John Lloyd

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:

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