Vodka: "The Bitter Stuff"
Note: The images discussed in this essay are available here [requires PowerPoint]
“There is hardly a person in the multilingual world that surrounds us who, if Russia
Since its introduction to Russia in the 1300s, vodka has achieved an iconic status. As the initial epigraph from the Moscow’s Museum of Vodka webpage demonstrates, the drink has become a symbol of Russia to rival brown bears, caviar, or matryoshka. To understand how influential vodka is in Russian culture, the history of the relationship between Russia and vodka must be examined.
At the start of the 12th century, this substance was often used for medical purposes—to disinfect and to numb. Interestingly the verb razvodit—etymologically close to the word voda, from which the word vodka is derived—means to dilute with water. This meaning of the word reflects the last step of the process of making vodka. During the 17th and 18th century, vodka also went by the names “bread wine,” “bitter wine,” and “горящее вино“ (goryashchee vino), meaning “burning wine.” The first name “bread wine” is derived from the imperial practice of having vodka with bread at every meal, while the latter two clearly come from the taste and burning sensation that accompany a sip of vodka. The first recorded use of the actual term vodka did not occur until 1751 in Empress Elizabeth’s decree regulating the ownership of vodka distilleries. Vodka is still the most common name for this drink, today, but it has acquired a litany of others, including: “hot water,” “the monopolka,” “the bubble,” “crankshaft,” “the white stuff,” “half litre,” “daughter,” and “the bitter stuff.” 
Physically, vodka is composed of ethyl alcohol (fermented grain, rye, wheat, potatoes, or sugar beet molasses) and water. Typically, the alcoholic content per serving is between 35-50%; the standard Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish vodkas, however, are more exactly around 40% (80 proof). This standard was established by Tsar Alexander III in 1894 as a vodka quality standard after the chemist Dmitri Mendeleev affirmed that the ideal alcoholic content for vodka was 38%. In order to simplify the calculation of the tax on vodka, as alcohol taxation was based on alcoholic strength, the number for the quality standard was rounded to 40%. In the “Vodka belt”—Eastern Europe and the Nordic countries—vodka is generally drunk “neat”; elsewhere vodka is more commonly found in mixed drinks like the Screwdriver, Bloody Mary, White Russian, or Vodka Tonic. In Russia vodka was usually only sold in buckets (12.3 liters) until about 1885, though it is unclear why this change in volume occurred. Possible factors are an increased strength in vodka in the 18th century, and the subsequent standardizing of alcoholic content in the 19th century. Once the higher potency of vodka was standardized, it may have then seemed a wise idea to downsize the serving size.
The production of vodka involves heavy filtration of the substance. Much of the “fore-shots” (spirit containing flavor compounds produced at the start of each run from a still) and “tails,” (oily spirits produced at the end of a run), are discarded today in order to leave the vodka clear in color. However, many traditionalists, especially in Russia, prefer to distill vodka minimally to leave much of its characteristic flavors. It is also popular to add flavor to vodka; typical flavors include: honey and pepper or “Pertsovka,” red pepper, cherry, pear, caraway seed, and cinnamon. In traditional Russia almost every landowner had their own special flavor.
Over the course of Russia’s history, vodka has featured prominently in social, political and militaristic arenas. Its consumption is an important celebration of weddings, promotions, births, departures, and funerals. Advertisements for vodka, as well, promote a similar sense of the essentialness of vodka to Russian culture or national pride. An ad for the Stolichnaya brand of vodka portrays a Russian soldier holding a bottle of Stolichnaya while deeply engrossed in a kiss with his lover; the caption reads “The Best from Russia.”* Another brand of vodka says it all in its name: “Jewel of Russia.”* Vodka appears in traditions, jokes, folk songs, film, literature, and critical essays. A powerful scene in the Russian film Sibirskiy Tsiryulnik, directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, depicts the protagonist—a man with severe alcohol problems—so drunk from vodka that he eats the glass he drank if from, only to be revived in an icy pond. In the early 1920s during a serious financial crisis involving a shortage of monetary units, vodka labels served as cash in Siberia. Today, a bottle of vodka is still often preferable to cash in payment of small services. A testimony to the iconic cultural status of vodka is the construction of the Museum of Vodka, opened in 2003. It was first built in St. Petersburg but moved to Moscow in 2007 for reasons that are unclear. The museum is dedicated entirely to the history and manufacturing process of vodka.
