The Prose (and Cons) of Vodka | Dmitrii Stakhov, translated by Thomas Newlin

from Gastronomica 5:1

Once you think about it, the old “snow, bears, and vodka” stereotype about Russia isn’t too far off the mark. There’s snow on the ground here half the year, and though bears have taken a real hit over time, they’re still the symbol of our country’s most powerful political party, the Kremlin-backed One Russia, as well as a target for protection by zealous conservationists. As for vodka, the last part of our trinity, Russians drink it just as they always have. But here I should note that vodka is more than just alcoholic drink No. 1 in Russia: it has become a symbol, a cultural yardstick, a signifier. It is also firmly established as a kind of socioepistemological gauge (“Do you know so-and-so?” “Sort of, but I’ve never drunk with him, so I can’t really say what kind of person he is”), as well as an important quick fix for the state budget, since Russian politicians traditionally have never had much use for long-term planning and prefer instead to draw straight from the nearest trough. The fact that so many people have turned into drunken loonies as a result has never been of any particular concern to them: vodka production has always been a top strategic priority, every bit as important as the production of, say, the Satan intercontinental ballistic missile.

Nevertheless, as a true yardstick of Russian life, vodka has on numerous occasions ceded its status as drink No. 1 to various other, at times highly exotic, beverages. During the late 1970s some friends and I were on a fishing trip along the Volga River near Kalinin, now Tver. We stopped en route at a little general store, the Leningrad, to pick up some supplies, and there, right out on the shelf, among what for a Soviet consumer constituted an extraordinary array of choices, we came across a dry Spanish red, Rioja Alta, the very same wine that Hemingway wrote about in The Sun Also Rises. (The open-stack access to alcohol that Soviet consumers enjoyed at the time didn’t last long at all: stealing was endemic, and people would even guzzle stuff down right on the spot. I was personally acquainted with a guy—a radio technician for fighter planes—who could chug down a bottle of vodka in eleven seconds flat, thirteen max.) The rioja was insanely expensive—four and a half rubles, I think—but was duly purchased nonetheless, and not just one bottle, mind you. We put it all away that same evening in one sitting. Although we still had a backup supply of alcohol, we decided we needed a little something to whet our palates during the day, so we headed off by motorboat to one of the villages along the river to check out its store. The congregation of glum-looking fellows smoking acrid cigarettes into their fists and eyeing us unsympathetically immediately made it clear that there wasn’t any vodka: they were waiting for the arrival of the delivery truck and had no use for added competition from us.

© Photograph by Faina Osmanova

On display inside the store itself was a row of very strange bottles—by all appearances milk bottles, and sealed like milk bottles with little round foil caps, but containing some sort of murky lilac-colored liquid. The locals explained that this was a product of the fish-processing facility nearby and that it was something that even they, having fallen on hard times, hesitated to drink. But we weren’t about to wait around for the delivery truck, so we bought some of this “fortified” stuff and headed back to our camp. It wasn’t until later that night, around the campfire, that we screwed up enough courage to give Kalinin’s vin de terroir a try. The effect was quite literally breathtaking: our jaws clenched, our throats constricted in spasms, our stomachs contracted. After the first swig we felt like our insides had been turned inside out. We had no choice but to chuck it all. My only regret was my father’s prized Japanese mug: the enamel, which up until then had withstood every kind of libation imaginable, had turned a permanent shade of vile pink.

Indeed, there has long been a sense that drinking in Russia—and drinking in Russia means drinking alcohol—is a, well, fluid phenomenon. Vodka (or for that matter any other type of booze whose alcohol content is calculated in relation to vodka’s proof) has always had a certain inherent dynamic volatility. Vodka, for example, has served not only as a mark and a gauge of respect, as a substitute for religion, and as a measure of value that at times, even quite frequently, replaced money; it has also been a measure of value that has fluctuated rapidly, even precipitously. During the Brezhnev era, for instance, the standard unit of exchange—the proverbial bottle—never had, for all its considerable worth, the kind of value that it would acquire later on, at the height of Gorbachev’s sobriety campaign.

In any case, around 1986, when vodka simply stopped being sold, in exchange for just one of those proverbial bottles it was possible to get two tugboats with a total crew of seven men to spend an hour and a half freeing up a yacht that had run aground on a shoal on Lake Beloye: in other words, an undertaking that at the going rate should have cost close to one hundred and fifty rubles if contracted through strictly official channels was done at a fortieth the price by a bunch of guys who were simply eager to toss down (strictly unofficially!) a healthy dose of Russia’s life-giving elixir. What’s more, vodka’s vaunted status as an indicator of respect, faith, and so on has changed with the times. In short, everything under the sun ebbs and flows, like the ever-coursing vodka that flows eternally to, and from, the glass (or mug, crystal goblet, milk carton, lens cap—underline your choice or insert something else as appropriate), and all things—the pleasant buzz, the drunken stupor, the hangover—must pass. As a recent flag-waving ad for a certain type of beer puts it, everything—“along with Russia, with our whole country!”—is on the move.

