Drunk as a Pole
The Politics of Vodka in Communist Poland
At the beginning of the 1980s, under public pressure, but also the criticism of a new trade union named Solidarity, the Polish government acutely reduced the alcohol supply. Among a few previously similar reforms under the communist regime (for instance in 1956 or 1959), the later was particularly significant for the history of Poland, since the power equation now included a well-organized pressure group (Solidarity). The 1980s ban illustrates an example of communist government policy response, in a context of relative social turmoil within Poland (and in the wider Soviet Union), before 1989. The alcohol debate represents, with its multi-disciplinary reach, a prime example of interaction between the state and the population, over an issue of national concern. Most importantly, “the experiences of the 1980s in Poland for instance show that the state may on occasion give up its economic priorities under the pressure of political considerations. In this circumstance it is able to reduce consumption effectively, particularly if civic society supports or demands these efforts.” (Moskalewicz, Alcohol in the countries, 583)
The thesis underlying this article is that vodka was an effective “soft power” (Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power) instrument that the Polish communist government used to tame (but also indirectly to protect) the population’s from the normalization of alcohol; in parallel, that the changing of social habits served as motivations to the rulers. As a consequence, three institutions were affected in the process: the state, civil society, and the market.
The background in which vodka politics stem consists in waves of change in the Polish society: “The three postwar decades witnessed, in Poland as in countries from Eastern and Western Europe, comparable effects from urbanization: a growing intake of alcoholic beverages, the emergence of new groups of drinkers, including women and teenagers, and the diversification of drinking patters within countries.” (Moskalewicz, Alcohol in the countries, 580) “Polish control of the alcohol monopoly was reinstated before the end of World War II, as soon as a part of Poland became liberated. In the beginning it covered spirits production only. In a few years, with the nationalization of the economy, the state controlled the whole alcohol sector, including international trade and retail distribution. This dominant position of the state was not counterbalanced by temperance movements. Just after the war, these movements mushroomed all over the country, in contrast to other political and voluntary organizations, which were either prohibited or persecuted. In 1948, however, a new anti-alcohol committee came into existence, replacing numerous independent associations that were banned afterwards. For years the committee did not dare to challenge the state in the alcohol arena, as it was established, funded and controlled by the state apparatus.” (Moskalewicz, Privatization of the Alcohol, 265)
How did the Polish government envision vodka as an instrument of social policy? Alcoholism in Poland during the 1980s was no joking matter. As the New York Times (NY Times archives, Poland seeks to Curb) reveals at the time, the Polish government wanted to use this frightening reality to suggest that a “Program of national sobriety is needed”, as Prime Minister Wociech Jaruzelski stated in March 1981. In the same logic, anti-alcohol posters in Poland between 1948 and 1990 illuminate the government’s use of visual media in nationwide health campaigns. (see Gorsky, Krajewski-Siuda, and Berridge, Anti-alcohol Posters)
During the summer of 1980, mass strikes occurred throughout the country as a manifestation of opposition to the communist government. Public criticism led authorities to undertake a number of measures (New York Times article selected: Poland Raises Prices, dated March 17, 1981) to reduce the availability of alcohol: “The network of retail vodka shops was reduced, a 50% reduction in potato production yielded less raw material for vodka, and vodka production was substantially reduced. As a result, demand exceeded supply and prices increased. All of these factors, together with others affecting alcohol consumption, produced a 24% decline in consumption.” (Griffith, Casswell, Alcohol Policy, 128)
An important variable in Polish vodka history was the general accessibility of the liquor. During the entire period of communism, trade with ‘the West’ was cut off and Polish vodka became scarce beyond COMECON borders. Realistically, “the better varieties of vodka were hard (or impossible) to come by in local stores that accepted Polish zloty.” However, “they were available in a special kind of store, called Pewex, which sold goods for the hard currency that many Poles kept hidden away (acquired during trips abroad, or sent by friends and relatives in other countries). The Polish government got the hard currency, the citizen got otherwise unattainable goods.” (Simpson, History and Mythology, 144)
The state-level effects of vodka politics were tied with the regime’s policies: “Under Soviet influence at the end of the Second World War, Poland was living the economic reality where all production was considered to be the property of the state.” (Simpson, History and Mythology, 143)
And so, “within 24 hours of taking Poland in December 1981 the Military Council of National Salvation imposed a ban on the sale of alcohol;” (Smith, Polish Lessons), 1) this ban was “among the first demands of the strike committees that eventually gave birth to Solidarity in the summer of 1980. Soon after, the regime was blamed for pushing alcohol to increase its economic gains at the expense of the health and welfare of the people, as well as to subordinate to itself a drunken society. To challenge these accusations, demands to decrease alcohol production were even reinforced by the State.” (Moskalewicz, Alcohol in the countries, 566)
