Museum Captures the Spirit of Russia


"Although vodka is white, it paints your nose red and blackens your reputation," Anton Chekhov, the 19th century author, wrote.

The potent liquor has been a fixture of Russian life for more than five centuries, celebrated and cursed in books and films. For governments, it's been both a source of revenue and a social bane.

Now vodka is getting its due in a new museum housed in the basement of an old building in the heart of St. Petersburg, Russia's former imperial capital.

"Vodka is a part of Russian culture and national history, and people should not only drink it but also know and understand it," says Sergei Chentsov, a dermatologist who is one of the museum's directors. "If there are museums of cognac in France and whiskey in Ireland, why not have a vodka museum in Russia?"

Russians have drunk vodka to celebrate victories and relieve grief, and leaders learned it's a powerful factor in the national economy. During the reign of the last czar, Nicholas II, taxes on vodka produced 33% of state income; in Soviet times it accounted for 20%.

Vodka drinking has spawned its own rituals. Russian hussars drank from glasses balanced on their elbow, and today's military men put their awards in vodka glasses to "wash" them in a sort of blessing. At funerals, mourners salute the dead by drinking a glass of vodka straight to the bottom.

An invitation to drink is often signaled by a flick to the neck with the middle finger and thumb. When someone proposes a toast--the most common is "Na zdorovye" (To good health)--he or she downs the spirit in one gulp. That's followed by a "zakuska," or snack, of pickled fish or mushroom, a slice of cucumber, or at the very least a piece of bread.

Archives put vodka's first appearance in Russia in a monastery, between 1438 and 1478, after the Russians acquired the process of distillation from Italy.

In the museum, a mannequin in monk's dress stands with a primitive distilling appliance--a heater with two tubes to separate spirits from water. The same technology is still used in countless village homes to produce homemade vodka, known as "samogon."

The museum's two rooms are full of vodka bottles, glasses and advertising posters. Old vodka labels show that two centuries ago, the drink was measured not in liters as it is now, but in buckets (25.2 pints), quarters (6.3 pints) and glasses (5.25 ounces).

Visitors will learn that Czar Peter the Great had the habit of forcing foreign ambassadors to drink against their will. Those who protested were shut in a room until their glass was empty.

An earlier czar, Boris Godunov, prohibited alcohol production during hungry times to ensure that grain was used for bread.

The Soviet Union's last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, sharply restricted vodka sales in the late 1980s as part of a campaign to improve Russians' health and instill labor discipline. The anti-alcohol campaign dealt a blow to the Soviet economy.

It also spawned long lines for rationed vodka, lasting hatred for Gorbachev and a series of jokes, including one recounted repeatedly by the ex-Soviet president:

A man grows tired of standing in line for vodka and announces he is going to go kill Gorbachev. He arrives at Red Square only to find another long line. "What's the line for?" he asks. "It's to kill Gorbachev," he's told.

The museum displays photos of Russians excitedly waving vodka bottles in 1924 after an earlier Soviet "dry" law was canceled.

Chentsov says the proper daily portion of vodka should not exceed 1 3/4 ounces. Yet visitors to the museum can imbibe three times that amount if they try all seven types of top-notch vodka in the tasting room. Oiled bread, pancakes and caviar are included in the 375-435 ruble ($13-$15) cost of the vodka tasting.

A "dry" museum visit costs just 25 rubles, or about 86 cents.

"I'll let you in on a secret of how to distinguish the best-quality vodka," Chentsov says. "When you drink the good stuff, you don't feel the immediate need for a snack."

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