No country is as closely associated with a particular alcoholic drink as Russia is associated with vodka. The drink has become as symbolic of Russia as brown bears, caviar, and matryoshka dolls. The British Royal Navy and rum aside, no military in the world is as closely associated with a particular drink as the Russian military is associated with vodka. It is not just one of those popular perceptions that turn out to be based on little more than myth and legend. Russian armies and alcohol do go back a long way.
From the perspective of military leaders, one of alcohol’s greatest positive effects is its ability to give troops with super courage. However, to strike the right balance between enough alcohol for liquid courage, and not go overboard, can be tricky. In 1223, a relatively small Mongol army inflicted a massive defeat upon a much larger Rus army at the Battle of the Kalka River. Much of the credit for the victory goes to the military genius of the Mongols’ commanders, Subutai and Jebe. However, alcohol played a role: much of the Rus army had gotten drunk, then launched itself at the Mongols in a reckless charge that ended in disaster.
The Russian Government Deliberately Promoted and Encouraged Widespread Alcoholism
In the 1500s, Russia’s Tsars began to set up establishments to distill and sell vodka. By the 1640s, vodka had become a government monopoly. The Tsarist tax system was regressive, in that it fell proportionally heaviest not upon the richest, but upon the poorest. Much of that tax revenue came from sales taxes. By the 1850s, nearly half of Russia’s government revenue came from the taxes and duties on vodka sales. By the start of the twentieth century, the Smirnoff Vodka brand alone accounted for a full third of the Russian army’s budget.
Because of its vodka monopoly, the Tsarist government encouraged vodka consumption for generations, even at the price of widespread alcoholism among their subjects. Tsar Peter the Great reportedly decreed that the wives of peasants should be whipped if they dared to try and drag their inebriated husbands out of taverns before they were ready to leave. He also used alcoholism to help with military recruitment: those who drank themselves into debt could avoid debtors’ prison if they enlisted in the Russian army for 25 years.
Even a Revolution Didn’t Stop Russia’s Government from Promoting Alcoholism
Russia’s government was never known for enlightenment, and the Russian authorities’ attitudes towards vodka did not grow more enlightened with the passage of time. In the twentieth century, the Tsarist government was overthrown and replaced with a communist one, but the encouragement of alcoholism continued. The communist Red Army issued its soldiers a daily vodka ration of 100 grams. It was not enough to get wasted on, but a few days’ ration could be saved for a good drunk. It was also relatively easy for soldiers to get their hands on more than the official ration. In the Winter War of 1939 – 1940, there were reports of wild drunken charges by Soviet soldiers.
In WWII, the daily ration of vodka was increased, and the military authorities actively encouraged its distribution and consumption. The Soviets’ sheer grit and super courage played a key role in their triumph over the Nazi “super men” to close out the war. However, that courage was surely boosted by the rivers of vodka that helped fuel the Red Army’s soldiers and kept them well lubricated. In their reminisces of the war, quite a few of them described the daily vodka ration as having been: “as important as Katyusha rockets in the victory of Nazism“.
In 1905, Kenneth Barnard Thomas Folkes was born in Gloucester, England. When WWII began, he had twelve years’ experience as a law clerk for a firm that handled many criminal cases, plus a stint with a carpet manufacturer in the Midlands. In 1940, he enlisted as a private with the Corps of Military Police, but mentioned only the legal work in his background questionnaire. Between that, a keen mind, and a fair knowledge of French, he was transferred to the Intelligence Corps and commissioned as a second lieutenant.
Folkes was a tireless self-promoter. He claimed that within just a few months into his military career, he had interrogated a prisoner of war and outsmarted him “until he told me what he wanted to hide“. In what in hindsight turned out to be a blunder, nobody questioned his claims. In late 1940, he was offered command of New Zealand’s fledgling Security Intelligence Bureau (SIB), and a promotion to major. Once in Wellington, Folkes conflated and inflated his employment background of law clerk and Midlands carpet manufacturer employee. He presented himself to the locals as a former Midlands lawyer, now devoted to the security of New Zealand’s war secrets.
The Inept Spy Chief Who Almost Got a Government to Place an Entire Country Under Martial Law
Kenneth Folkes wanted to earn a reputation, and a he did – but not one he wanted. His name would forever be linked to Sydney Ross, a small time criminal and conman. Born in 1909, Ross held a series of short term jobs, mostly as a laborer, and in the 1930s, he piled up 17 criminal convictions and did time behind bars for theft, burglary, false pretenses, fraud. In 1939, he was sentenced to nearly four years for breaking and entering and theft. In this prison stint, he befriended an older convict, Alfred Remmers, a former policeman who had been fired for burglaries committed while on night beat duty, and was now behind bars for forgery.
