Sunday, January 24, 2010

8. Vodka

Well, I thought I could put it off, but I can't. I just can't. It is my fate as a Russian in America to write about vodka.

You see, as a Russian, I am obliged to like vodka. To love it, actually. And it's true! I do! I just keep accidentally forgetting that, but fortunately I am kindly reminded of the fact soon enough. So please hold on a minute while I go to the kitchen and throw away the rum -- after all, rum-drinking wouldn't be very Russian of me, would it?

...Now back to business.

Vodka is an integral part of Russian culture. It has been produced for centuries, though the ingredients were not limited to potatoes -- anything went, from wheat and rye to raspberries, cherries, and apples; it was more like a wine than a liquor. Even the smallest peasant had his or her own recipe for homemade vodka. However, it was not actually known as vodka until the 1700's, under Empress Elizabeta Petrovna -- the word being a diminutive form of "voda," or "water," possibly derived from the Latin "aqua vitae," or "water of life," which in turn was an alcohol-based medicine developed in ancient Persia. Soon after vodka's naming, the process of straining it through charcoal was developed, making it closer to the throat-burning product it is today.

We Russians have the privilege of having a fairly high vodka-related death rate. Of course, you may occasionally see a man surrounded by empty beer bottles sleeping on the street, but he's probably just posing to draw away suspicion from the half-empty bottle of vodka hidden in his coat. Not that anyone would try to steal it -- after all, we Russians have vodka for blood and therefore are constantly drunk with it.

It is customary to drink vodka with a good friend (you know, like a bear! Or Yeltsin!) or -- better -- a couple, preferably at the most unsuitable place you can find. Examples: the bus stop, someone's doorstep, the local police station. The latter may be the best, as no one will complain and they may even share some snacks with you. And snacks are an integral part of Russian vodka-drinking: preferably something pickled, salty, or spicy, like brined cucumber pickles, salted fish, salo, and something involving horseradish. In Russian-style drinking, vodka should not be mixed with another drink or followed by a chaser, unless you do not want to have a hangover afterward, in which case you are just being silly.

If you happen to know a Russian and they claim to not like vodka, they are not truly Russian, but an impostor sent to sully Russia's good name. If you are a Russian and you do not like vodka, disown yourself at once! Anyone could tell you that Russians are all alcoholics that live in perpetual winter with bears and subsist on potatoes and caviar. To dissolve that reputation would be practically blasphemous -- how do you think people would feel if they learned otherwise? I'll tell you how they'll feel -- the same way my grandparents did when they learned Americans weren't all gun-laden, overweight gangsters in in heavy metal bands. Betrayed.


  1. "Anyone could tell you that Russians are all alcoholics that live in perpetual winter with bears and subsist on potatoes and caviar."

    Ne tochno...You forgot the pelmenyi, blini, vereniki, and especially the smetana. Do NOT forget the smetana. It would be a crime.

    What is it with you Russians? How do you get so good at writing in English? It goes without saying that your writing skill in English is better than mine in Russian. But it's infuriating better than mine in English too! Molotsa!

  2. Why thank you! It must be all the vodka I drink -- it gives me a superhuman ability to learn other languages. :P I wish it worked like that, anyway.
    Ha, I find it odd that wikipedia has a whole separate article for smetana -- after all, smetana just means "sour cream". Maybe it's because we use it so much? Sour cream frosting, sour cream with pancakes, sour cream with jam, sour cream in salad...

  3. Oh, I beg to differ. We have no equivalent to smetana here in the States, nor is there one in the UK so far as I know. I only wish I could get my hands on some. It's hardly worth the effort of making pelmenyi without access to smetana. I've never been the type to eat them with vinegar. I've wondered for some time now whether there's a particular bacterial culture used for smetana that someone might have smuggled out of Russia.

    And it's no joke that alcohol helps with speaking a foreign language. We might make more mistakes when we're tipsy or drunk, but at least we have the guts to *try* speaking another language. We feel more confident and are less likely to notice our mistakes anyway. Practice, even mistake-riddled practice, is the key to learning to use any language. Just observe a three-year-old sometime.

  4. Kate -- I think the difference between Russian and non-Russian sour cream is the Russian sour cream has a lot more fat -- in the U.S. sour cream is very gloopy and doesn't have much taste, and it also has a fairly low fat percentage, even the non-low-fat kind.