“Nikita Khrushchev was an oddly disarming fellow: five foot three and nearly as wide, with a face that seemed to be made from putty”.
THE big argument in this lush, brutal academic history of Russia is how vodka has fashioned its statecraft, set off revolution and doomed its people to centuries of poverty. How it might play in Russia is an interesting conversation:
– No, I don’t think we should get you a bear like Peter the Great, Vladimir. It would not play well on YouTube…
– Don’t upset yourself Vladimir, he is an American, a capitalist, a professor, he sits around reading all day, thinking, thinking…
– He’s probably a teetotaler too. You cannot distill 600 years of history into a bottle or two of vodka..
– I will check the tax revenues, it cannot still be as high as one third of all revenues from vodka, surely
– At least we have Coca Cola now. The new cold war – ethanol versus sugar. The Americans get drunker. We get fatter
– So where are our writers today?
– Good, let them keep drinking, it is better that way
Both of Russia’s great titan authors Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were teetotal. It was a political abstention, a protest that between them spans the best part of two centuries. The state ownership of distilling has been a catastrophic vice reaching a nadir after Tsar Nicholas insisted on bringing in prohibition (it would not last). That helped spark the revolution. While the state was busy printing more roubles to pay for war, the peasant could still brew his own in the backyard and for a time in the desolate, bleak early 1920s a bottle of vodka was a more valid currency than money.
This is rich in memorable anecdotes from Ivan the Terrible’s drinking to a worse-for-wear Leonid Brezhnev being put to bed by President Richard Nixon and how Crime and Punishment was originally titled The Drunkards.
“Drunkeness is our great national tragedy,” said Andre Sakharov.