Thursday, January 12, 2012

by Linda Himelstein

The Russian word for vodka is voda, which means water and before it became the national beverage in Russia, it was used for other purposes. Back in the 1500s, vodka was a disinfectant for wounds and could be massaged into the back and chest. Soon enough, though, more people were drinking it especially if they needed something to calm them down. (It was actually given to women in labor.) The Russian monarchy encouraged the imbibing of vodka because it increased the revenue for them (they controlled its economy).
There were many vodka retailers during the 1880s but only one led the way and made him very wealthy. His bottles would grace the tables of royalty from the Russian tsar to other countries in Europe. Pretty outstanding for an ex-serf.
Peter Arsenievich Smirnov was born into poverty; his parents were basically slaves working on a farm and tending the fields of their landowner. Everything that they earned they had to share with their master. It was certainly not the kind of life that any of them wanted forever and Pyotr's uncle would be the first family member to gain his freedom. Grigoriy had the idea of opening up a drinking establishment near Moscow. In no time at all, he was successful and his status changed from serf to trading peasant. Soon he had many pubs, a brewery and a wine cellar. It was into this environment that Pyotr arrived and learned everything from the ground up. His stamina, determination, aggressiveness and great business sense would spiral him upwards to an incredible legacy.
The King of Vodka is a terrific book. Linda Himelstein brings you right to the world of nineteenth-century Russia where you learn about how vodka was produced (Smirnov had different varieties such as fruit-flavored drinks), the monopolization of the trade, the enforcement of sobriety pushed by Chekhov and Tolstoy, what happened to the brand during and after the Russian revolution, and the Smirnov family's involvement.
Himelstein's quite diligent research is very good and and she certainly knows how to tell a fascinating tale.