Vodka: Russia's holy devil - 2 April, 2004

The Russian vodka museum in St Petersburg is one of the most visited places in the city. It is not the only one of its kind in Russia but its very location in Konnogvardeisky Bulvar within walking distance of two of the city's biggest tourist draws - the Bronze Horseman statue and St Isaac's Cathedral - is an eloquent testimony to its status. It is the equivalent of having a beer museum opposite Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square in London or a cognac museum near the Napoleon tomb in the Dome des Invalides in Paris.

In anticipation of the tourist season and with the spring already in the air, the unique museum has added a new variety of moonshine apparatus to its exhibits and a new brand of vodka for nightclubs and discos in its tasting hall. In the second case, the vodka comes with a lemon taste. This encapsulates the two faces of vodka: the traditional and historical one reminding us that vodka is the raw nerve of all Russian history, and the modern and global one, telling us that for the new urban generation dwellers vodka is just a beverage.

For Slavs, drinking has always been something different than for West Europeans, as the very baptism of Russia and adoption of Christianity, for example, presuppose the drinking of inebriating liquids. When pondering over which faith to adopt - Christianity, Judaism or Islam - Kievan Grand Prince Vladimir a thousand years ago rejected Islam because it imposed severe restrictions on the consumption of hard liquor, while "drinking in Rus is a great joy and cannot be dispensed with".

True, the prince meant something else than vodka, because Ancient Rus did not know anything about it, as people then drank time beverages at no more than 12% proof. The secret of vodka was revealed to the Russians by visiting Genoa merchants. However, in general, present-day "classic" vodka was invented by the great chemist, Dmitry Mendeleyev, in the second half of the 19th century, as he discovered that the 40% water-alcohol mixture generated the most heat and was the most homogeneous. He also developed the basic principles of the modern vodka industry.

At first, vodka had no name of its own. In Ukraine, whose territory is known to have given birth to Russian civilisation over a thousand years ago, the southern villages still use the word "okovyta", which is easily derived from the Latin "aqua vita". But by the middle of the second millennium the Russian people had come to call the colourless and transparent strong drink vodka, from the Russian word "voda" (water).

God, bread, water and vodka were the mainstays of Rus.

God takes you to his Kingdom, the tsar grants bread to soldiers on the march, water is provided by nature, while vodka is a perennial driver of the state's wheels. And also petrol for the engine of Russian idealism: "vodka is as clear as a tear" is the typical Russian attitude to this beverage.

But apart from idealism, the Russian authorities also used vodka to serve their aims, with greater or lesser success. Peter the Great ordered vodka to be distributed to workers who were building St Petersburg, waist deep in the marsh water. The last two Russian tsars - Alexander and Nicholas- made the vodka excise all but the foundation of their budgets. Stalin signed a decree on issuing an obligatory hundred grams of vodka to be given to soldiers going into attack. However, Gorbachyov introduced a dry law and, thus, seriously undermined his authority, while Yeltsin sometimes appeared to be under the influence.

Vodka also acted as a lie detector under Peter the Great and under Stalin. Peter specially soused his ministers to understand their ulterior motives. It is coincidence that one popular Russian proverb goes "The sober man thinks what the drunkard says". Stalin drank his associates under the table to allay his suspicions.

Teetotallers, such as Nikolai Bukharin, were the first to fall into the abyss of Stalin's reprisals. And, lastly, crime bosses of the 19th and even the 20th century preferred to discuss their matters while drinking - vodka, they believed, was an earnest of fairness.

But no matter how high the prestige of vodka was among the people, permanently living under stress and maximum physical strain, Russia has always revered absolute teetotallers. None of the saints tasted anything alcoholic. Even the infant Sergius of Radonezh turned away from his mother's breast: everything except water was sinful to drink. And yet there was one exception to the rule - holy fools. They could drink right at the entrance to the church and not lose their sanctity in the eyes of beholders. Dostoyevsky felt keenly the mystic aspect of liquor. In his novels vodka - like money or love - is an acid test for the strength of a person's morals. He did not like teetotallers much, and champagne is flowing freely in many scenes of his novels. By the end of his life Dostoyevsky even considered writing a novel called "Tipsy Ones", where Christ himself passes a verdict on such a life in the hour of the Last Judgement: and you tipsy ones go to paradise.

Today Russia has lost its taste for vodka and is gradually switching to beer. Beer sales grow from year to year, while vodka consumption is declining. The art of drinking is becoming a thing of the past and the St Petersburg vodka museum is proof of this change.

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Author`s name Editorial Team