In recent weeks, revolution in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv has given way to Russian intervention in the Crimean peninsula—a Ukrainian region with deep historical and national ties to Russia. Not only is Crimea home to Yalta, Feodosia and other sun-drenched resort communities that have catered to the Russian aristocracy since the time of the tsars, but the Crimean citadel of Sevastopol has also served as the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the imperial, Soviet and now post-Soviet eras.
If current tensions devolve into an actual “hot” war, it would not be the first Russian war in Crimea. Indeed, for many Russians, a victorious reclamation of the Black Sea peninsula—whether by means of Tuesday’s treaty or by violence—would help bury the ghosts of an ill-conceived, disorganized and festering 19th-century conflict that has made Crimea, for Russians, practically synonymous with disaster.
Not so well-known is that a principal cause of Russia’s embarrassing defeat in the (first?) Crimean War (1853-1856) was the country’s age-old vice: alcohol. From the inebriate and undisciplined peasant conscripts to their inept, corrupt and often even more soused army commanders, the lackluster military that Russia put into the field in Crimea was the unhappy product of the imperial state’s centuries-long promotion of a vodka trade that had become the tsars’ greatest source of revenue.