Samogonovareniye (Russia and FSU)

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Samogonovareniye "
Location: Russia and Former Soviet Union
Russia map.png
Author: Mark Lawrence Schrad
Affiliation: Villanova University

Original text by Mark Lawrence Schrad


In Russia and regions of the former Soviet Union, the illegal process of distilling homemade spirits, or samogon. The word samogon is derived from the Russian verb gnat’ (to chase, drive out, distill) with the prefix sam-, or self. As a form of homemade hard alcohol, samogon is similar to homebrew, ‘bathtub gin,’ or moonshine whiskey in American Appalachia, but it has a far longer history both as an intoxicating beverage and facilitator of informal exchange.


Often mistaken as simply homemade 80-proof vodka, samogon can vary significantly in terms of strength, flavor, and ingredients. Unlike American moonshine, which is typically distilled from corn mash, Russian samogon can be distilled from grains, corn, potatoes, beetroot, fruits, honey, or other ingredients at hand, occasionally achieving a strength of up to 160 proof. Similar to American moonshining, samogonovarieniye is an illegal practice that is often conducted away from the prying eyes of the state and law enforcement, while the revenues gained from the sales of such untaxed and unregulated products often contribute to the corruption of those same organs.


The origins of samogonovareniye are contested, but date from the era of the Russian empire. Some suggest that it was the inevitable counterpart to the development of the Russian state’s monopoly on alcohol, established under Ivan the Terrible in the mid-sixteenth century. Samogonovareniye tends to flourish in the vast expanses of rural Russia, especially during times of economic hardship.


Samogon is integral to the Russian system of mutual assistance, connections, and favours used to cope with economic hardship, known as blat. Unlike cold and impersonal exchanges embodied in ‘bribery’ or ‘corruption,’ blat exudes the warm solidarity of a community struggling through hard times together. A useful illustration of the roots of this traditional peasant hospitality is the practice of pomoch’, or ‘help’ (see entry on pomoch’ in this volume). Since the Orthodox priest in a Russian village could only derive income from nominal fees for administering sacraments, they relied on the collaboration of local parishioners. ‘Pomoch’ is inconceivable without vodka,’ wrote nineteenth century parish priest Ioann Belliustin. ‘The work begins with vodka; it continues with vodka; it ends with vodka.’ (Belliustin 1985: 129-30[1]). Since priests had little money to begin with, they often had to resort to samogonovareniye.


Despite a complete prohibition against vodka and draconian penalties for homebrewing under Vladimir Lenin and the Bol’sheviks, Pravda reported ‘an ocean of home brew,’ as entire villages essentially became spirit-distilling cooperatives. In Tomsk, prosecutors were so overwhelmed with illegal distillation cases, they simply gave up. Even in the shadow of the Kremlin anyone could buy samogon by simply ‘requesting ‘lemonade’ and winking at the salesman meaningfully’ (Schrad 2014: 210[2]).


Yet the flood of samogon was not just about quenching a thirst for alcohol; it also provided a vital medium of exchange at a time when the ruble was virtually worthless. An official Soviet delegation to the countryside in 1923 concluded: ‘A peasant needs samogon or vodka, it does not matter which. For example, if one needs to build a house, one can never find workers; but if there is vodka or samogon, you treat the neighbors to it, and the house is soon ready’ (quoted in Transchel 2006: 76[3]). Samogon was well placed to serve as a medium of exchange: if peasants could not get adequate value for their grain, they distilled it. Samogon did not spoil, and was more easy to transport (or conceal from requisitioners) than piles of grain, and it could more easily be traded, divided, and consumed by end users. Most importantly, since homemade alcohol could be sold for more than artificially low grain prices, it evened-out the terms of trade between manufactured goods from the cities and agricultural produce from the villages. Consequently, every time agricultural and industrial prices diverged—as with the ‘scissors crises’ of the 1920s—the Russian countryside would be awash with illegal alcohol, even as foodstuffs disappeared from store shelves in the cities (Schrad 2014, 226[4]).


Vodka and samogon also greased the wheels of the Soviet administrative-command economy, as Soviet enterprises employed well-connected supply officers—tolkachi—who could find the scarce materials necessary for their firms to fulfill their production quotas, often for the cost of a few bottles or cases of vodka (Simis 1982[5]). Living on fixed budgets, pensioners in the countryside often turned to samogonovareniye in order to obtain pomoch’ from nearby collective farmers (Gerasyuk 1984: 4[6]).


The very first reform initiated under Mikhail Gorbachev upon his ascension to the post of General Secretary was a public health and labour-discipline campaign against alcoholism in the Soviet Union. While drastic restrictions on the availability of vodka produced tremendous and immediate benefits to health and demographic indicators, Soviets soon turned to samogonovareniye to pick up the slack. As homebrewing increased, poisonings from samogon and other surrogates increased. By 1988 the failed reforms were withdrawn, tainting Gorbachev’s other reforms of perestroika and glasnost’ with a public cynicism that was difficult to overcome, while the loss of state vodka revenues to the samogonshchiki (home-brewers) exacerbated the economic crisis, and collapse of the Soviet ruble, and ultimately the Soviet state.