Ross was released from prison on March 28th, 1942, with nothing but a battered briefcase, some clothes, and a train ticket. A day later, he had met New Zealand’s Prime Minister, had a car, money, accommodations, and the undivided attention of Major Folkes. The SIB head saw in the released convict an answer to his prayers, and unwisely, trusted him. Between the spy catcher and conman, New Zealand’s government almost declared martial law. Forever after, the country retained a healthy skepticism of its intelligence services.
A Snob Who Couldn’t Hide His Disdain for the Locals
Kenneth Folkes’ career in military intelligence had begun spectacularly well. He had enlisted as a private, and in less than a year, had risen to major and was in charge of an entire country’s counterintelligence. To be sure, New Zealand was a small and out of the way country, but still – it was a rapid rise. Once he got to New Zealand, however, things began to turn sour. Folkes saw the New Zealanders as backwards colonial bumpkins, ignorant of basic security practices, and resistant to change. In reality, his contempt for New Zealand’s practices was a reflection of his own intellectual laziness and unjustified arrogance.
Folkes had been trained in British military intelligence practices for only a few months, had limited experience, and held an imperialistic worldview that saw New Zealanders as inferior to the English. That mix was toxic. It left Folkes unable to grasp that there might be ways to do things other than what he had learned in his brief training back in Britain. That was bad, but in a blunder that made things worse, Major Folkes let his disdain for the locals show. Unsurprisingly, the locals resented that, and repaid his contempt for them antagonism of their own.
Kenneth Folks’ New Zealander colleagues saw him as “aggressive, discourteous, and impertinent“. They leaked those assessments to the press, and within a few months of his arrival, local newspapers ran editorials that compared him to Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler, whom he slightly resembled physically. Newspapers also questioned whether Folkes’ Security Intelligence Bureau (SIB) was too much like the Gestapo – and an inept one at that. SIB men were derided as mediocrities, draft dodgers, and incompetent snoops given to blunder after blunder.
In one episode, SIB men subjected an innocent American in charge of geophysical survey work to “stealthy pursuit” that was not stealthy at all. In another bungled endeavor, they conducted a five-day sting to try and “trap a suspected spy” at a Wellington hotel, that was an open secret to “the innocent suspect, the hotel staff, and half the town“. The SIB and its head were widely ridiculed as hapless spy catchers who futilely spun their wheels in out of the way New Zealand with no spies to catch. Then salvation and serious work seemed to arrive in the form of career criminal Sydney Ross.
On March 29th, 1942, just one day after he was released from prison broke, homeless, and without prospects, Sydney Ross met with the Minister of National Service, Robert Semple. He told the minister that a Nazi agent, recently landed by submarine, had tried to recruit him to join a sabotage cell. It was part of a vast network whose tentacles stretched across the country. Semple immediately took Ross to see Prime Minister Peter Fraser – apparently, it was real easy back then to meet the head honchos of New Zealand’s government.
As it happened, Fraser had just received classified reports from Australia, where real spy rings had been uncovered. He was thus primed to accept that his country could have similar rings. The prime minister referred Ross to Major Kenneth Folkes, and the head of the SIB saw the recently released felon as a godsend. Finally, here was a real threat and an opportunity for his men to round up real spies and shut up the critics. Folkes gave Ross money, a car, and accommodations, and set him up as an undercover agent with the alias “Captain Calder” to gather intelligence on the Nazi network.
Sydney Ross reported back to Major Folkes about the results of his undercover work. Over a three months span, he gave the SIB head alarming information, which Folkes passed in turn on to New Zealand’s government. Apparently, enemy subversives were more widespread and dangerous than anybody had imagined. They planned to blow up key targets, kidnap or assassinate Prime Minister Fraser, Minister of National Service Semple, and other cabinet members, all as a prelude to a Japanese invasion. Ross claimed that the network was headed by his prison pal Alfred Remmers, now in the last stages of leukemia, and that Remmers’ house in Wellington was the conspirators’ base of operations.
In July, 1942, Folkes demanded that the government supply him with troops, declare martial law, and grant his SIB emergency powers to arrest and detain suspects without trial. Before he suspended civil rights throughout New Zealand, Fraser asked the police to investigate. In no time, they discovered that the supposed “Nazi headquarters” was occupied by an elderly government clerk, a dry cleaners, and three nurses. All were innocent of any foreign contacts, let alone subversion and espionage. To Folkes’ horror, it began to dawn on him that the SIB might have committed yet another blunder, this one the worst yet.
