A History of Vodka 
by William Pokhlebkin, translated by Renfrey Clarke.
Verso, 222 pp., £17.95, December 1992, 0 86091 359 7
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Officials have found a uniquely Russian use for the nuclear power plant. They plan to turn it into a vodka distillery. Itar Tass news agency said that the Soviet-era plant, built five kilometers from the town of Nizhny Novgorod but never used, would join seven other alcohol-producing factories which have become the biggest source of local revenue. ‘But many townspeople are furious,’ Tass said. Nizhny Novgorod has plentiful supplies of liquor but is desperately short of heating.

Reuters from Moscow, 5 February 1993

Don’t expect a coffee-table book full of engravings showing muzhiks in boots and embroidered shirts stirring the grain mash to make the drink of Tsar and Commissar. Though repetitive and misnamed, tediously didactic and pro-Communist, this book is much more interesting than you’d expect. Like much Russian discourse, it’s not mainly about what it purports to be about. A History of Vodka is a threnody for the passing of Soviet socialism as seen through the prism of what William Pokhlebkin perceives to be the world’s greatest drink.

No question: the cold simplicity of vodka is an invitation to toss the 100 grams down the back of the throat and then to wait, with eyes watering, for the lovely atomic spread in the gut as the liquor explodes within. Vodka is a great drink. It may lack the subtleties of Scotch and the bourgeois splendour of brandy: but in its craggy purity, it stands on a peak of its own. Pokhlebkin did not set out to write a history of vodka, however. His commission, in the early Eighties, was both more limited and of greater importance to the Soviet state. Indeed, the very terms under which he began his study may have stirred the socialist patriotism which is the spine of the work, and which echoes still down the ruinous alleys of post-Soviet politics, fevered and murderous as they are – and laced with litres of the drink under discussion.

In the Seventies, the right of the Soviet state to call what it produced ‘vodka’ was challenged by foreign vodka companies – many of them headed by anti-Communist émigrés – who claimed to have been the first to market vodka in the late Teens and early Twenties of this century, while the production of vodka was still banned in the Soviet Union in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution. These challenges were seen off with little trouble, but in the early Eighties Poland raised a more serious claim to primogeniture, pointing to the period in the 18th century when the Polish Commonwealth stretched from Silesia to Western Ukraine, through present-day Belarus to Lithuania and along the Baltic coast. Shaken, the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Trade turned to the squads of tame Soviet historians with the request that they prove Russian vodka’s prior claim. Yet despite the best efforts of the staff of the Institute of History (to say nothing of the dedicated researches of the Higher Scientific Research Institute of the Fermentation products Division of the Central Department of Distilling of the Ministry of the Food Industry of the USSR), they failed; and Pokhlebkin, ‘as a civic duty’, undertook ‘objective historical research’, producing the monograph which Verso has turned into the present book.

Our objective author gives the details of his commission in words which now seem almost demented. He writes in the manner of a Soviet examining magistrate, describing the state’s case against a dissident before proceeding, with every show of seriousness, to take the ‘evidence’. He claims that it was in order to wreck the ‘triumphant festivities’ marking the 60th anniversary of the October Revolution and the adoption of a new Soviet constitution that ‘Western leaders’ mounted their attack on Russian vodka in 1977. The Polish challenge was worse, coming as it did from a fraternal state:

Only now, more than a decade later, has it become clear to everyone that there was nothing accidental, or even purely commercial, about the Polish action. Anti-Soviet factions had long been gathering strength in Poland. They were closely linked with various reactionary circles in Europe and America, and it was obvious even then that they were acting as agents for the Western ‘vodka kings’. But in formal terms they claimed to be defending the state interests of the Polish People’s Republic. For the Soviet organisation Soyuzplodoimport the situation was both unexpected and thoroughly unpleasant: our people were not accustomed to disputes with allies.

This last sentence, written without any detectable irony, is particularly fine.

In the course of his civic duty, Pokhlebkin occasionally improves on the soporific style of the Soviet academic, and his historical materialism, though not the subtlest deployment of the genre, leads him to make a few good observations. Using mainly etymological evidence, he finds that the first alcohol available in Russia was wine, imported from Byzantium and Asia Minor from the ninth century. From the 12th and 13th centuries, when the wine stopped coming, the drinking of mead, brewed from honey, became widespread. Not for the first time, Russia’s remoteness threw it back on its own resources: the stronger mead prepared the way for vodka. When supplies of honey became hard to come by, kvass, a grain based mead, became popular, growing ‘more powerful and stupefying’ over time. In 1382 it was blamed for Moscow’s surrender to the Tartars: the drunken defenders had been taken in by Tartar promises of gentle behaviour.

