The statement well known in Russia for centuries “In Russia there is a joy of drinking, otherwise there is no Russia at all” got in the severe climate of the taiga a very considerable development. It is immediately struck eyes of many people who visited these places. Researchers have often pointed out that drunkenness in the old Siberia was a common vice, and the scale of it was enormous. Everyone drank alcohol: old and young, women and even children. “They drank at home, in the yard or in the pub, on the road, at a party, and in the field, where townspeople still go for holidays. There was always a lot of wine, and Russian colonists believed that a pub is a necessary accessory for each village. Voivodes, despite the strict ban of the government, made vodka with theor own hands and sold it undermining the state sale”.
Drunkenness in Siberia, including the settlements near the Baikal, was stimulated not only by a “trait of the Russian character”, but also by many other reasons. One can name a lot of them. First, a very hard exhausting work on the reclaimed land demanded rest, a pause for relaxation, which was complemented by gladdening and invigorating wine. Second, in Siberia as elsewhere prevailed natural economy system, and alcohol, vodka, home-brew were the most common means of payment and returning debt. Third, very often taking strong drinks was required because of a particular climate, when moving along a dirty road in the taiga or doing some work in frosty weather and slush tempted to drink for warming and oblivion. Fourth, the extreme environmental conditions of Siberia, more often than in other places, caused various tragic events: freezing, death in the forest during a hunt or on river crossings it, etc.; in such cases relatives and friends were supposed to commemorate this person with wine, and more often than once. Often binge attracted a tacit Siberian because it “loosened his tongue”, made him bold and voluble.
And there is another significant thing about drinking alcohol in Siberia. On the vast territories of Siberia the need in news about the life “on the mainland” or neighboring territories could be satisfied only with the arrival of “fresh” people, but they were rare. Therefore, each traveler, both familiar and a stranger were extremely welcomed, and the “bearer of information” was treated with the Siberian hospitality. Many residents of these harsh places had difficult fates associated with exile, penal servitude, and they often wanted oblivion from painful memories. And the average level of culture of a Siberian, especially living in the backwoods and backwater, did not particularly differ from the European Russians’, and the lack of culture “was drowned in wine”.
Significant contribution to the development of alcoholism in Siberia was made by the tsarist authorities’ law published in 1739, “about sending artisans and working people for drunkenness and playing dice to Siberia”. This not only increased the number of vice-prone, but also aggravated the drunken psychology of the Siberians.
The alcoholism was particularly stricking for foreign travelers. So, Pallas testified continuous drunkenness in Kyakhta and Irkutsk. And the neighbors of Siberia from Asian countries experienced this defect “in their shoes”. “In the 18th century the Siberian merchants, trading with Junggar Khanate, often drank away and lost all their goods, and did other obscene things there”. The Chinese complained about the ugly drunkenness of the Russian merchants, and once they even forbade them to enter China “for their boundless drunkenness”. The Chinese were also very worried about the drunkenness of Beijing missionaries who squandered wages and church treasuries, and insulted the Chinese people. One of them, the priest Filimonov, once came to the palace of Bogdokhan drunk, and beat the Chinese ministers there. He was shackled by the Chinese and sent back to Selenginsk. This Filimonov wandered around the city of Irkutsk under the name of a pilgrim of the Khan's government and amused the inhabitants with tales of his adventures in Beijing”. Apparently, his audience was quite interested in this kind of stories about his brave actions against the “yellow faced”, and received approval from the Siberian inhabitants.
So in the Baikal region the drinking-friendly psychology prevailed, and it was not simply loyal but even persistent, and that was noted by the Polish researcher of the Baikal B. Dybovsky: “However, the most adverse factor negatively affecting the development of social life in Siberia, was a deep-rooted conviction, even groundless conviction that, without playing cards and alcoholic beverages life in Siberia is impossible. Such a view was recognized as an axiom on which rested a number of decisions in everyday practice. And so it was stated, for example, that no smart person in Siberia can be sober, that unwilling to bring to atrophy their mental abilities, they need to exercise the drinking all the time”.
The progressive minds of Siberia saw the harm of the “national alcoholism” for its population very well, and stated that it was also stimulated by a state monopoly on vodka production. The writer M. Zogoskin emphasized this in his essay “Siberian Peasants”, written in 1881: “Every pine knows the way to the tavern. You must live in the village to understand the full significance for the people of this nefarious trade of vodka, it is necessary to see the village during religious and secular holidays, to actually notice the disastrous, depraving impact of this main source of our state income on people. And once again comes to my mind the comparison of the old time with nowadays, and the difference is not in favor of the latter”. “... In old days it was considered shameful for a woman to drink alcohol, and especially for a young one; the women if drank at all, did it in the scullery. In old days children were more obedient to seniors and were afraid to drink. Now, girls of 16 do not think it shameful to collect money and drink vodka and ratafia; fourteen – fifteen year old adolescents steal everything out of the house and get completely drunk. Old men used to be stronger. There were a lot of them who never drank in their entire life. Well, try to find such old men now! I bet there will be only one out of one hundred”.