But the consequences of the politics of vodka in communist Poland were also felt in the market and within civil society as well: “During and post-World Wars I and II, numerous vodka factories were opened.” (Chase, Alcohol Consumption, 421) A new chapter in the social history of alcohol opened right after the war: “As early as 1944, the state alcohol monopoly was restored.” (Heath, International Handbook, 226) Yet, “after a few postwar decades of extensive social change, including heavy industrialization, urbanization, provision of free access to education, health care and welfare, and unprecedented vertical and horizontal mobility of the people, it had become clear that the times of absolute dominance of the State had come to an end, and that both the market and civil society had to be awakened to meet the challenges of economic and cultural globalization. Initial economic reforms in the 1970s (toward a more market-oriented economy and autonomy for State-owned enterprises) failed, when the economic crisis first began. Without popular support, further reformation of the economy became impossible and even counterproductive. The “Solidarity” movement that was born in Poland in 1980 [from dissident movements that had matured slowly in the 1970s] can be seen as an attempt by those in the larger society to become significant actors or participants in the changes, rather than a counterrevolutionary conspiracy aiming at the destruction of socialism. Solidarity’s major demand for independent trade union(s) constituted a claim for more power for civil society at the expense of powers of the State. In the area of economic demands, Solidarity in its initial period was definitely less liberal than the State of that time: in response to the short supply of many goods in the market, Solidarity demanded that a rationing system be introduced, that prices of basic commodities be frozen, and that working hours be shortened.” (Moskalewicz, Alcohol in the countries, 565)
The august 1980 events “were a type of cultural revolution which revived certain political symbols: in this case, alcohol-related rhetoric became a way of focusing discussion on opposition to the regime through its context rather than content. By talking about the current context of alcohol production, distribution, and consumption, people found a meaningful way to express political sentiments about social inequalities and disparities between party and people with respect to access to food [which was a great issue partly because of the Nazis food coupon problem, but also because of rising national alcoholism per se].” (Chase, Alcohol Consumption, 424)
In the struggle between the State and civil society, the market was first to suffer: “Soon after the beginning of the 1980s, alcohol appeared to be in short supply for the first time since World War II, and alcohol queues became a permanent element of an urban landscape”. A price increase was unthinkable, and would have had to be negotiated with labor union anyways. Instead, vodka was rationed. In November 1981, a few weeks before the declaration of martial law, Solidarity came close to calling a strike against an alcohol price increase that the State did not negotiate with the existing trade (Moskalewicz, Alcohol in the countries, 566).
“Civil society, represented by Solidarity, was not in a position to win its campaign against both the State and the market,” says Moskalewicz, “Martial law, introduced in December 13, 1981, seemed to suspend those aspirations and protected yet another economic reform, which moved toward a market economy. The military government was able not only to delegalize all existing trade unions and professional associations, but also to increase prices in order to rebalance or even rebuild the market destroyed during the first enthusiastic legal period of Solidarity. Liberal trends under the Solidarity period were over.” (Moskalewicz, Alcohol in the countries, 566-567; and Chase, Alcohol Consumption, 426)
“The Polish experience from the beginning of the 1980s shows that the elimination of the market from alcohol policy in response to popular demands is possible and feasible, at least in the short run. Recorded consumption decreased from 8.4 liters of ethanol per capita in 1980 to 6.4 liters in 1981 and 6.1 in 1982. […].For about seven years, 1981-1988, recorded alcohol consumption in Poland remained relatively low, varying between six and seven liters of ethanol per capita.” (Moskalewicz, Alcohol in the countries, 582)
But “the successful anti-alcohol crusade launched by Solidarity and then intercepted by the State could not last forever. Especially after the delegalization of all unions, alcohol policy vanished from the State’s agenda. Lifting alcohol rationing and introducing so-called commercial prices heralded the reintroduction of market principles and normalization of the economy. The monopolistic alcohol retail enterprise survived not more than a year before being dissolved.” (Moskalewicz, Alcohol in the countries, 567-568; and New York Times article: Warsaw Says It Regrets, dated September 7, 1981) Thus, the three-decade-long trend was reversed during the 1980s: “Alcohol consumption declined in the industrialized world, supposedly for various reasons, including saturation in economic and cultural terms, the crisis of the welfare state that could no longer afford paying for growing expenses for alcoholism treatment, research evidence that brought back the question of mean alcohol consumption as an important public health issue […], and, last but not least, an elevated position of health among other societal values. Eventually these led to less alcohol consumption and more popular support for a more restrictive policy in this area.” (Moskalewicz, Alcohol in the countries, 581)
By the 1990s, the transition to a market economy and multi-party politics had revived the production and consumption of the precious liquor, as Polish vodka’s national image was refreshed, and its manufacturing oriented towards the West and the global market. Since then, a once-quarreled upon commodity has become a symbol of nationalism and tradition; additionally, it has transcended many generations of Polish men, women, and teenage drinkers in affirming the collective cultural heritage that vodka represents to them.