Actually, it was not during the Gorbachev era, with its patronizing alcohol-rationing system, when the sheer idiocy of the government topped even the yawning heights of stupidity attained in the Brezhnev years (no mean accomplishment!) that we got our first whiff of certain potentially radical changes in how and what we drink. This happened, rather, in the brief period between Brezhnev and Gorbachev, during the Andropov-Chernenko interregnum.

At that time a dry law was selectively imposed on some territories by state and party officials. For instance, in the oil- and gas-rich regions of Eastern Siberia the sale of vodka and other types of liquor (with the exception of expensive brands of cognac and fortified wines at certain specially designated locations, such as hotel bars, where a so-called bar tax was tacked onto the already high prices) was permitted only to the local, i.e., indigenous, population, which was already hopelessly wracked by alcoholism. Even the Tsarist government had refrained from selling them vodka, believing—quite rightly—that if they did no one from among the native tribes would be left after two or three generations. Unable to consume all the vodka allotted to them, the reindeer-herding Ostyaks would sell their surplus to the pipeline workers, who were likewise supplied by speculators who flew in from “the mainland.”

Once, on a business trip to this region, I took along a few bottles of the vodka then making the rounds, referred to as “Andropovka,” which sold for four rubles and twenty kopecks, eight kopecks higher than the old price, because the cost of the bottle itself had gone up. I was neither a speculator nor, of course, a native—just an ordinary journalist. Some of the vodka I drank with “local comrades”; some I gave away as a gift. On the way out of these hospitable climes, I got stranded in a little settlement called Berezov, situated on the river Sosva, a tributary of the Ob: the landing strip of the little airport there had been washed out by heavy rains. This was the same place, incidentally, where back in the early eighteenth century Peter the Great’s good buddy Alexander “Aleksashka” Menshikov languished in exile after falling out of favor with the Tsar. I was wandering around the airport hangar waiting for the helicopter that was supposed to take me to Khanty-Mansaysk when another guy there—likewise stranded—motioned me over. “Hey, how about a quick drink?” he asked. We headed off to the back of the hangar. The guy was carrying a plastic bag that you couldn’t see through; I immediately started trying to guess what might be in it. Vodka? Wine? Eau de cologne? If it was eau de cologne then it would actually be better if it were one of the cheaper kinds, which during the Soviet period were made almost entirely from decent-quality spirit of alcohol with a bit of perfume mixed in. But what if it was that particular bargain brand called “Clove”—thick, super-spicy, and completely undrinkable? However, what he pulled out surprised even me, someone who had seen pretty much everything: the bag contained a bottle of window-cleaner from Estonia, at that point still part of the glorious ussr. Clearly relishing my shock, my newfound friend assured me that this particular kind of window-cleaner, which cost twenty-seven kopecks a half liter, was one you could drink, despite its fluorescent blue color and label that said “Poison,” whereas window-cleaner for thirty-four rubles should not be drunk under any circumstances, even though it didn’t have a warning label and was an innocuous straw-yellow color. Nonetheless, I flatly refused to touch the stuff. “Well, in that case at least stay and spot me,” he said, pouring himself half a mug. Evidently, he needed somebody there just in case to administer emergency first aid as necessary—cpr, mouth- to mouth resuscitation. He drank the mug down in one shot. His face, quite pale up until then, was instantly suffused with blood; his eyes rolled; spit frothed thickly from his mouth. For some reason it seemed to me that this must be what the face of a man being executed in an electric chair looks like when the current first hits. He exhaled loudly, spat, blew his nose. Then he thrust his hand into the plastic bag, pulled out a chunk of black bread, and tore into it with his crooked teeth. “That’s what they do to us folk!” he exclaimed, spewing crumbs. “They wanna knock us off, they do! Nothing doing, bub!”

