfdom and the consolidation of the Latvian national identity, drinking would evaporate like smoke from the Latvian gene pool. Nevertheless, as is well known, the Letts still kept on drinking after becoming free folk, after the 1905 revolution, after 1918 and all the other important years in history. Just late last year, local addiction specialist Jānis Strazdiņš used an interview to sadly conclude that alcoholism is hereditary among Latvians, having been passed down through several generations, while the drinking culture remains underdeveloped.
Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be concluded that Latvian drinking habits were left to slide unattended, as if everyone had given up on the Latvian folk as a hopeless forest of souls fallen irrevocably into tempestuous sin. German preachers, to whom we owe a great deal for their role in early Latvian literature and philology, made great efforts to lead the flock, straying in fields wet with beer and stiff aquavit, back on the right track. It’s thought that the Christian tradition of condemning addiction laid the groundwork for the Latvian-organised temperance movement and swayed public opinion against alcohol, starting with the Moravian Church and continuing actively in the 20th century.
A hundred years ago, between news dedicated to war and political events, the 12 August edition of the Rīga Latvian Newspaper also published a piece by then chemistry student and later on professor and author Jānis Krustiņsons, titled “Why is Denatured Alcohol Undrinkable?” Despite its ostensibly scientific goal, the article aims to save drink-thirsty compatriots from dying due to drinking liquids suited for completely different goals. August 1918 was a very “hot” time as concerns global geopolitics, with the important Battle of Amiens having just concluded. The Entente broke the resistance of the German army and changed the course of the war by using tanks.
Meanwhile, in Russia, the revolution was continuing in full force. The Latvian state would only be declared a few months later, but matters of national health are always a priority. Krustiņsons starts his message with a sceptical observation in the manner of Garlieb Merkel: “Among our different peoples, there are many who are so strongly used to intoxicating drinks that they can’t do without them. Lacking vodka, they are ready to drink anything that smells like an alcoholic spirit.” In pre-war Europe, alcohol was a very cheap and ubiquitous intoxicant, but at the outbreak of the war consumption grew rapidly due to widespread psychological tension.
Military personnel also used alcohol as a means of mustering courage and dulling down feelings. British soldiers received their so-called rum ration, consisting of about one-third of a pint each week to help them bear the awful environment of the trenches. French soldiers, of course, were granted a daily ration of wine – usually about half a litre of low-quality wine. In the German trenches, the soldier’s ration was 0.5 litres of beer, or 125 mL of brandy or vodka. It surely contributed to the fact that many soldiers became alcoholics upon returning home.
Worries over the influence alcohol had on the course of the war were prevalent in Britain, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France, and Italy. Different initiatives and massive campaigns were launched to decrease alcohol consumption. Russia – the territory of Latvia was part of it at the time – took the most radical approach, with Tsar Nikolai II announcing prohibition in 1914 and completely banning the production and sale of vodka. A total of 400 state-run distilleries and 28,000 alcohol stores were closed, tax income shrank 30%, in what turned out to be a further step towards catastrophe, because the population embarked on producing massive amounts of alcohol at home and, as a side effect, consuming substances that should never enter the human body.
The fight against drinking in the Latvian governorates started in the 1890s when the first temperance societies were established in Rīga, Jelgava, Liepāja and other cities. During the 1905 revolution, Latvian workers were staunch opponents of excessive drinking. In the rural regions, too, one of the demands posed to the government in numerous petitions was to put an end to the monopoly the Baltic German gentry had on the production and sales of alcohol.
Philanthropist Augusts Dombrovskis chose to help workers in their war against the hard stuff. The Ziemeļblāzma house, which he built for the local temperance society, opened to the public in August 1904. Dombrovskis also took great care to educate the people, so that instead of raising shots of vodka they would consume culture and thus increase the national consciousness and the emotional intelligence of the people. The other associations had more of a social (temperance associations Auseklis, Rīts [Morning], and Apziņa [Awareness]), evangelical (the Evangelical Temperance Association, the Rīga Zilais Krusts [The Blue Cross] Evangelical Association) or international bent, with the latter group not fitting into any of the aforementioned categories (The Vidzeme Anti-alcohol Association, and the Rīga Good Templars Association).
Nevertheless, up until the First World War the associations had quite little success. The misery of drinking also shows up in Latvian literature of the period, with the most popular tragedies initiated by alcohol most likely being Blaumanis’ life stories of Edgars and Krustiņš. While authors inspired by naturalism – Augusts Deglavs and Andrejs Upīts – approached the topic on much harsher terms. Their early works ascribe great meaning to the influence of alcohol on the human body and mind, especially Upīts’ novels Sieviete (Woman) and Zelts (Gold), as well as New Springs – the first work in the Robežnieki series. Deglavs not only described the influence of alcohol on workers in his prose, but also actively partook in the anti-alcohol association Auseklis. He published a collection of writings by the association, and translated different pamphlets such as The Modern Workers’ Movement and the Matter of Alcohol (1914), and Alcohol and the Worker’s Wife (1910). However, not all publications advocating temperance were translations. Of course, the works penned by local authors are much more interesting.