Learn History. Drink responsibly.
Note: In the same way as the Polish government used national commodities to further political grievances, one may look at the example of postal cards in Franco’s Spain as an instrument of national policy, but also the famous attempted at banning Coca Cola in France in 1950. These two themes also deal with the issues of nationalism, tradition, but also the perceptions of culture.
Click below for your assigned extra readings. Answer the following questions:
- Poland raises Prices of drinks (NY Times)
- The Art of Poster (Internet)
- Briefly assess the gravity of alcoholism in Polish society. Is Poland taking appropriate steps to fix its health problems?
- Check out the “Art of Poster” page on Polish political posters from 1944 to 1989. Pick your favorite, then describe in a few words why it appeals to you, and how effective its message is.
For further reading: Below are a few external links to look at briefly. The author of this article encourages the reader to appreciate the effort that these websites put into listing a comprehensive database of posters, and general visual documents that are relevant to the topic of vodka politics in communist Poland:
“City Guide to Polish Wodka brands,” available at
Jacek Moskalewicz, “Alcohol in the countries in transition: the Polish experience and the wider context,” Contemporary Drug Problems 27 (Fall 2000): 561-592.
Richard Smith, “Polish lessons on alcohol policy,” British Medical Journal, Volume 284, (9 January 1982): 98-101.
Jacek Moskalewicz, “Privatization of the Alcohol Arena in Poland,” Contemporary Drug Problems 20 (Summer 1993): 263-285.
Martin Gorsky, “Anti-Alcohol Posters in Poland, 1945-1989 – Diverse Meanings, Uncertain Effects,” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 100, No. 11, (November 2012): 2059-2069.
Griffith, Anderson, Casswell, “Alcohol Policy and the Public Good,” (Oxford University Press 1994): 128-129.
Charlotte Chase, “Alcohol Consumption – An Indication of System Malfunction in Contemporary Poland,” East European Quarterly, XVIII, No. 4 (January 1985): 415-429.
Jacek Moskalewicz and Antoni Zielinski, “Poland,” in Dwight B. Heath, International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture (Greenwood Press 1995): 225-236.
Scott Simpson, “History and Mythology of Polish Vodka: 1270-2007,” Food & History, vol. 8, no. 1 (2010): 121-148.
Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics instrument (PublicAffairs, April 26, 2005).
“Poland Combats Wide Alcoholism,” Nov. 29, 1955; “Food Shortages in Poland,” Sept. 20, 1959; “Vodka Shortage in Poland,” Apr 14, 1969; “Advertising: Polish Wodka: Getting Into the Spirit,” Jul 22, 1977; “Poland Seeks to Curb Alarming Rise in Alcoholism,” Mar 8, 1981; “Poland Raises Prices of Drinks,” Mar 17, 1981; and “Warsaw Says it regrets Vodka Boycott’s Failure,” Sep 7, 1984 (New York Times archives).
WHO world data for consumption, expenditure per capita
Aulich, James, and Marta Sylvestrova, Political Posters in Central and Eastern Europe, 1945-95 (Manchester University Press 2000): 175.