Anton Chekhov also expressed his worries about drunkenness of villagers near the Baikal in his letters, when stayed in Listvyanka in 1890: “... We do not know what to eat. The population eats only wild garlic. There is neither meat nor fish ... The whole evening we were looking for someone would sell us a chicken and could not find anyone... But there is vodka! The Russian man is a big pig. If you ask him why he does not eat meat and fish, he will justify it by the lack of import, communications, etc., meanwhile there is vodka in even the most remote villages, and quite in quantity. As much as you want. Meanwhile it is easier to get meat and fish than vodka that is more expensive and more difficult to transport... No, it must be more interesting to drink vodka than to work, to fish in Lake Baikal or breed cattle”.
Even those, whose religious setting strictly forbids doing so, were involved in drunkenness. It concerns the Old Believers first of all who had mostly a very negative attitude to the “green snake” (alcohol). The fact that in the “alien” environment the Semeiskie, particularly the young ones, often “betrayed” their old-believers’ and accepted “alien” norms of life is reflected in the records of progolosnye, khorovodnye (“round dance”), and “playful” songs recorded by A. Stanilovsky in 1905 in the “mixed” (old-timers together with new settlers) settlement Istok near Lake Baikal, the residents of it moved here from a Semeisky village Zhirim.
Dark nights in autumn,
I am fed up with you, nights are boring
With a sweet boyfriend separated me.
As myself – I, girl, acted stupid,
And made my boyfriend angry:
Called my boyfriend a drunkard,
A sot and evil joker.
As he laughed at me, at a pretty girl,
Laighed for nothing.
When to the tavern he goes, like a poppy blooms,
In the tavern he sits blushing,
From the tavern coming, he staggers drunk,
Gives a hard time to me, a young girl.
How he squandered my shawl,
The shawl and carpet hundred rubles each.
My darling is a pilgrim,
When at Matins was,
Prayed for a new coat,
Drank away the down shawl.
In the prevalence of alcoholism in the villages of Lake Baikal area the blame lies with a wide-spread financial tradition. The fact is that for a long time, especially in the 50 – 80th years of the 20th century, a bottle of vodka was the main “currency” that was used when buying fish. Fishermen, professionals and amateurs, often were even more willing to take strong drinks than money for their fish, for that time it was impossible to find the desired drink even for money. There was special pricing of how much and what kind of fish one could buy for a bottle of vodka. Moreover, these rates were comparable with money, and not in favor of the latter.
Speaking about the problem of drinking, it is especially important to mention its effect on the identity of the Baikal aborigines – first of all, the Buryats and Tungus (Evenks). The “children” of the taiga, tundra and steppes have not developed natural protection from alcohol in their psycho-physiological “mechanisms”, and therefore became its victim faster. The problem was aggravated by the fact that aborigines had a lot of traditions that “fueled” drunkenness. Firstly, there is a ritual in the Buryat culture to “pay tribute” with strong drinks to their deities: to drop “potion” on the fire, on the ground, on the table, especially in various sacred places (tradition, probably, was enthusiastically accepted by other Siberians, and such “sacrificial places” in the Baikal region every year become more and more numerous). Secondly, the Buryats have a ritual arkhidakha, or arkhidashin associated with the arrival of someone to one of the tribesmen. It means that the host together with his guest walks around the ulus (village) from one house to another.
The ritual requirs that all villagers host the visitor; and if they do not wine and dine him or her, it is considered a bad tone. And this custom is in the soul of many Siberians. The native inhabitants have a word naarkhidashilsya (“got drunk during the ritual”), reflecting the unattractive consequences of such rituals.
Thus, the increased addiction of a large number of the Siberian folk to alcohol was obvious. This affected in a certain way on work, and the ability of management of the Siberians. Although here, as throughout all Great Russia, the nature of the Russian people was a reality, clearly noticed by N.A. Nekrasov:
“In the village of Bosov
Lives Yakim the Naked.
He works to death,
And drinks until half dead”.
In fact, various situational and ideological determinants became a significant obstacle to universal alcoholism in Siberia. Thus, for a long time the Old Believers suppressed drinking and smoking in their environment, the Semeiskie treasured the old Russian tradition, in military campaigns and at service the Cossacks were not allowed to drink, in many villages and towns there always were people having a firm position of wise wine drinking, and even those who avoided alcohol all in all. Today there is a significant declension from the tradition of wine-drinking among young people, especially those living in urban areas. For these reasons, alcoholic vices of the Siberians should not be overestimated. At the same time we also should not underestimate the level of the trouble either. In the Pribaikalie villages, where the social and economic status is rather low, where it is more difficult to gain intellectual and cultural meaning of life, these defects occur much more frequently.
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