food / travel

Why Russia's Vodka Bootleggers Are Drunk With Success

On the rocks -- and on the rise
On the rocks -- and on the rise
Oleg Trutnev

MOSCOW - Legal vodka production in Russia was down nearly 40% in June from the same month last year. Could this mean that Russians are suddenly less devoted to this nationally beloved libation? Do they have fewer sorrows to drown? Unlikely. Instead, tax hikes on alcohol have made it more difficult for legal producers to compete with bootleggers, who already control an estimated 30% of the vodka market.

This is hardly unexpected. Since last year, experts have been warning that legal vodka production would slow down, following a 57% tax increase on hard liquor effective at the beginning of 2013. The tax on one liter of vodka used to be 254 rubles ($7.84), but with the new rate, taxes on the same bottle are now 400 rubles ($12.34).

The results of the new levy are dramatic. In just six months, vodka production fell 28%. Experts say if you compare June 2012 to June 2013, the drop is even sharper because the industry was ramping up production last June in preparation for the tax increase at the beginning of the new year. Comparing June 2013 to the same month in 2011 makes the industry slowdown seem less serious — just an 11% decrease.

But those numbers only tell part of the story. “Over the first half of this year, the sales of bootleg vodka in this country have taken on massive proportions,” says Vadim Drobiz, director of the Federal and Regional Alcohol Market Research Center. “Illegal vodka is being sold everywhere.”

Half a year ago, experts thought that legal vodka sales would drop by 10 to 15%, but now they are feeling less optimistic. “I will be happy if that number is 20% and not more,” says Andrei Strelets, owner of one vodka company. What's worse still is that taxes are set to increase again by 25% at the beginning of 2014, to 500 rubles ($15.4) per liter.

“We are already seeing major reductions in the legal market,” says Dmitrii Dobrov, representative of a major vodka production company. “But next year, when the taxes go up again... it’s scary just to think about it.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!