Among the oldest in the genre, according to the National Library of Latvia catalogue, is Nikodēms Rancāns’ – a notable Catholic priest – quite pretentiously titled Drinking is the Latvians’ Misfortune (1910). Despite the gratifying title, it should be noted that Latvians aren’t the only nation stricken by this misfortune. Rancāns chooses the tactic of scaring the reader, saying that “every drinker has a shrivelled and yellowed skin, a red or blue nose, and the eyes and mind of a puppy. You can smell a drinker from afar. They can be big, having accumulated fat, or else dry as a stick.” He doesn’t shy away from spilling ink to depict the life of a drunkard, showing how a “drinker falls into misery, becoming ill, poor and a beggar. The roof is leaking and he owes everyone money. His wife is sickly and dried out, the children naked and uneducated with their lips nothing but skin and bone…” In the pamphlet, Rancāns delves into detail over the origins and effects of alcohol, and the diseases it causes. There are many horrendous pages with even more appalling illustrations dedicated to the children of drinkers. Then there’s a list of crimes committed by intoxicated people (“drinking and mischief”), as well as scrupulous estimates over the sums wasted on alcohol in the Latgale cultural region, and over the litres people have drunk. He concludes with Biblical quotations condemning the vice.
Another author, Alfrēds Lipe, opted for a more tempered rhetoric in his pamphlet The Curse of Mankind, or Drinking and Alcohol, self-published in 1913. It does without any scary illustrations or vivid depictions, instead listing dry facts. The reader learns, for example, that 1,312,704 buckets of state-produced vodka were sold in Vidzeme in 1912, for the sum of 11,185,496 roubles. Even though these efforts – according to data supplied by the authors themselves – have no significant effect, as alcohol consumption was growing year after year, the outbreak of the First World War and the prohibition instated by the Tsar’s government was a breaking point in the temperance movement. In Russia, the dry law was in force as late as 1925, while the fledgling Republic of Latvia continued to fight drinking with newfound vigour not seen before.
As early as 1920, the government discussed whether to announce a new dry law as per the American example. In the end, it decided to adopt a law regulating alcoholic drinks. After a few years it grew into the famous “Law on Fighting Alcohol Abuse”, which forbade selling drink containing more than 1.5% of alcohol after 10 p.m. At the same time, the special Foundation Against Alcohol Abuse was established and put under the control of the Interior and Education Ministries. The public and the state fought drinking with the harshest of means during the authoritarian regime of Kārlis Ulmanis. Perhaps this can be explained not only with the population becoming more docile in the face of power, but also Ulmanis’ reputation as a teetotaller. As early as 1914, he had urged that “All the educated and those who take such a position in life that they are observed and followed by many others should abstain from drinking. Let all those entrusted with an office in a congregation, school, union, parish or town abstain from drinking. Let fathers and mothers tell and teach their children that drinking is the misery of humankind.”
Returning to this day and age, it should be admitted that alcoholic spirit circulates in the Latvian’s organism as naturally as water circulates in nature. The consumption of alcohol is growing each year, and, from time to time, no fault is found with brews of a stranger sort. Often, the unskilled drinking culture of Latvians is blamed on 50 years of Soviet occupation, during which – one must admit – our compatriots not only learned to use fortified wine skilfully (it was the cheapest and most popular intoxicant, which hasn’t lost its popularity, say, in the form of the Agdams fortified wine as mentioned in the Singapūras Satīns song), but also mastered the craft of obtaining spirit from the BF technical glue (called “Boris Fyodorovich” in slang use) and knocking back brake fluid.
Later on, in the 90s, the widely accessible Royal spirit (called “the piano”) – a litre sold on the black market for just 1.5 lats – helped maintain the euphoric feeling of freedom in one’s organism. While it seems that making and selling moonshine has been a tradition at all times and under all governments, Krustiņsons’ writing testifies to the fact that the Latvian organism, even 100 years ago, was always open to different experiments involving intoxicating and potentially lethal liquids, bringing to mind the later, more or less tragic events involving the use of methylated spirit during the previous decade (the worst case was in 2013 in Jelgava when six people died). One can only conclude, with sadness, that we haven’t really grown out of our desire for intoxication since the times of Merkel. But, as they say, we must strive towards the light. May optimism and temperance be encouraged by Seimanis Putāns’ poem Rebirth, published in his rather peculiar collection of poems in the Latgalian dialect, Mankind’s Greatest Enemy: Anti-alcohol Poems for the People.