Monday, January 9, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Is Moscow about to Launch a New Anti-Moonshine Campaign?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 9 – Moscow is seeking to reduce alcohol consumption by raising prices on vodka and other strong spirits, but many Russians are responding as they have in the past to such measures by consuming moonshine. That is reducing tax revenue and the profits of vodka producers and prompting discussions about the possible re-imposition of a ban on home brew.

            In an article published online today warning that in the next twelve months, “15 million Russians will stop drinking vodka and down moonshine instead,” “Versiya” investigative journalist Vadim Saranov says that is sparking concerns about public health, government revenues, and vodka producer profits (

            Moonshine (”samogon”) has long been a feature of Russian life, but “the last peak of samogon production in Russia occurred at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s” following Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign. Under Soviet law, not only the production of samogon but its sale was illegal and subject to fines.

            After 1991, Russia dropped the prohibition on the production of samogon, but the amount actually produced declined given the increasing availability of various forms of relatively inexpensive alcohol in the stores.  But now with the new taxes, the balance between licensed production and moonshine appears set to change, Saranov says.

            Vadim Drobiz, director of the Center for Research on Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets, says that according to his calculatins, “the annual consumption of samogon [already] amounts to 20 to 25 million decaliters” and that after the taxes go into effect, the amount will rise from “the current 25 to 150 million decaliters” a year.

            The researcher adds that “these will be not marginal strata of the population” as has often been the case with moonshine consumption in the past “but rather among well-off citizens.  It is likely that there will even appear clubs of samogon lovers, the demand for alcohol mini-factories grow, and so on.” Indeed, he adds, there may be “a real flowering of moonshine culture.”

            But there will also be an increase in consumption among poorer strata of the Russian population, Saranov observes, because with the new taxes will mean that “samogon will be cheaper than vodka by almost five times.”  Thus, “millions [of less well-off Russians] will shift from quality factory vodka” to samogon.

            There are many reasons for concern.  In an article in the September issue of the Academy’s “Narkologiya,” Saranov says, researchers assessed “the potential toxicity of illegal alcoholic drinks in the Moscow oblast.  They found that the poisons found in samogon there were roughly comparative to the level of such poisonous substances in licensed alcohol.

            The journalist says he asked Yevgeniya Koshkina, head of the narcology research center to comment on this unexpected finding.  She refused, saying that “the information [in the article] was for a narrow circle of specialists” and threatening that she would bring charges of “genocide of the Russian people if the article about the value of samogon were to appear in the press.”

            As Saranov says, Koshkina’s reaction “of course” is understandable because of the risk that increased production of lower-priced samogon could drive up consumption because “according to statistics, alcohol mortality is more connected the amount drunk than with its quality.”

            But there is another factor that may play a role in Moscow’s reaction to a rising tide of samogon consumption: the influence of the owners of the vodka manufacturers. Because of their voice, Saranov suggests, “it is not excluded that the demonization of samagon … will soon be transformed into a task of state importance.”

            At the present time, the production of samogon is not prohibited by law, although its sale still is if it is deemed to fall under the legal provisions against “illegal entrepreneurship.”  But the line between production for personal use and production for sale is not easy to maintain, and recently there have been called to ban samogon production as such.

            In May of last year, deputies in Kaliningrad proposed doing so in a draft law they submitted to the Duma. The federal parliament did not respond, but pressure on it to do so from licensed producers of alcoholic beverages who see samogon as competition and from a government concerned about falling tax revenues is likely to grow.

            Whether the Russian government would take this step in a political year when such action might produce a backlash and whether Moscow could enforce any such measure if it did – given that the Soviet state was never able to stamp out samogon production – however, remain very much open questions.

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