Samogonovareniye and barter exchange rise in tandem during times of extreme economic crisis, such as the post-Soviet economic collapse. ‘You can buy anything for a bottle, they don’t know any other price,’ explained a newcomer to Orel region in the 1990s (Pilkington 1998: 170[7]). Even in the capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg, pensioners openly sold samogon on the streets just to make ends meet.


Many inefficient Soviet firms that should have gone bankrupt in a pure market economy of the 1990s stayed afloat thanks to samogonovareniye and non-monetary barter transactions. Some factories even started up their own self-distilling operations to produce the liquor necessary for their tolkachi to swap for much-needed raw materials and supplies. Alcohol was also necessary to buy off good relations with high-level officials: firms employed government-relations specialists known colloquially as pechenochniki—literally, ‘those with liver problems’—based on the copious amounts of alcohol they had to drink to secure government favours (Schrad 2014: 319[8]). For a time, the Kremlin even accepted in-kind payments of alcohol for tax bills—which the Ministry of Agriculture then used to pay subsidies to collective farmers (before a wave of alcohol poisonings ended the experiment). Throughout the 1990s, firms that could procure or produce vodka or samogon became pivotal links in extensive barter chains that maintained Russia’s so-called ‘virtual economy’ (Humphrey 2000[9]). In more recent years, as the Russian economy has strengthened and beverage markets have diversified, the traditional samogonovareniye of necessity has been joined by hobbyists making craft and artisanal samogon, similar to the micro-brewing boom in the West.


Estimating the pervasiveness of samogonovareniye can be a difficult task, as it can take on a variety of forms, from individual pensioners distilling a few bottles to entire factories manufacturing their own illicit alcohol. The difficulties are compounded in historical eras where potentially telling statistics on crime or even alcohol consumption are either not available or not published, as during the years under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. However, in the 1970s, Duke University economist Vladimir Treml began to construct estimates of samogon based upon available data. Treml’s method involved accounting for urban-rural population differences (as samogonovareniye was primarily a rural phenomenon), estimating how much alcohol constituted the ‘other foodstuffs’ category in official Soviet statistical digests, then double-checking the model against regional indicators of consumption of primary samogon ingredients—sugar, flour, potatoes, sugar beets, etc. The data produced suggested that from the 1950s to the early 1980s, the illegal production of samogon added roughly thirty percent to official alcohol production figures (Treml 1982[10]). Treml’s rigorous estimates were corroborated by Soviet statisticians, anecdotal evidence, interviews with Russian experts, and even defectors from Soviet officialdom, and today are cited widely in Russia as more accurate than Soviet government statistics. Treml and others have stated that samogon was a leading contributor to the spike in Soviet alcohol poisonings that claimed some 50,000 fatalities per year, or over 100 times higher than the rate in the United States (Murphy1983[11]).


Illegal alcohol production in general and samogonovareniye in particular present a continuing challenge to the Russian state. Whenever restrictions on legal alcohol rise in the interest of public health, samogon rises to pick up the slack—especially in times of economic crisis. Demographic investigations in the present-day Russian Federation suggest that consumption of samogon and other hazardous, high-alcohol surrogates may account for up to half of all deaths of working age men in Russia (Leon et. al. 2007[12]). While contemporary samogonovareniye may be a short-term, informal coping mechanism to deal with shortage and hardship, its long-term consequences for Russian health are both worrying and enduring.

Notes

  1. Belliustin, Ioann. 1985. Description of the Clergy in Rural Russia: The Memoir of a Nineteenth-Century Parish Priest. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  2. Schrad, Mark Lawrence. 2014. Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State . New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Transchel, Kate. 2006. Under the Influence: Working-Class Drinking, Temperance, and Cultural Revolution in Russia , 1895-1932. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  4. Schrad, Mark Lawrence. 2014. Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State . New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Simis, Konstantin. 1982. USSR: The Corrupt Society: The Secret World of Soviet Capitalism . New York: Simon and Schuster.
  6. Gerasyuk, I. 1984. “Butylka za uslugu,” Sovetskaya Belarussiya . October 12, 4.
  7. Pilkington, Hilary. 1998. Migration, Displacement and Identity in Post-Soviet Russia . New York: Routledge.
  8. Schrad, Mark Lawrence. 2014. Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State . New York: Oxford University Press.
  9. Humphrey, Caroline. 2000. "How Is Barter Done? The Social Relations of Barter in Provincial Russia," in The Vanishing Rouble: Barter Networks and Non-Monetary Transactions in Post-Soviet Societies , ed. Paul Seabright. New York: Cambridge University Press: 259-297.
  10. Treml, Vladimir. 1982. Alcohol in the USSR: A Statistical Study . Durham, NC: Duke University Policy Studies.
  11. Murphy, Cullen. 1983. “Watching the Russians,” Atlantic Monthly. 251 (2): 33-52.
  12. Leon, David A. et. al. 2007. “Hazardous Alcohol Drinking and Premature Mortality in Russia: A Population Based Case-Control Study,” The Lancet . 369 (9578): 2001-9.