The Collapse of a Scam That Wrecked the Credibility of New Zealand’s Spies
As his scam began to unravel, Sydney Ross grew desperate to hang on to his employment as an “undercover agent” and the gravy train that went with it. To keep the hoax alive, he resorted to yet another elaborate hoax to bolster his story. He dug a deep hole in a forest, lacerated his back with barbed wire, then staggered to the roadside, where he gave a passing driver £10 to summon help. He then claimed to have been tortured by Nazis and forced to dig his own grave at gunpoint, before he miraculously escaped. However, doctors who inspected his wounds figured out that they were self-inflicted. The story of the “Impudent Jailbird” who had hoaxed Major Kenneth Folkes and the Security Intelligence Bureau, whose men had been “blatantly hoodwinked” hit the newspapers in late July, 1942.
The SIB’s latest blunder was the final straw. The embarrassed organization was taken over by the commissioner of police, and the now-thoroughly-discredited Major Kenneth Folkes was sent back to Britain in disgrace. Ross returned to prison, where he remained until his release in 1946, shortly before his death at age 37 of tuberculosis. It was an anticlimactic end for a man who had almost brought martial law to, and the ended the rule of law in, New Zealand. After the war, Folkes returned to his job with a Midlands carpet manufacturer, and died in obscurity in 1975. A self-promoter and fabulist to the end, his headstone described him as a recipient of the Distinguished Service Order. There is no record that he had ever received such an award.
The Problem of Industrial Alcohol’s Diversion During Prohibition
Throughout the recent pandemic, many health professionals thought that the government did little to combat Covid-19. They especially thought that the enforcement of the restrictions and regulations necessary to combat the virus’ spread was too lax. About a century ago, back in the 1920s, the case was the opposite. Then, many health professionals thought that the government had done too much – as in way, way, too much – and had exhibited excessive vigor in its fight against the consumption of alcohol. An example of such excess was Uncle Sam’s deliberate poisoning of alcohol stocks it knew would end up consumed by the public.
It began as the Holiday Season approached in 1926, and the administration of President Calvin Coolidge was determined to force celebrants to abide by Prohibition. The federal ban on the sale of alcohol had opened the floodgates for organized crime to smuggle alcohol from abroad into the US, and for bootleggers to distribute it throughout the country. However, there was also a major domestic source of booze: industrial alcohol. Bootleggers routinely diverted it from its intended uses and into liquor. Some eager beaver government officials decided to do something about that.
The diversion of industrial alcohol to booze got under the skins of some zealots in the US Treasury Department, responsible for the enforcement of Prohibition. So they decided to doctor the industrial alcohol supply with dangerous substances such as methanol. At least 10,000 people died as a result, and many more were blinded or suffered other serious injuries. Despite Prohibition, America saw a rise in the consumption of alcohol in the mid-1920s. The law was openly flouted, with too many speakeasies to count let alone raid.
They were supplied by bootleggers who acted with impunity and near open defiance of law enforcement. So the federal government decided to go after a key source of the illegal booze: the still legal industrial alcohol stocks. In its industrial form, such alcohol is undrinkable. However, bootleggers figured out ways to make it fit for human consumption. Thus, in 1926, the federal authorities mandated that the amount of harmful chemicals in industrial alcohol be greatly increased. As seen below, the results were immediate – and tragic.
Uncle Sam Sent Countless Drinkers to the ER With Alcohol Poisoning
Throughout the 1926 Holiday Season, America’s emergency rooms saw an unprecedented spike in alcohol poisoning. By New Year’s Eve, 1926, New York City alone saw many fatalities. As the city’s medical examiner put it: “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol. It knows what bootleggers are doing with it and yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison … Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible“.
Wherever we go, alcohol is bound to be near us. Even for those who don’t drink and have no beer or wine in their fridges or liquor in their cabinets. Alcohol is found as an additive in their fuel tanks, and many household products such as nail polish, disinfectants, hand sanitizers, and perfumes contain alcohol. In 1906, the federal government mandated that chemicals be added to grain alcohol intended for industrial use, to make it undrinkable. Alcohol thus treated is known as “denatured” alcohol or “wood spirits”. The mandate was met with little resistance from the manufacturers of industrial alcohol.
The addition of chemicals to industrial alcohol stocks to denature them made them exempt from the liquor taxes imposed on drinkable alcohol. As a result, industrial alcohol manufacturers were more than happy to comply with the government directive to denature their stocks. People determined to remove chemical additives from denatured industrial alcohol could do so if they really wanted to. Some did just that, with a process known as “renaturing”. However, with legal alcohol readily available, and often quite cheap, there was little incentive to go through the trouble.
