How Wine Almost Compromised the Russian Revolution

In 1917, the famous October Revolution took place, which gave rise to communist Russia, or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and lasted until the 1990s.

The period and the sociological nuances are so troubled that it is difficult to understand how exactly those people, primarily peasants and just out of a monarchical regime, were able to rebel and, despite the countless differences of opinion, create more than a simple socialist republic, but a global power that would influence the world for so long.

Red Army soldiers stand strong in the USSR Russian Revolution, defending their socialist ideals and fighting for a better future.

Red Army soldiers stand strong in the USSR, defending their socialist ideals and fighting for a better future. | Image Source

The Russian Revolution resulted from a complicated combination of sociocultural, economic, and political pieces that curiously was almost compromised due to wine and other alcoholic beverages.

Historians even say that, at one point, Petrograd, now Saint Petersburg and, at the time, the Russian capital. It was the scene of the biggest hangover in history. Faced with so much social disorder, the Bolsheviks had to intervene harshly to ensure the Revolution’s success.

Social Hangover

As if the thousands of pieces of this sociopolitical puzzle were not enough, the so-called October Revolution becomes even more complicated to understand when we think it took place in November. Yes, Tsar Nicholas II’s Russia still adopted the Julian calendar at the time. It abandoned the following year in favor of the Gregorian.

Russia was one of the world’s last countries to leave the Roman calendar established in the Roman period by Julius Caesar. But anyway, the beginning of the Revolution is considered to be on October 25, 1917, corresponding to November 7 in the Gregorian calendar.

At the time, the Russians and all of Europe were in an uproar, with its armies fighting in the bloody World War I. The Russian contingent, by the way, was going from bad to worse, forcing, in a way, the renouncement of the Tsar in March 1917 and all the revolutionary events to come.

In the following months, even with a provisional government, tension grew among the proletarians and peasants, who no longer accepted any control by the former oligarchies and employer sectors.

This was how the Bolsheviks, the fiercest faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) and Leon Trotsky, managed to take command of the actions, instigating the proletarian insurrection, which, in the end, led to the Revolution in November. However, even among left-wing parties, there was no consensus.

Many did not want to overthrow the provisional government led by Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky, a moderate socialist but were seen by the Bolsheviks as delaying the real Revolution and working in favor of the old elites. Despite disagreements, on November 7, the Bolsheviks ordered the dissolution of Kerensky’s government. They surrounded the Winter Palace, his headquarters in Petrograd.

Don’t touch anything!

There are different accounts of what happened after the Red Guards entered the luxurious Winter Palace. Some say that the imperial headquarters was looted and devastated from top to bottom, with paintings being pierced with the points of bayonets, Chinese china broken, and chandeliers and crystal smashed on the floor. And the worst of all would come when the soldiers discovered the magnificent cellar of Nicholas II, considered the largest in the world. The former palace of the Tsars was soon besieged by the Red Guards of the Bolshevik militia. Kerensky was already gone, and few loyal soldiers were left to guard the place. The taking of the palace was quick, as the area was under fire from the cannons of the cruiser Aurora, parked in the waters of the Neva River, where the seat of government and the fortress of Peter and Paul were located, on the other bank.

However, some guarantee that the looting was contained to the maximum by the revolutionaries themselves. In his classic “10 days that shook the world”, John Reed, the American reporter present during the events, wrote that he saw the Red Guards bend over boxes piled up in the cellar, trying to open them at all costs, hitting them with their rifle butts. There were rugs, linen, china, and crystal.

He said the looting was just beginning when someone shouted: “Comrades! Don’t touch anything! Don’t take anything! This is the property of the people!”

Then several men forced the looters to return what had been taken. At the same time, some stood guard to protect the palace belongings against looting.

In the corridors, there were shouts of “Revolutionary Discipline”!

Finally, with an established order, a guard shouted, “Liberate the palace! Come on, comrades, let’s show we are not thieves and bandits. All out of the palace, except the commissioners, until the sentries are in place.”

Tsar’s Château d’Yquem

However, even if the soldiers resisted the temptation to plunder the Tsars’ treasures at first, it is known that this “sober” posture had changed by the end of the month. According to Reed, at the end of November, with the Revolution already underway, there were several revolts, insubordinations, and other problems that the Bolsheviks needed to deal with to avoid losing their way.

One of them was the wine “pogroms,” looting wine deposits, starting with the Winter Palace cellars. Pogrom is a Russian word for violent attacks, and the term was initially used to refer to massacres against Jews. Still, later it was used to designate brutal insurrections against certain groups of people. The “wine pogroms” are believed to have been spurred on by counterrevolutionary forces distributing maps showing the location of liquor stores among regiments.

