Among the Alconauts
Over a drink, an English investment fund manager working in Moscow told a friend of mine that the war in Ukraine meant everyone in his office had had to ‘downgrade their own futures’. They had been calculating that Putin would eventually calm down and things would get back to normal. He hasn’t, and it looks like nothing will ever be normal again. At the fund manager’s office, they’re talking about the possibility of 30 per cent inflation and GDP contracting by 10 per cent. Some of them have decided to relax and enjoy the apocalypse. Since the Kremlin banned food imports from the EU and US earlier this month, there's a sense of needing to party before the good things run out. They start drinking on Tuesdays now.
Moscow is structured like a whirligig, with concentric ring roads circling the Kremlin. On a night out, you can find yourself taking one cab after another (a chauffeur-driven Maybach or a rattling Lada) round and round the ring roads as you travel from bar to club to god knows where, faster and faster until the lights on the ring roads are a blur of hypnotic fairground brilliance and you are so drunk you feel yourself rising into the night sky. The Russians have a word for this type of ecstatic binge drinker: alconaut, which is believed to have entered the language in the early 1960s with Gagarin’s flight into space.
Alconaut drinking is sometimes associated with escape from authoritarian rule, as in Venedict Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line (1969), the alconaut’s guide to signing out of the Soviet system and booking into alcohol-enbalmed ‘inner immigration’. Aleksey Uchitel’s 2005 film, Dreaming of Space, played with the idea that the Soviet cult of the cosmonaut was not just about celebrating the Empire’s Glory but also a way of dreaming of freedom. One of the heroes, who claims to be training as a cosmonaut (it’s set in 1957), spends his days trying to swim far enough out to sea to reach Western ships.
At the end of Dreaming of Space we see news reels of Yuri Gagarin being celebrated by Khruschev and Brezhnev on Red Square (his shoe lace is undone). Gagarin was the ultimate Hero Sovieticus, the humble country boy raised by the Soviet system to be the first man in space. But then ‘they fed him booze until he broke,’ as a Russian director put it to me a few years ago. He wanted to make a film about Gagarin’s later years, but the Ministry of Culture had told producers they were expected to make patriotic films and my friend’s script, with its implication that the state used alcohol to keep the people pacified, didn’t fit.
The Kremlin’s use of alcohol as a tool of social control is explored by Oliver Bullough in The Last Man in Russia and the Struggle to Save a Dying Nation, which traces the life of a rebellious priest who fought against state-sponsored alcoholism, until he was broken by the KGB. In Bullough’s book, sobriety is analogous to dissidence. But there are other ways to configure the alcohol-politics axis. For my father, a poet who writes a lot about drink, choosing wine over vodka was a way to reconnect Soviet Russia with Western Europe. In the 1990s and early 2000s drinking wine rather than vodka was a sign of sophistication in Moscow. This meant it was strangely difficult to get drunk in some of the posher places: the wine was overpriced, vodka was sneered at. One of the first wine bars in Moscow was called Dissident, in a shiny business centre opposite the KGB headquarters on Lubyanka Square. It didn’t take long for the KGB-oligarchs to co-opt the new drinking habits. The story went round that Putin didn’t like vodka but enjoyed red wine.
Alcohol wasn't included in Russia's retaliatory sanctions against the US and Europe. The Kremlin seems to be identifying the fifth column who enjoy French cheeses, isolating and attacking the Camembert classes. But Moscow drinkers (and bankers) all hope Putin is aware that alcohol bans have been disastrous for the Kremlin in the past: the tsars banned the sale of retail vodka in the years leading up to the Revolution; when Gorbachev introduced prohibition it was the beginning of the end for the USSR; and the protests against Putin in 2011-12 came soon after a ban on selling alcohol after 11 p.m.
One report last week, however, put Moscow drinkers on edge. The Kremlin has ordered a million bottles of European wine so far this year, a 26 per cent rise on the same period last year. Could they be putting together a stash before imposing sanctions? It isn’t hard to imagine the Kremlin blocking European booze and lauding the patriotic qualities of Crimean and Krasnodar reds. Most of them are terrible but the other week in Moscow I drank my first pretty good Southern Russian white. It had been created with the help of French experts, who spent years on the job. If the wine wars begin in earnest, the West will have to ban vintners and oenologists from working in Russia.