Journal article

Alcohol and Homicide in Early Twentieth Century Russia


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Publication Details

Author list: Carlson, Per

Publication year: 2005

Start page: 501

End page: 523

Number of pages: 23

ISSN: 0091-4509


Description Since the publication of Leon et al.s (1997) seminal study, alcohol has been increasingly recognized as an important factor in Russian excess mortality during the transition period (Nemtsov, 2002). Besides its more obvious contribution in the form of alcohol poisonings, liver cirrhoses, and alcoholic psychoses (Reitan, 2000), it has also been linked to cardiovascular mortality (McKee, Shkolnikov & Leon, 2001; Shkolnikov, McKee & Leon, 2001) and to deaths due to external causes (Shkolnikov & Mesle, 1996). In particular, it has been associated with homicide. In the period 1965-1984 a connection was observed between these two phenomena at the aggregate level in Russia (Nemtsov, 2001). Although this seems to have become somewhat weaker as other factors, such as the rise of a new criminal elite, have become important for homicide during the transition period (Nemtsov, 2001), alcohol nevertheless continues to play an important role in violent mortality in contemporary Russia (Pridemore, 2002a). Indeed, up to 80% of all homicide offenders may be intoxicated at the time the offense is committed (Chervyakov et al., 2002). This connection between alcohol and homicide in Russia is not new. Although during the Soviet period statistics relating to all ""unacceptable"" causes of death, including homicide, were withheld by the authorities (Pridemore, 2001), Soviet criminologists using smaller samples were nonetheless able to highlight the existence of this relationship while discussing the nature of homicide more generally. Research from the 1960s showed that between two-thirds and three-quarters of all intentional homicides involved alcohol (Connor, 1973; Shelley, 1987), although there were large interregional variations that may have had a ""cultural"" component underlying them--i.e., where alcohol consumption levels were lower among certain populations, such as the Moslem groups of the Caucasus region (Connor, 1973). For Russia this figure (74%) remained constant until the end of the Soviet period, according to court statistics (White, 1996). Despite the presence of this relationship during the second half of the 20th century, it would be premature to conclude that this was merely a Soviet phenomenon that continued into the post-communist period. The detrimental effects of alcohol on morbidity and mortality in Russia were fully understood by the first decade of the 20th century (White, 1996). During this period increased levels of drunkenness were also blamed for the rising levels of violent criminality in both the city and the countryside (Snow, 1987; Neuberger, 1993; Frank, 1999). This may explain why statistics relating to the state (sober/inebriated) in which offenders committed criminal acts were recorded by the judicial authorities from 1904 onwards. Even while arguing that the quality of these statistics was less than ideal, Tarnovskii (1908) nonetheless suggested that there was a connection between alcohol consumption and homicide. (1) Alcohol was also argued to be a factor behind the increase in certain motives underlying homicide during the early part of the 20th century (1901-1910) (Melnikov, 1917) which included the ""revolutionary years"" 1905-1907, when a large increase in the number of homicides was observed (Gernet, 1974; Ostroumov, 1980). Study aim This study aims to extend the existing research on the relationship between alcohol and homicide in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods by using vital statistics to examine this relationship statistically in the latter years of the tsarist regime, 1909-1911. This was one of the most turbulent periods in Russian history. The rapid industrial advance that began in the last decade of the 19th century (Falkus, 1972) had its corollary in increasing levels of urbanization as thousands of peasants flocked into the largest cities (Bater, 1996). The social and structural changes created by this process were being exacerbated by the dislocations still being felt from the defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and the 1905 Revolution. Moreover, change was occurring not only in the cities. Prime Minister Stolypins attempt (1906) to alter the structure of the Russian countryside by creating a class of landowning peasants was helping turn peasants against one another (Melnikov, 1917). In relation to this, it is important to examine whether these factors had any impact themselves on homicide rates. After consulting contemporary criminological literature (Messner & Rosenfeld, 1999; Pridemore, 2002b) and historical studies of the correlates of crime in other societies (Lodhi & Tilly, 1973; McHale & Johnson, 1976; Zehr, 1976), several structural variables were used as controls and were adjusted for in the analysis of the relationship between alcohol consumption and homicide (Table 2). Most of these variables fall within what has been termed ""social disorganization theory"" in the criminological literature. This theory has its roots in the writings of people such as Tonnies and Durkheim, who suggested that as the processes of urbanization and modernization occurred, the bonds once holding traditional communities together were broken. Factors such as higher levels of residential mobility, greater population densities, and ethnic heterogeneity are all now argued to result in less integration and increased societal disorganization. In these conditions weakened social control allows both crime and violence to grow (Pridemore, 2002b). It should also be noted, however, that despite the abovementioned changes, at this time Russia still remained very much a rural society. If a relationship between alcohol and homicide can therefore be identified in this earlier period, when Russian society was very different from the way it is today, this would suggest that other factors, apart from, for example, the effects of large-scale urbanization and industrialization in the Soviet years, or social shock and societal disorganization in the transition period, might have been important in linking alcohol and homicide in Russia across the course of the 20th century. Data and methodology Data Homicide Unlike the earlier research conducted in tsarist Russia, which used judicial statistics, this article makes use of the vital statistics data on homicide. Data for the years 1909-1911 were drawn from the Report on the State of Public Health (Otchet o sostoyanii narodnago zdraviya), a publication issued annually by the directorate of the chief medical inspector of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Upravlenie glavnogo vrachebnago inspektora M. V. D.). It contained information about the total number of homicides (i.e., corpses where a forensic-medical examination had determined homicide as the cause of death) in the provinces of the Russian Empire. It also contained regional population data that allowed crude homicide rates to be calculated for each region. Although the quality of medical data from this period has been criticized as being somewhat rudimentary (Novoselskii, 1916), we have no evidence that it was either deliberately or systematically distorted. A homicide rate for each study region was created from these data by dividing the...


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