Who would have guessed that not long afterwards, back in Moscow, at a booth hawking tobacco and alcohol (it was the strangest of times, when you’d find fake French cognac side by side with real Cuban cigars in the merchandise stalls that sprang up everywhere almost overnight), I should find myself standing in line behind a man who bore an uncanny resemblance to my rotgut-swilling pal from Berezov. This look-alike had already settled on cigarettes and had one of them—a menthol brand, for ladies, called “More”—dangling from his puffy lips. Now, he was trying to decide what to drink. Finally, he espied a bottle of imitation Amaretto liqueur. “OK, that one there!” he barked, poking with his finger at a glass case with a funereal-looking crepe border. “And two beers. Nah, not our stuff, gimme some of that Czech beer, the ‘Golden Pheasant.’”

And then it hit me that the era of window-cleaner, bf glue (the alcohol was extracted on a drill press by spinning a drill with a nozzle attachment in a big glue pot), denatured alcohol (always cut with sugar to make it drinkable), and even brake fluid mixed with antifreeze (a combo that simply killed people outright) was drawing forever to a close. Now we had a real choice—meaning life had changed. Not necessarily for the better, but it had definitely changed. And with life the very framework of drinking itself in Russia had changed—both the conceptual framework and, pretty much inevitably, the economic framework, its price structure. If fifteen years ago the vodka-to-beer price ratio was one bottle of vodka to nine bottles of beer, now it was one bottle to just three; likewise the vodka-to-whiskey-and-other-outlandish-foreign-stuff price ratio, as well as the vodka-to-wine ratio, had changed tenfold, and certainly not in vodka’s favor.

Nowadays you see well-endowed young ladies, their pinkies thrust out with studied nonchalance, sucking gin and tonics through straws out of tall skinny glasses; cast-off empties of the latest hip beers rock and roll across subway car floors; and on the outskirts of Moscow, hard by the trolleybus stops, in those same islands of stunted grass where you used to see guys splayed out on their backs, cut down on their way home from work at the local auto plant by the proverbial “green devil,” they’ve now put up nice little “beer gardens” where you can eat hotdogs, munch on snacks, and sip on every kind of beer under the sun until all hours of the night. And to think that just thirteen years ago you could get only one kind of beer; you could buy it only if you brought in empties to exchange, and it tasted like … Nah, as for what it tasted like, I’d better not go there.

The very essence of vodka—its animating spirit, if you will—has changed too. It was not without reason that Oscar Rabine, one of the leading nonconformist artists of the Brezhnev era, sardonically depicted the bell tower of an abandoned church in the form of a vodka bottle, a drunk lying in a puddle before it. The era of vodka-as-religion is drawing to a close, and we come across fewer and fewer drunks wallowing in puddles. But Russians aren’t drinking less; in fact, statistically we are drinking more now than ever.

The more choice and variety we have, it would seem, the less tolerance we have on a purely human level: there now is a kind of callousness to us, a lack of ordinary everyday decency that in the past would simply have seemed un-Russian. It used to be that someone would invariably make sure that the local drunk got home safely; now that same drunk is lucky if he’s only robbed of his last penny. These days it’s pretty much impossible to go into a store, as we once did all the time, with only a ruble plus change in your pocket and find two other guys in the same dilemma with whom you can “fix things up” on the spot—that is, go in on an impromptu threesome to buy a bottle of vodka. Now, it’s every man for himself, and the drinking parties that used to take over apartment-block playgrounds after dark are a thing of the past. These same playgrounds now attract a younger, largely teenage set, most of them with suspiciously dilated pupils.

And of course vodka itself, as a product, has changed too. Although the enormous array of different vodkas available in Russia far outstrips all the whiskeys and bourbons combined, the vodka we all once knew—the kind of stuff that those guys near Tver were waiting for—can no longer be bought: the unmistakably disgusting-tasting hooch of yore has been replaced by a “high-quality” product put out by a distinctly new type of factory. A new phrase has lately been added to our lexicon: “scorched vodka,” meaning vodka that has been produced without a license from contraband alcohol with a very high proportion of fusel oils. This is a kind of vodka that won’t give you a nice buzz but will give you a wicked headache. And you don’t have to be out in the country to get sick on scorched vodka—you can buy it unknowingly in supposedly respectable stores in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Its producers make fantastically accurate knock-offs of the bottles, labels, and screw-tops of genuine vodka brands and have even figured out how to put on “quality seals” that look exactly like the laser-generated originals.

Vodka, it would seem, is gradually losing all the qualities that once made it something special. It’s becoming just another product, an ordinary commodity—one among many—without any particular meaning or value. The poetry, the mythos, the thrill of vodka is gone, and the prose of the free market has filled the vacuum. Perhaps that’s the way it should be. But all the same, prose (and don’t get me wrong here: I’m far from nostalgic about the past) will always be just prose—even if it’s the prose of vodka that we’re talking about.