In fall 1977, the state vodka monopoly of the Polish People's Republic filed suit in an international trade court, claiming that vodka had first been distilled in Poland. For this reason, it argued, only Polish firms had the right to sell the clear, flavorless alcohol in foreign markets under the name "vodka," just as champagne produced outside France's Champagne region must usually be labeled "sparkling wine."
An incredulous Soviet Ministry of Trade initially ignored this as a bad Polish joke. Who doubted that vodka was as Russian as St. Basil's Cathedral and fur hats? But it was a particularly pernicious joke, touching the tender parts of the Russian soul, not to mention Warsaw Pact solidarity. The Soviet Ministry of Foreign Trade grudgingly asked the Higher Scientific Research Institute of the Fermentation Products Division of the Central Department of Distilling of the Ministry of the Food Industry of the USSR to investigate. When state archives revealed little about vodka's Russian provenance, the task fell to a historian named William Pokhlebkin. After years of painstaking research, he concluded that vodka was probably first distilled in a Moscow monastery between 1440 and 1478, decades before its alleged appearance in Poland.
Etymologically, "vodka" in Russian means "little water" (it's the diminutive of voda, or water). And because the average Russian guzzles a world-record 5.2 gallons per year, a little water has gone a long way in damaging the collective body politic. A few years ago, the Finnish physician directing the Russian office of the World Health Organization explained: "If you did this in Finland, half the population would be dead in a year. This is clearly not normal." The people disagreed: "It's our way of life. How can we stop drinking when our climate is like this?" said one. Said another: "Our people are very patient, and they're willing to live in poverty, but if the government tries to make them stop drinking, it might lead to social unrest. Nobody can make us stop drinking."
Not that the powers didn't try. In 1917, the Bolsheviks banned vodka and condemned drunkenness as a "social evil irreconcilable with the proletarian ideology," perhaps because they believed, as Engels had stated, that drinking was the bane of the working classes. It is probably closer to the truth to say that work was the bane of the drinking classes. No vocation without intoxication, cried the workers, and in 1924 the ban was reversed—an early instance of Soviet utopianism succumbing to Russian reality. It was downhill from there. Alcohol consumption rose through the decades, and not until the 1980s did the government try again. Gorbachev's perestroika included a "war on drunkenness" that took the form of prohibition. Official statistics showed alcohol consumption begin to decline. At the same time, there emerged unusual shortages of cologne, mouthwash, and other alcohol-containing substances, as well as sugar, which can be employed in home-brewing. Ultimately, instead of defeating alcoholism, perestroika ended in history's biggest hangover.
So, as Lenin asked, What is to be done? Pokhlebkin was not only a historian but a Soviet patriot, and when his scholarship for the trade ministry was published as a book (A History of Vodka), he added a final chapter lamenting what he saw as Russia's descent into alcoholism. Drunkenness, he argued, is incompatible with socialist principles; it undermines worker morale and productivity. Some of his proposed solutions were radical by Russian standards—revoking the licenses of drunk drivers, encouraging people to attend clinics (Alcoholics Anonymous was banned under the Soviet Union)—but he did make one point that NRA members will recognize and all votaries of free will can endorse: vodka doesn't intoxicate people, people do. It follows that to avoid drunkenness, the people must simply drink properly.
Class analysis was supposed to have expired with the Cold War, and Pokhlebkin died in 2000. But working Russians have as much need as ever to know how Pokhlebkin's principles might answer Lenin's question today. A more or less dialectically certain application would go something like this: a good proletarian doesn't have a drinking problem, except when he can't find a drink. Vodka, after all, is the oil that keeps Russia's gears turning: funerals, folk holidays, and festivals all require it. The informed worker knows that vodka's therapeutic merits far surpass those of the Soviet-Russian mental health system. Nor would he tempt fate by trekking out into the snow—best known for destroying invading armies—without a fortifying swig or three. This winter, during Moscow's cold spell (-30°C and below), one circus trainer served his elephant a bucket of vodka, for warmth (innovation is the mark of the productive worker). Probably he should have made it a double. The ungrateful pachyderm lost his sense of decorum and proceeded to destroy the circus's only radiator.
The right-thinking worker knows that vodka should be served as cold as possible. (Quality vodka doesn't freeze. A good vodka may be judged with a single sip, but in such matters it is best to be thorough.) It should be served in glasses that resemble our shooters, only larger, and sipped indulgently. Each sip should be closely seconded by a mouthful of savory food (a thick cabbage soup or hearty meat dish is ideal, but a pickle also works). The idea that alcohol is food's intimate companion, incidentally, raises the question of the cocktail, in worship of which an "hour" has been set aside in American civilization, segregated from substantial solid proteins. The properly educated proletarian looks on the bourgeois cocktail with a cold eye, and not just out of class resentment or the lack of nutrition. He prefers his tipples uncompounded mostly because the orange juice or other mixers cost more than the vodka. Fixing a proletarian cocktail requires only two quick motions: pour the "cocktail," put the cap back on the bottle.
Russia is a land that has stumbled fatefully from Third Rome to Third International to Third World, and vodka has always been there to help things along. In 1982, the international tribunal appointed to decide the matter of vodka's origin ruled in the USSR's favor, affirming that genuine vodka was Russian, or Russian vodka was genuine, whichever it was. A happy conclusion, followed shortly by the fall of Communism in Europe, to which we can always raise a glass, and say, as they do in Russia, not without a touch of irony, Na zdarovye—"To your health!"