That changed with the enactment of Prohibition, and the resultant scarcity of regular drinkable booze. Liquor did not disappear from America because of Prohibition: massive amounts of drinkable booze were smuggled into the country by bootleggers. However, Prohibition disrupted the supply chain, and even smuggling on a massive scale was not enough to meet the demand. So bootleggers began to produce massive amounts of liquor in the United States. They sourced it from stolen or otherwise diverted stocks of industrial alcohol.
The Government Went Out of Its Way to Prevent the Reuse of Industrial Alcohol as Drinking Booze
The US Treasury Department, tasked with the enforcement of Prohibition, estimated that in the mid-1920s, around 60 million gallons of industrial liquor were stolen each year. Bootleggers then employed chemists to “renature” it, and return it to a drinkable state. Stolen and re-distilled industrial alcohol became America’s primary source of liquor. So in late 1926, the Treasury Department decided to up its game and revamp the denaturing formulas used to make industrial alcohol undrinkable. The new mix included many known toxins.
They included quinine, acetone, nicotine, formaldehyde, zinc, camphor, chloroform, iodine, kerosene, and gasoline. Most dangerous of all, the new formula required that at least 10% of the total volume must consist of methyl alcohol or methanol, commonly used today in antifreeze. The results were disastrous. The Treasury Department’s new formula made the process used by the bootleggers’ chemists up until that point to renature industrial alcohol all but useless, as it left them unable to separate out each of the harmful chemicals.
Whether Uncle Sam Had the Right to Poison Drinkers
Christmas Eve, 1926, was hectic in New York City’s hospitals. Just one of them, Bellevue, was inundated with dozens of people who fell seriously ill after they drank contaminated alcohol. By New Year’s Eve, 1,200 people in the Big Apple had been sickened by poisonous alcohol, and at least 400 had died. The city’s medical examiner assigned a toxicologist to examine confiscated whiskey, and based on the findings, issued an alert to warn the citizens that: “practically all the liquor that is sold in New York today is toxic“.
The impact fell heaviest on the poor: the rich and well-heeled could afford to consume the best liquor available, such as real whiskey smuggled in from abroad. As the medical examiner noted, most of those harmed by the repurposed industrial alcohol were those: “who cannot afford expensive protection and deal in low grade stuff“. When the public learned that the federal government had deliberately poisoned industrial alcohol stocks, an argument raged about whether it had the right to do so.
Many Argued that Drinkers of Poisoned Alcohol Deserved Their Fate
New York City’s medical examiner, Charles Norris, was among those who argued that it was unconscionable for the authorities to poison something they knew would be consumed by citizens. He wrote in the North American Review that: “In a word, wood alcohol is not ‘poison liquor.’ It is simply poison. If it gets into liquor, the liquor is poisoned “. New Jersey Senator Edward I. Edwards summed it up as “legalized murder“. The defenders of the government included Wayne B. Wheeler, of the Anti Saloon League.
As Wheeler told the New York Times: “The Government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide“. Defenders of the policy noted that the poisoned industrial alcohol was labeled poison, and pinned the blame on the bootleggers who nonetheless sold it for human consumption. To prohibitionists, the harm to drinkers was acceptable. Seymour M. Lawman, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of Prohibition, told citizens in 1927 that the fringes of society that drink were “dying off fast from poison ‘hooch’“. If that resulted in a sober country, he continued, then “a good job will have been done“.
Government Officials Shrugged Off the Mass Poisoning of Drinkers
Prohibition’s enforcers ignored the furor, and continued to poison industrial alcohol. The resultant deaths continued to pile up. The New York Times archives from 1927 to 1933 contain many headlines about the damage. Not only deaths, but also blindness, hallucinations, and other side effects that sent poisoned drinkers to emergency rooms and left many with permanent damage to their health. June 20th, 1927: Three Die From Alcohol; February 28th, 1929: Alcohol Deaths Show Steady Rise; August 23rd, 1930: Alcohol Deaths Up 300% Since 1920; August 17th, 1932: Dies After Drinking Wood Alcohol. When large scale fatalities occurred, Prohibition agents shrugged it off.
In 1928, over thirty people died from alcohol poisoning in a single incident Manhattan, but US government officials declared that there was nothing they could do. A federal grand jury stated that industrial alcohol is not a beverage, but a recognized poison whose use and sale are regulated by state, not federal laws. As such, state authorities should look into its sale and improper use. As humorist Will Rogers quipped: “Governments used to murder by the bullets only. Now it’s by the quarts“. All in all, an estimated 10,000 people or more died from alcohol poisoning during Prohibition, and many more suffered serious damage to their health. The carnage finally ended with the end of Prohibition, when people regained access to regular booze, and thus no longer had to gamble with denatured industrial alcohol.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading