Revolution and Prohibition — Beer, Blood, and the Bolsheviks

It’s 5 a.m. on May 30, 1896, but the sun is already high enough above the horizon to illuminate the forms of more than half a million Russians. Four days earlier, Tsar Nicolas II and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, had been crowned. In five hours, a celebratory feast is set to begin on Khodynka Field, a training ground for the Russian military set on the northwestern edge of Moscow. One-hundred-and-fifty food stalls, 20 bars, and a series of makeshift theaters have been erected to serve 30,000 buckets of free beer, along with pretzels, sausages, and gingerbread. A limited number of guests are set to receive a commemorative enamel mug bearing the symbols of the imperial crown and coat of arms. 

As the sky pales, the mood among the still-growing crowd is boisterous, yet tinged with an undercurrent of anxiety. Most of the onlookers camped out overnight. Already, rumors are beginning to spread that there may not be enough beer and mugs to go around. For many here, the stakes are high—it may be the first solid meal they’ll have in days. Peasants from the rural region surrounding the Volga River are still reeling from the famine of 1891-92, which killed as many as 400,000. At this time, the average life expectancy for a Russian man is 30 years old, and starvation is a common cause of death. 

No one knows who started the stampede, but within minutes a crush of bodies is pressing towards the front of the esplanade. The 1,800 police officers on duty are no match for the sheer force of the mob. As thousands charge toward the tented stalls, they fail to notice the uneven, muddied terrain at their feet. Khodynka Field is riddled with pits and trenches—the remnants of training exercises—most of which have been covered haphazardly with wooden planks. Bodies crash down into muddied earth to be trampled and suffocated underfoot. Within minutes, Khodynka Field has turned into a site of slaughter. By official counts, 1,389 people are dead and at least 1,300 are injured in one of the worst stampedes in human history. 

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