In one of the book’s best sections, Pokhlebkin attempts to date the first production of vodka. He believes it to have taken place in a Moscow monastery between 1440 and 1470, though much of the reasoning and ‘proofs’ are of the post hoc ergo propter hoc kind. His fundamental belief is that a date can be set through a correct reading of the socio-economic conditions. Only when alcohol had shaken off its identification with ritual and religion and entered a money economy as a commodity; only when the emergent state required a convenient vehicle for taxation; only when the state had developed the apparatus for enforcing the monopoly it early imposed on the drink; and only when the ruling class was sufficiently intelligent and ruthless to use vodka to influence social policy – only in these conditions, and within a grain-based agriculture, could vodka appear.

It appeared and ‘acted like an atomic explosion in the stagnant calm of patriarchal feudalism’. The state’s need for taxes confronted the Church’s increasing disapproval of the new liquor (though it had itself been the first to distil it). This clash between the spiritual and temporal authorities continued during the rise of the (state-employed) innkeeper, who was instructed not to eject drunkards but to keep them drinking for the sake of the revenues. The consequence was a generalised cynicism, deepening poverty and the creation of a drunken lumpenproletariat, the posadskaya golytba or urban poor.

States rarely give up control of what they find to be both financially rewarding and a means of social control; and the Church, having early lost its production monopoly, was finally forbidden to distil in the 18th century. The right of production was transferred to the gentry (by law, in Tsarist Russia, aristocratic ‘serfs’ of the Tsar), a move which ‘fixed the generally negative attitude of the Church to the “Devil’s poison” and brought about a clear division between Church and State: the first was permitted only to concern itself with people’s souls while the second assumed the right to influence their bodies.’

Vodka was not universally called ‘vodka’ until the 19th century, when it went into full-scale industrial production: before that, it was called, more often than not, Russkoye vino, ‘Russian wine’, especially by its consumers. Making vodka involved a constant process of diluting the distillate with water (voda), and eventually the diminutive of water was applied to the product. The gentry, time famously hanging heavy on their under-employed hands, introduced the water-purifying processes, which were eventually followed by industrial refinements, such as the use of aereated water: ‘All of this contributed to the creation of modern vodkas: that is, of a vodka which is not simply a means of getting drunk but a complex national product embodying the historical and technological imagination of the Russian people.’ The serf-owning gentry, getting grain and labour more or less free from their vast estates, were able to tolerate yields that were as low as 2 per cent of the volume of mash initially used in order to get the purest possible end-product. It was a closed world. Since all vulgar trade in vodka was banned by the state, production was merely for the domestic consumption of the gentry themselves.

Just as the industrial North bust up the slave-owning Southern States of the US, 19th-century capitalism broke into the cosy domesticity of vodka production. Pokhlebkin believes that capitalism’s effect on the quality of vodka ‘was disastrous for the common people’, who were deluged with cheaper-to-make potato and beet vodka, which in turn led ‘to the most unrestrained drunkenness’. It was in order to raise quality that the state was forced to re-introduce a monopoly at the end of the 19th century: ‘this policy of strict state control was continued and applied consistently after the Revolution of October 1917 and has saved vodka as a product prepared to a high standard from deteriorating.’ Evidently, Pokhlebkin does not think it worthy of consideration that another method is used in capitalist countries to safeguard the quality of their (inferior, in his view) spirits – the application of excise controls on private production. For him, as for many Russians, there is nothing between the strong state and chaos:

A monopoly on vodka has always been a distinguishing feature of stable regimes and tranquillity within the state. As soon as something disturbs the orderly course of domestic politics, the state loses control of vodka. And as soon as vodka is torn from control of the state, all conceivable disorders break out in domestic politics. Vodka clearly constitutes an effective index of the state of health of the society.

