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The Globe and Mail (Canada)
May 15, 2003
Vodka turns 500 with toasts to joy and misery
In Russia, it's more than just a drink, it's a must that delivers mixed blessings

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA -- Anatoly Litun pours two ice-cold shots of vodka, then launches into a tale.

He was a young man, many years ago, and a sailor at the time. A shipmate, the cook to be precise, was celebrating his birthday and invited Mr. Litun to join in a toast with a round of Russia's national drink. After they downed their glasses, Mr. Litun asked the cook how old he was. He was surprised at the alleged birthday boy's answer.

"I am now 30 years, two months and three days," the cook told him. Mr. Litun, now a bartender in St. Petersburg, smiles at the memory.

"That's what's so great about vodka. It allows us to celebrate not when there's a reason to, but when there isn't."

Mr. Litun is a vodka enthusiast by profession. His long, oak bar is the final stop in the three-room tour that is the Museum of Russian Vodka in St. Petersburg. A short walk from the golden domes of St. Isaac's Cathedral, the tiny museum represents another, somewhat less pristine, side of Russian life.

Vodka turns 500 this year and -- as the museum's exhibits demonstrate -- has long been more than merely Russia's national drink in the sense that wine is France's or beer is Belgium's. It's a liquid uniquely intertwined with the history of the country.

This is, after all, a nation that centuries ago chose Orthodox Christianity over Islam because Islam banned drinking and, in the words of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, "drinking is the joy of the Rus. We cannot live without it."

Among the displays are photographs and drinking utensils from the time of Peter the Great, a renowned vodka drinker who used to test future diplomats by making them down a metal "basket" of vodka -- roughly 1 litres of the strong stuff -- to see whether they could still talk sense. If they could still chat about government policy after imbibing, they were fit for a foreign posting.

The czar hauled the basket out again for guests who dared arrive late for his dinners or parties. Shamed-faced latecomers were forced to toss back the contents and endure the aftereffects for the entertainment of Peter's court.

"He did the same to ambassadors from other countries," said Elena Pushkareva, a tour guide at the museum. "After they drank, negotiations were difficult."

Perhaps Peter understood vodka's proximity to the Russian soul better than some of those who succeeded him. Nicholas II imposed a prohibition on the alcohol at the outbreak of the First World War and found himself deposed three years later. In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to restrict vodka sales, a move that contributed to his deep, lingering unpopularity among ordinary Russians.

Ms. Pushkareva isn't surprised that repeated attempts to limit Russia's vodka sales ended in failure. "By that time [1914], vodka was more than just a drink for us. It was part of our culture, part of our tradition."

The museum, which is sponsored by two major vodka distillers, features pictures of Mr. Gorbachev drinking tea, alongside photos of a staggering Boris Yeltsin, another Russian leader known for his love of the drink. There are also expansive theses and other scientific documents detailing the efforts of many Russian scientists to find the perfect vodka recipe.

Vodka has been both the subject of celebratory song, and the nation's comfort blanket in times of misery. The score for a prerevolutionary musical entitled Let's Drink! wound up in the museum, as did chestfuls of war medals.

During the coldest winter days of the Second World War, Joseph Stalin ordered that each soldier be given 100 grams of vodka a day. Some believe the liquid steeled Russian spirits and led them to victory over the Nazis.

Vodka, many believe, was first created by Russian monks mixing alcohol and water (the name vodka is derived from voda, the Russian word for water) in search of new medicines. As the drink turns 500 years old this year, many are pondering the mixed blessings that the spirit has brought its many patrons in this county.

Alcoholism, for which many blame the abundance of cheap vodka in this country, has long been one of the biggest drags on Russian society, and consumption continues to rise. Russian men, who do most of the drinking, die an average of 15 years earlier than Russian women. Every winter, hundreds of people in Moscow alone die from hypothermia after passing out drunk and falling asleep in the snow.

The primary benefits, meanwhile, have always been to government coffers. At the end of the czarist era, vodka taxes accounted for an estimated 33 per cent of state revenue. In Soviet times, they made up 20 per cent.

Even Mr. Litun, whose bar stocks dozens of brands of vodka, isn't sure whether the birthday should be celebrated or mourned.

"For many Russians, there are a lot of things implicated in this word vodka -- good and bad things," he said. "It's holidays, but it's also farewells to relatives or close friends [vodka is traditionally drunk at Russian funerals]. Any event, no matter how significant, is celebrated with vodka. But in many situations, with a lack of restraint it leads to bad things."

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