OpEd

The brandy fell and the Russians did not become Muslims

A sober British author explains the history of alcohol - from the Stone Age to the present day - in an often humorous tone. Mark Forsyth's book shows how alcohol became mankind's most widespread drug - not always to mankind's advantage.

In the Middle Ages, Kosovo produced more brandy than grain. Rakia, mezja and mejhania were part of the social life in the Ottoman Empire. Many sultans drank raki sometimes with ablution, sometimes without ablution, sometimes before reading the Koran, sometimes after reading the Koran. Muslims, Orthodox Greeks, Armenians, Albanians, Jews and others chatted in Istanbul's meyhans. Licenses for taverns that served raki were usually obtained by Christians. Muslims drank.

In Ottoman Bosnia, Muslims respected God and did not drink wine. But they drank brandy. Because, as they pointed out, brandy was not explicitly prohibited by the Koran. In the maze of religions, people always found a way to drink alcohol. A German who came to Istanbul in the 16th century reported how people tried to temporarily expel the soul from the body through loud screams. As they screamed and believed their souls had left their bodies, the Muslims drank incessantly. Without a soul in the body, drinking brandy was not a sin, at least according to the interpretation of some Ottomans in Istanbul.

In the 19th century a Russian engineer was invited to a party of a rich Persian. Those present solemnly blessed the evening, then the host applauded and told the priest to bring "something special and other gifts". Immediately, some trays were brought, which were chosen by those present, among them the mullahs, and placed on their heads. Now they said to themselves: "We are no longer mullahs, but private people." Then they started playing backgammon (this game was forbidden) and drinking "something". This "something" was a pile of bottles of cognac, vodka, wine, liqueur and other types of alcohol. That is: change the bed, scream and drink. This seems to have been the method of some Muslims to quench their thirst.

Perhaps a book like this - "A Short History of Drukenness" - could only be written by a Brit. The British have a sense of humour. Their humor is often black, but at the same time mixed with sarcasm and self-irony, sometimes the point remains suspended and thus the ambiguity shines. Mark Forsyth, born 1977, an Oxford graduate in literature and linguistics, has approached the history of alcohol with cheerful seriousness since the Stone Age, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and its wine culture, including the Vikings and Russians .

Before man walked the earth, there was alcohol. Trees fall from their branches, rot and ferment. Alcohol flows from fermentation. Before man drank alcohol, the monkey did. Off the coast of Panama is an island where monkeys enjoy the fruit of the astrocaryum vulgare palm (4,5 percent alcohol content). First the monkeys squeal and scream, then they doze off, sometimes they fall out of trees and get hurt. In relation to their body weight, they drink the equivalent of two bottles of wine within 30 minutes.

In 1914 Tsar Nicholas II of Russia banned alcohol throughout his country. In 1918 Tsar Nicholas II was executed together with his family in a cellar in Yekaterinburg, a city in the Urals. Do these events have something in common? According to Mark Forsyth: yes. On the eve of the First World War, among the main problems of Russian soldiers was excessive drinking of alcohol. So the Tsar intervened with a stop. But this had consequences for the state because a quarter of the revenues in the Russian budget came from alcohol taxes. Forsyth writes that historians happily debate whether the lack of vodka caused the Russian Revolution. In 1925, Stalin decided to legalize the consumption of alcohol.

Russians have always drank, this is not some big news that Mark Forsyth presents to us in his book. But still attractive are the facts (often anecdotal) that Forsyth lists in the book. In 987 BC the ruler of a new Russian kingdom was Vladimir the Great. On one occasion he invited the delegations of the three great world religions in order to choose one of the religions for his Russian people. He did not accept the Jews when he realized that they have no homeland. The Muslims found it interesting because they described the pleasures of the flesh and the flesh (Vladimir was a "worshiper of women and abundance"), but the ruler was shocked when the Muslim leaders told him that their religion forbade drinking alcohol. "Russians like to drink. Without this pleasure we cannot live", said Vladimir the Great. The brandy fell and the Russians did not become Muslims, one might say.

From 987 to 1985: the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched the anti-vodka campaign. In a knee-to-knee meeting with the people, a Russian complained that important food items such as beer. Gorbachev replied that beer is not a survival item. Six years later communism ended. Was it vodka? Maybe. In Russia, for example, 23 percent of deaths are caused by vodka. Or other types of hard liquor.