January 31, 2017

Happy Birthday, Vodka! 10 Shots of Trivia


Happy Birthday, Vodka! 10 Shots of Trivia

Russia's favorite beverage turns 152 today. True, that doesn't mean that Russians haven't been toasting each other under the table since centuries before that, but it was 1865 when vodka joined bears and matryoshkas as an eternal symbol of Russia.

Any birthday deserves a toast. Or in this case, ten of them, each with a vodka-related trivia item to chase it down. Whether you decide to toss back a vodka with each one is up to you. 

(Note: we don't recommend it). 

  1. January 31 is known as the birthday of Russian vodka. The beverage had already been a favorite import, but on this day in 1865, the chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev defended his dissertation. Titled “On Combining Water and Alcohol,” it might sound more like an extracurricular activity than a doctoral treatise, but it gave rise to the 40% of alcohol content that became the state standard for vodka production – all thanks to Mendeleev’s calculations.

  2. In fact, vodka is water. Etymologically, at least. Вода (voda) is Russian for water, and Russian diminutives are formed by adding the suffix “ка” to nouns (or similar variations on the suffix, depending on spelling rules). So vodka, literally, means “little water.” Isn’t that cute? More history: when the word “vodka” first showed up in Russia in 1533, it described a medicinal beverage. That’s how it was marketed by Genoese traders who brought bottles of so-called aqua vitae, or “water of life,” to the courts of Russian rulers as early as the 14th century. It helped heal their pain – and then some.

  3. Vodka may be little water, but it didn’t get its distinctive flavor (or what you may think of as lack of flavor) until Mendeleev came along. When you see references to vodka in diaries or literature (for example, when Yevgeny Onegin sips on it in his eponymous novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin) before the second half of the 1800s, there was some sort of flavoring involved. Flavored vodkas are still common today. That may mean things like pomegranate or whipped cream in some U.S. brands, but pepper, cranberry, and horseradish are much more common Russian flavors.

  4. A few rules of vodka consumption. If you’re taking a shot, make sure to hold your breath and drain your glass (called a рюмка, or ryumka) all in one go. It’s just what you do. You can also say “Давай!” (davai), Russian for “Let’s!” or, in this context, “Down the hatch!” It’s also the title of a book all about the history and habits of Russian vodka. Better yet, Russian Life’s got a copy for you.

  5. Vodka is responsible for Russia’s history of autocratic governance. At least, that’s the argument made by Mark Lawrence Schrad in his book Vodka Politics. Schrad argues that many Russian rulers have used vodka to drink their close cadres into complicity – and tax their subjects into subjugation. It’s a provocative argument, but an intoxicating one.   

  6. In the U.S., you use a chaser. In Russia, you snack. And there’s even a verb for it: закусывать (zakusyvat), “to have a quick bite.” Закуски (zakuski) can refer to snacks in general, but they have a special place in the hearts (and mouths) of Russian drinkers. A common anecdote involves two American spies being discovered while drinking vodka. “How did you know they were spies?” The discoverer is asked. “Не закусывали,” he replies – they weren’t chasing their shots with food. (Preferably something pickled.)

  7. Smirnoff is the world's top vodka brand, and it has at least a few fun facts worth mentioning. After founding his distillery in Moscow in 1864, Pyotr Smirnov boosted sales through newspaper ads and charitable donations to priests – a good tactic to quash anti-drinking sermons. Fleeing Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Smirnovs worked to sell their vodka abroad. Their most successful U.S. campaign: marketing vodka as "white whiskey" with "no taste, no smell." It helped sway American whiskey drinkers and paved the way to the supremely non-Russian Smirnoff Ice. 

  8. Prohibition never works. You're probably familiar with this famous poster: 

    ruskniga.com

    Well, it was created in 1954, which was not a time of state-ordered prohibition, but was part of an anti-alcohol campaign under Khrushchev. The main periods of official prohibition in Russia were under Tsar Nicholas II in 1914 – with the goal of fewer drunken soldiers in the military during WWII – and a partial prohibition by Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985 to 1987. In both cases, the production of boot-leg alcohol rose, and with it, deaths from drinking things that shouldn't be drunk. Come to think of, major shifts in Russian politics came on the tail of each prohibition effort. New historical theory, anyone?

  9. Vodka has many uses. Clean your spectacles. Kill mold and mildew. Wash your face or hair. Treat dandruff, earaches, fevers, cold sores, jellyfish stings, toothaches, or foot odor. Oh yes, there's more where that came from.

  10. Drink responsibly. There are a lot of dismal statistics about alcoholism in Russia (and elsewhere). A study in The Lancet found that, between 1980 and 2010, 25% of Russian men died before age 55, a majority from alcohol-related causes. Another grim one: in 2011, the average Russian adult drank 13 liters of pure alcohol per year. Eight of those liters were spirits, and the key culprit: vodka. But with new liquor regulations in place as of January 1, 2017, that trend may be on the downturn, with Russia seeing its first decline in alcohol poisoning in the last five years. Cheers to that!

So grab a ryumka, pour a glass (make sure it's the pure stuff), and make sure you've got your pickles handy. За здоровье!

Cover image: press.lv. Text: "No...Or rather, down the hatch!"

You Might Also Like

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka
  • November 01, 2012

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
Jews in Service to the Tsar

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
Murder at the Dacha

Murder at the Dacha

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin has a problem. Several, actually. Not the least of them is the fact that a powerful Soviet boss has been murdered, and Matyushkin's surly commander has given him an unreasonably short time frame to close the case.
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
Murder and the Muse

Murder and the Muse

KGB Chief Andropov has tapped Matyushkin to solve a brazen jewel heist from Picasso’s wife at the posh Metropole Hotel. But when the case bleeds over into murder, machinations, and international intrigue, not everyone is eager to see where the clues might lead.
A Taste of Chekhov

A Taste of Chekhov

This compact volume is an introduction to the works of Chekhov the master storyteller, via nine stories spanning the last twenty years of his life.
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
White Magic

White Magic

The thirteen tales in this volume – all written by Russian émigrés, writers who fled their native country in the early twentieth century – contain a fair dose of magic and mysticism, of terror and the supernatural. There are Petersburg revenants, grief-stricken avengers, Lithuanian vampires, flying skeletons, murders and duels, and even a ghostly Edgar Allen Poe.
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567

802-223-4955