It is said that the soldiers soon entered Nicholas II’s underground cellar and found a vast supply of his favorite wine, Château d’Yquem, from the consecrated vintage of 1847 and large quantities of vodka, which were smuggled into the population. Altogether, the Imperial Cellar is estimated to be worth more than $5 million (about $100 million today). But the Winter Palace was just one of the sites looted. Petrograd was full of palaces with full cellars, easy targets for drunken marauders.

Drunkenness Killed More Than The Revolution

At first, the Bolshevik commissars asked their comrades to stop the looting. However, the disorder only increased, giving rise to real battles between soldiers and Red Guards. Before long, the Bolsheviks realized they could not control the situation, as each Red Guard detachment assigned to stop the looting soon became drunk.

So they tried to flood the Winter Palace cellars or even build walls. Still, the population broke down the barriers.

It is said that the Bolsheviks even tried to funnel the wine out of the cellar, letting it run down the Neva, but found people standing around the drains waiting for the drink to come out. Then they thought about blowing up the place, damaging the palace. Finally, they suggested exporting the wine to Sweden. The situation could be controlled only with martial law in December 1917.

Transporting wine in the old days via vintage bike

Transporting wine in the old days via vintage bike. | Image Source

Historians even claim that the chaos caused by the “wine pogroms” killed more Russians than the battles against the provisional government. To control the crowd, the Revolutionary Military Committee, led by Trotsky, declared a state of siege in the city, authorizing companies of guards to open fire without warning against any attempt to loot the wines.

Earlier, Trotsky would have suggested throwing all Petrograd’s stocks of wine and vodka into the Neva without ceremony. In addition, the Committee for Combating Drinking was created, led by Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, as well as a Committee against Sabotage and Combating the Counter-Revolution, under the leadership of Felix Dzerzhinsky, one of those responsible for the intense political repression that would give rise to the period of “Red Terror,” with arrests and mass executions.

In charge of maintaining the social order were basically the sailors of Kronstadt, “the flower and pride of the revolutionary forces,” according to Trotsky, as they had an iron discipline. In addition to genuinely guarding the cellars without taking possession of them, they mercilessly opened fire against the rioters.

The Winter Palace cellars were flooded initially, but then the drinks were transferred to Kronstadt, a city close to Petrograd, and destroyed. Special committees destroyed other warehouses around the city using axes and dynamite. Those guilty of distributing, selling, or purchasing alcoholic beverages were immediately arrested and subjected to the most severe punishments.

Historians say in January, “Petrograd, with perhaps the biggest hangover in the history of Russia, finally woke up and had order again.” After that, there followed a period of “sobriety” throughout Russia, when all persons involved with producing or distributing beverages (now under state control) were seen as enemies of the state. Lenin said: “The proletariat needs no intoxicants. The communist ideal is a good enough stimulant for the class struggle. A model communist is a teetotaller. A model state does not deal in alcohol”.

Did Drinking lead to the Revolution?

The Russians’ taste for the drink was already well known, including by their rulers. That may be why the Bolsheviks were so hard on repressing consumption. In 1904, during the war against Japan, much of the Russian defeat was credited to the rampant drunkenness of the troops. There are reports that the battalions looted liquor stores and restaurants on their way to the front. “Who defeated the Russians? The Japanese did not conquer, but alcohol triumphed”, even stated a British correspondent at the time.

This fact motivated Tsar Nicholas II to close all stores and cut off drinks for troops when Russia entered World War I. With this, he wanted to improve the effectiveness of his army. However, the measure served to help overthrow his government. Revenue from taxes fell by a third, and peasants began distilling vodka with surplus grain, which meant that bread production declined and, due to a lack of resources, there were mass desertions of soldiers. In short, a series of events led to the Revolution of 1917.

This Day in Wine History

January 9, 1905: Bloody Sunday – Workers and peasants protest in St. Petersburg, demanding better working conditions and political reforms.

October 25, 1917: Bolshevik Revolution – Led by Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks seize power in Petrograd, overthrowing the Provisional Government.

July 17, 1918: Execution of the Romanovs – Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their children are brutally executed in Ekaterinburg. In a nearby village, a sympathetic former royal guard reminisces about the days gone by, pouring himself a glass of rich ruby-red wine to drown his sorrows.

1917-1991: Soviet era and state-controlled wine production – Following the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union, the wine industry is nationalized and placed under state control. Vineyards are collectivized, and the focus shifts toward mass production rather than quality.

2010s: Wine tourism and recognition – Wine tourism becomes increasingly popular in Russia, with wine regions such as Crimea, Krasnodar Krai, and Rostov Oblast attracting visitors. Russian wines start gaining recognition in international competitions, showcasing the country’s improving wine quality.

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Categories: This Day in Wine History | Articles, Wine and WarTags: , , By Published On: June 10, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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