The production of vodka in Russia is one of the country's most profitable businesses and, with hundreds of competing brands, a symbol of its incipient free-market economy. In a two-part feature, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports on the pleasures, profits --and politics -- of Russia's perennially popular grain spirit.
Moscow, 30 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- "On the table is a bottle and small glasses. Come, little missus, pour the spirits, let's drink a glass of sweet vodka, it will make our hearts merrier. We drink a glass of vodka for happiness, it warms our hearts."
This gypsy song says a lot about the importance of vodka under the Soviet regime. But actually, the national grain spirit has been both the balm and the curse of Russians for the past six centuries. And today in post-Soviet Russia, after 70 years of uniform state production, hundreds of distillers have again been learning how to make and sell vodka -- and the state, again, learning to control it.
Post-soviet Russia first had to learn how to drink -- as well as make -- real vodka again, says Boris Smirnov. Head of the Smirnov distillery that was founded by a his great-grandfather -- a former serf and caterer to the imperial court -- Boris Smirnov, Junior resigned from a job at the KGB to pick up where his ancestor had left off -- producing one of Russians' most popular vodka brands. Speaking on Radio Liberty's "Face-to-Face" program recently, he said that part of his job is re-introduce the traditional Russian way of drinking vodka -- at room temperature.
"Any kind of vodka should have a taste, an aroma. [To cool] it would be like putting cognac or whiskey in the refrigerator. Will the whiskey, the cognac then taste good? No. [Anton] Chekhov, and [Lev] Tolstoy and many other Russian writers often used [vodka] for domestic scenes in which the master of the house opens a little cupboard, takes out a decanter, and pours the vodka. The carafe is [always] at room temperature!"
Good quality vodka, says Smirnov, is made from good quality grain alcohol and fresh spring water -- never distilled, because the water would have no taste. It is said that the perfect vodka formula was invented in the 19th century by -- of all people -- the scientific pioneer Dmitry Mendelyev. In addition to devising his table of elements, Mendelyev also apparently was involved in more practical chemistry -- the perfect mix of water and alcohol.
Smirnov says that distilleries must now work on duplicating the diversity of vodkas available in Russia during the 19th century. It was fashionable then for a well-to-do household to put on the table a selection of vodkas for every letter of the alphabet, many of them flavored with different fruits and berries.
Smirnov also says that there is an unbeatable vodka quality test for Russians.
"When a man drinks [vodka] once, then twice, and wakes up fresh as a cucumber and can easily go to work, he'll buy [that brand] a third and a fourth time. That's because he understands that, after whatever [excess], he will wake up the next morning feeling like a human being."
Russians these days are digging into their vodka heritage. A "History of Vodka" by a well-known Russian gastronomic critic is habitually out of print. A vodka museum recently opened in the heart of Russia's historical and picturesque Golden Ring region, some 250 kilometers northeast of Moscow, offers a taste to every visitor. Vodka tastings also take place regularly both in Moscow and in the regions.
In the Russian regions today, vodka has become both a cultural token and an economic boon. Nikolay Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Moscow, has written a detailed study of the role of vodka in the regions. He told our correspondent that vodka has come to carry a region's identity and, as a result, is also an important economic tool.
"[Vodka is now] a remarkable indicator of regional identity. In the conditions that prevailed after the extreme poverty of the Soviet period -- when there were just a few regional brands of vodka -- suddenly every region had the possibility of producing vodka independently. [A distiller, of course, wants] the consumer to buys his vodka and not another. So he looks for a way to the heart of his regional consumer, and uses some symbolism -- characters, events, places that are dear to the inhabitants of just his region."
By the same token Moscow's famous Kristall distillery, maker of Stolchinaya and other brands, shows on the bottle of its Dolgorukovskaya brand -- named after the prince who founded Moscow -- one of the capital's main landmarks on Red Square, a three-dimensional Saint Basil's Church. In the Tambov region, natives drink a Tambov Wolf brand, and in the Urals they choose a vodka named White Mink after one the region's most famous animals. Petrov concludes: "Vodka has become a region's business card, it's image."