Of Vodka Lines and Books

Of Vodka Lines and Books

Three of my favorite anti-alcohol posters from Soviet Russia.
Three of my favorite anti-alcohol posters from Soviet Russia.

Winding their way through city centers, suburban spaces, and rural outposts, the ubiquitous vodka line simultaneously personified a long-standing history of Russian alcohol abuse, Gorbachev’s perestroika of the late 1980s, and the role of culture in defining what is and is not a commodity. Vodka was one of the earliest and most important units of exchange in Russia. From serf wedding negotiations to the rations paid to soldiers, it represented Russian manhood and was the cornerstone of the Russian working day.

I wonder what one of these men in line would say if you asked him about the value of their vodka. Is it the price of the vodka, which was cheap, that they would mention? Or, as Arjun Appadurai argues, commodities carry a cultural value along with their economic one, so the men would forefront vodka’s cultural value in their lives? According to Appadurai’s definition of a commodity, one which accords with Igor Kopytoff’s and Sidney Mintz’s, value is particular: in this case it was the judgment made about vodka by its makers and drinkers at that particular moment.

The existence of these lines, lines which men would spend hours in each day, is an example how vodka’s value was not as a thing, but as a relationship between the thing and the context. The price of the vodka was cheap, the demand was perpetually high, but its availability was strictly controlled. Its value is not only reflected in the price these men paid, but in their time, the social experience of the line, the state’s exercise of supply control, etc. This illuminates a far more complicated evolution of commodities (commodification?) which correlates to a concurrent evolution of meanings—meanings which are almost too numerous to adequately define, but incorporate both society’s relationship to the thing and the thing’s relationship to society (or culture in Kopytoff and Mintz).

Vodka in this context and sugar in Mintz’s share one meaning: a commodity which gradually became a necessity. Life without vodka or sugar was no longer livable, something evident in the presence of the vodka lines. This almost sacred relationship not only shifts the value of object to its individual consumer, but also to the larger system of value exchange. Just as sugar proved that the British colonial system worked, vodka lines in Russia did not bode well for the health of the Soviet economy.

The meaning of these commodities has thus far been literally consumable; however, what does this process look like when applied to another commodity—the book. The book, and the other print material this represents, is not always a commodity. Appadurai and Kopytoff argue that all objects are potential commodities, but are not necessarily always commodities. When a librarian cannot bear to cut the unbroken pages of the library book, when my sister organizes her library by color, and when I refuse to touch my illustrated Animal Farm with a pin, the book is no longer a commodity (though it might be a fetish). It is resingularized or a potential commodity in those moments, but its value comes from the culture not the economy.

But what if this idea is flipped? It is clear that not all objects are commodities, but one of the major questions which remain is whether or not Appadurai thinks all commodities are objects. A book has value as an object, but it also has a value as a unit of knowledge. Whether or not this knowledge, this non-object can achieve the status of commodity carries profound implications for this shifting understanding of value, a question which Appadurai raises but does not answer.

Materials Referenced:

1) Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penquin Books, 1986.

2) Appadurai, Arjun. “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

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