Anti-alcohol posters from the Soviet Union’s ‘dry law’ campaign

Alcohol: Soviet Anti-Alcohol Posters – which is published by FUEL and supported by an exhibition of posters at Pushkin House in London – opens with an interesting essay by Alexei Plutser-Sarno which examines the role that alcohol played in Soviet society and customs, alongside the dangers of its excessive consumption in the Union.

According to Plutser-Sarno, Gorbachev’s campaign to eliminate drinking culture and alcoholism had several aspects to it. Policies included forcing distilleries and breweries to produce non-alcoholic drinks, while closing many retail outlets that sold alcohol (shops that were allowed to continue trading were only permitted to only sell alcohol between 2pm and 7pm).

At the same time the Soviet government raised drinks prices considerably in order to minimise the losses in revenue.

The result of these measures was drastically counter-productive, however, and encouraged the mass consumption of “alcohol surrogates”, as Plutser-Sarno explains.

“Such behaviour had existed before,” he writes, “but now hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of people were drinking substitute spirits. Tens of thousands of Soviet citizens died from poisoning each year.”

While various types of homemade drinks and moonshine vodkas were produced during this period, many people resorted to drinking colognes, chemicals (methylated spirit and denatured alcohol) and what became know as ‘pharmacy’ – medications and tinctures that contained alcohol.

The government campaign meanwhile involved the creation of a wide variety of posters (and also stamps) warning drinkers of the damage that they were doing to themselves and their families.

Many of the graphics make use of visual metaphors: bottles and glasses are repeatedly depicted as trapping the drinker, or transforming into weapons to wreak havoc on individual’s lives.

Plutser-Sarno says that the anti-alcohol campaign ended in effect on January 1 1988 “when the Council of Ministers of the USSR issued a decree that increased – by a small amount – the government-controlled manufacture and distribution of spirits”.

Later that year the Central Committee also issued a new directive entitled ‘On the Progress of Fulfillment of the Decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party on Intensifying the Measures against Drinking and Alcoholism’. “This officially marked the failure, and end, of the campaign,” says Plutser-Sarno.

The anti-alcohol poster exhibition at Pushkin House, London

The anti-alcohol drive succeeded in little more than helping to further “the disintegration of the country’s economy and the mass drinking that followed”.

According to Plutser-Sarno, even without taking the amount of bootlegged alcohol into account, the consumption of spirits in Russia grew by 233% between 1988 and 1998. While consumption figures were falling in several countries in Europe, in the Soviet Union things had become much worse, with repercussions lasting long into the future.

FUEL’s book captures the bold, graphic attempts made by designers to try and mitigate an unfolding crisis in Soviet society. In that sense they remain powerful examples of a communications programme – but one that failed utterly to work.

Alcohol: Soviet Anti-Alcohol Posters is published by FUEL; £19.95. The book is compiled, edited and designed by Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell and features two essays by Alexei Plutser-Sarno. See

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