25. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State1

6057. Subject: Rumors of Impending Legislation Aimed at Combatting Alcoholism.

1. At its April 4 regular session, the Politburo engaged in “comprehensive” discussion of the problem of alcoholism and drunkenness in Soviet society—what the published minutes of the session termed a “monstrous phenomenon.” It was revealed, via the minutes, that the Central Committee had already approved a series of unidentified socio-political, economic, administrative and medical steps designed to further combat alcoholism and drunkenness and ultimately to “eliminate” them from society. These were given additional endorsement at the Politburo session.

2. Published Politburo minutes, cut-and-dried as they are, rarely arouse popular consciousness here. But this news of an apparent frontal assault on one of the most cherished leisure-time (and work-time) pursuits of the Russians has stimulated a degree of public attention as no other social issue has in recent memory. The outward manifestation of this aroused consciousness has been a virtual spate of rumors as to what the new anti-alcohol measures might include.

3. The initial, alarmist reaction was that “dry laws” (“just like they have in Finland”) would be introduced. The implausibility of such a course was soon recognized, however, and fears of total prohibition gave way to a myriad of rumors of less drastic measures. These included:

—A rationing system whereby each adult would be limited to a specified amount of vodka or other hard liquor (one source said 500 milliliters) per month.

—Shorter working hours for liquor stores.

—Removal of cheaper brands of vodka and wine from distribution.

—Harsher penalties for drunkenness at work. Some have suggested there will be fines of up to 100 rubles for those reporting to work intoxicated, with repeat offenders fired from their jobs and either imprisoned or assigned to work in public labor crews. Party members, so goes one rumor, would be expelled from the Party if they were caught drunk at work more than once.

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—Finally, illustrative of the Soviet penchant for introduction of change through experimentation and of the esteem in which the Muscovites hold their northerly brothers, there is the rumor going around Moscow that Leningrad will be made an experimental “dry” city.

4. Some of these rumors may in fact not be too far off the mark, but the cumulative effect of the measures that have been approved will probably be less than the popular imagination would have it. An MFA official recently sought to persuade a diplomat of a neutral country (with some direct interest in the question) that the new anti-alcoholism measures would in fact not be as drastic as some expect. Prices would be raised, but not astronomically; there would be some “experimentation” with different hours for liquor stores; heavier fines would be instituted for drunkenness on the job; but there would be no rationing as such.

5. Reports now have it that the new measures will be announced and introduced during the second half of May.2 The timing, clearly, is designed not to dampen popular celebrations of May Day and of the fortieth anniversary of V-E Day. Meanwhile, Soviets are telling us that there has been a run not only on liquor stores but also on savings banks. Why savings banks? Because, said one Soviet citizen, people were withdrawing their savings to put them in stocks of vodka—soon to be as valuable as hard currency.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D850324–0478. Limited Official Use. Sent for information to the Consulate in Leningrad and USIA.
  2. In telegram 6510 from Moscow, May 17, the Embassy reported: “New legislative measures aimed at curbing the growing abuse of alcohol have been published in the Soviet central press. The measures call for application of a host of social, economic, educational and legal remedies, including increased fines for public drunkenness, some restrictions on sales, a higher legal drinking age, and steps to encourage more productive use of leisure time.” (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D850350–0035)