In the final chapter, Pokhlebkin casts aside the uncomfortable robes of the ‘objective scientist’ for the battle dress of the class warrior. From 1917 until 1937 the true Russian drink met its ideal state. After 1923 production and consumption were kept within rational limits both by Party morality and by severe laws against drunkenness. Only after 1937, when the production of all kinds of alcohol was expanded, did the rot begin to set in – initially among the ‘so-called creative intelligentsia ... and their hangers-on’. According to Pokhlebkin, there was a kind of sub-Stalinist plot which involved using vodka to finish off the true Leninists: Stalin’s henchmen, he says, ‘sought to undermine the puritan spirit and ideology of the Leninist old guard and of the mass of Party members, and to divert the bohemian passions of the intelligentsia into safe channels. With the help of alcohol they sought to cripple the tongues of potential critics; and at the same time to reinforce repression by advancing the cause of philistine petit-bourgeois elements who would form a social and political counterweight to the anti-Stalinist opposition within the Party.’ Did they really need vodka as well as Beria? Still more alarmingly, 100 grams of vodka per person per day was issued to the Red Army on demand, thereby eroding Bolshevik morality according to which sobriety was ‘essential to being regarded as a true Communist’.

After Stalin’s death, everything got worse still, with vodka generally available in state shops and prices kept low. Heavy drinking spread from the intelligentsia to the working class. It was a mistake, says Pokhlebkin, for the state to leave workers increasingly to their own devices. In the Sixties and Seventies wages were raised and political education was cut back. Demoralised by the state’s indifference, the workers naturally turned to drink: ‘During the Seventies, the Soviet working class underwent a general transition to a new mentality in which there was no place for moralistic condemnations of drunkenness, Thanks to the passing of new and less draconian laws, people had come to perceive the abuse of alcohol not as a social but as a personal matter. It was no longer possible to evoke a popular contempt for drunkards, since heavy drinking had lost its stamp as a grave offence incompatible with the Soviet system or with membership of the working class.’

Yet even a state grievously straying from Leninist ways could not remain indifferent to the vast losses of production consequent on open and generally unpunished drunkenness at work. Since Soviet society had made no distinction between controls at work and outside it, people naturally made little distinction between what they did when they were at work and what they did when they weren’t. As Soviet workers – and managers – saw it, if the state didn’t mind too much when people were drunk in their own time, they wouldn’t mind that much it they were drunk at work. Yuri Andropov, the short-lived successor to the lax (and heavy-drinking) Brezhnev, took the KGB route: harassing of drunks. Gorbachev, in his first manifestation as an idealistic back-to-Leninism leader, copied Lenin’s tactic: he banned it.

This evokes a passionate denunciation from Pokhlebkin, much of it wholly justified:

In the course of the anti-alcohol campaign, wine-producing state and collective farms were dissolved, thousands of hectares of vines, were up-rooted, wineries were shut down or assigned to other tasks and the equipment of vodka distilleries was dismantled. All these measures were undertaken in the spirit of the dawn of industrial capitalism in Britain, when illiterate and impoverished Luddites smashed the machines in the factories, thinking that it was the machines that were stealing their bread and putting them out of work. The fact that at the end of the 20th century the leadership of a socialist state could act in such a fashion testifies to the complete incompetence of this leadership, to its repudiation of the economic and political principles which should underlie socialist society ... the genuine Leninist position – ‘production is always necessary’ – was completely forgotten and faith was put in the discredited notion of prohibition. The supposedly proletarian state resorted to the idealistic fantasies of the bourgeois US legislators of the Twenties.

This strange book, in equal measure horrible and dignified, ends with a chapter insisting that the way in which Russians are generally supposed to drink vodka – knocking it back in large quantities – is a vulgarisation practised largely by mafiosi or nouveaux riches ‘who know nothing and understand nothing of Russian national culture’. Vodka should be drunk (and indeed it should) with the salty, spicy zakuski, or tasters, which precede a Russian meal. It was, says Pokhlebkin the Bolshevik:

during the years when domestic distilling by the gentry flourished ... and in the high aristocratic milieu, that the proper way of drinking vodka at the table came to be defined. Vodka should be served cold, almost frozen, and drunk in small barely perceptible mouthfuls (the verb used in Russian is prigubit, suggesting that the drink is tasted with the lips). At the same time, zakuski and prirogi (small pies) should be taken from the table. Each sip of vodka should he followed by a mouthful of food, accenting and setting off the taste.

This reads like good advice; and if allowed by the mafiosi and nouveaux riches – who appear almost to constitute the drinking classes of Russia – I shall follow it in future instead of assuming that one breaks a social rule by not dashing the blessed liquor against the epiglotis to the point of numbing it.

Pokhlebkin’s researches helped the Soviets finally to win their case against the Poles in 1982. ‘Thus an attempt by certain foreign circles to harm Soviet commercial interests and to use the question of vodka for scandalous and disreputable ends, including that of prejudicing Soviet-Polish relations, ended in failure.’ From Gdansk to Vladivostok, they are still drinking to that failure.

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