In the political-legal arena, the rights to owning vodka distilleries has been the subject of much dispute, and the intermittent government monopoly on the sale of vodka has somewhat rattled the industry. Throughout the 1700s, the Russian emperors like Peter the Great and Catherine the Second kept the control of vodka distillation solidly in the hands of the aristocrats. Then, in 1893 after the quality of the vodka produced became increasingly questionable, Alexander III called for a state monopoly on vodka’s production and sale. The monopoly took hold by 1902, and by 1914 vodka revenue made up one third of Russia’s income. This budget dependency became evident during the attempted prohibition of 1914-1925 and General Secretary Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign in the late 1980s. The definitive evidence of Russia’s budget dependence on vodka came at the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992. President Boris Yeltsin made a decree on the abolition of the state monopoly, and cheap imported vodka proliferated as quickly as moonshine had during the 1914 prohibition. Within a year, the budget losses were so apparent that Yeltsin made a second decree reinstating a state monopoly. With the influx of so much cheap, non-domestic vodka, the state monopoly mostly failed and President Vladimir Putin continues, today, to try to nurse it back to health.
Vodka has been a featured player within the Russian military as well, to the deep chagrin of many. Vodka used to feature prominently in the rations of soldiers. In the late 1800s, several studies showed that after a year 83% of newly drafted soldiers were taking the vodka ration and 27% were drinking extra rations (up from 57% and 10% respectively). The defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 is suspected by many to be owed to the excess of vodka among the troops, which not only impaired ability but decreased morale. At the end of
A drink dressed in a similar iconic garb as vodka is absinthe. Commonly depicted as
With a typically higher proof than most vodka, absinthe has a greater capacity to intoxicate. Vodka has strong ties to Russia and Eastern Europe, while absinthe has ties more specifically to “Bohemia”—the region in central Europe around the Czech Republic—and the “Bohemian lifestyle,” which is associated with the art, music, literature, and perceived liberalness of wanderers and gypsies. Interestingly, vodka and absinthe share a medical background; absinthe began as an extract for medical treatment for malaria among other ailments. Today, both drinks are associated with euphoric, altered states of mind more so than most any other type of alcoholic substance. Both have been banned by for governments for
Victor Erofeyev’s article “The Russian God” confirms the controversial status of vodka in Russian culture. He describes the acerbic drink as a fearsome god to whom Russia both clings voluntarily and is bound helplessly. It pervades Russian culture, literature, and film; it is worshipped as a symbol of national pride and identity; and it ravages families and destroys lives when it is abused. Alcohol poisoning claims more than thirty thousand lives per year in Russia. By comparison, in America alcohol is responsible for 1,300 deaths by poisoning and 16,700 deaths by drunk driving per year, this in a country whose population is almost twice that of Russia. As Erofeyev notes: “Vodka gives and vodka takes away,” in the fashion of a mighty god.
A great image that brings together some of much of this discussion of the many faces of vodka is another ad for Stolichnaya vodka. The image presents an illustration of five working class men arranged in a semi-circle, arms outstretched to stack their hands in a pact-like manner. Behind them a very geometric sunrise blazes in crimson, gold, white, and yellow. The banner across the top and bottom reads “Stolichnaya: Russian Vodka.” This ad’s appearance recalls war-era propaganda and in many ways it is just that: propaganda meant to unite the public (and to sell vodka). The bright sunrise and physical contact suggests a prosperous future for those who work together. The red represents this success within a communist context, while the superfluous inclusion of the word “Russian” to modify “vodka” specifically reinforces the idea of a promising future for a communist Russia. Nevertheless, the solemn gazes of the men in the ad also portray Russia’s convoluted relations with vodka. The sun, now, hints at vodka’s fiery taste, rich cultural traditions, and power to bring Russia both money and reputation. The men’s stacked palms create an air of national pride in their drink under whose banner they stand.
Alice Madden - December 15, 2009
1 “The Vodka Museum/Museum.” 20 Nov. 2009. <http://www.vodkamuseum.ru/english/museum/>.