Editor’s note: This is the first in a new Molotov Cocktail series we’re calling “Dispatches from the Kremlin,” where we examine drinking and culture in today’s Russia. The series’ primary writer will be Max Shelton, an American expat living in Moscow while getting his graduate degree, but expect to see other writers contribute from time to time as well. This first article explores the changes Russia is undergoing as it rapidly seeks to modernize, and the effect that’s had on the country’s notorious drinking culture. Stay tuned for more, and Za Strovya!
Russia. A place that no one in their right mind wants to go, but everyone wants to talk about. A place I’ve lived on and off for the last four years, much to the bewilderement of my friends and family. What I will say is this — like most places where real people live, Russia isn’t paradise, but it’s certainly not Hell either. The days romantically captured by Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and the like are long gone. On the surface, most of whatever “Westerners” consider beautiful (read: European) was stamped out over a grueling 70-year period where a new kind of government tried to recreate human society.
Americans like old things — ruins, dated styles of food, dusty books, mostly because we crave that which our country lacks. Russia doesn’t really have too much of that anymore. The few Americans that have made the trip may argue that my observations are entirely inaccurate, but I assure you that the vast majority of magnificent onion domes (save for Saint Basil’s) are fabrications to play on tourist’s nostalgia. Most churches that weren’t burnt to the ground during the revolution became prisons, and the cathedrals visible on any Russian city’s skyline, while appearing to be ancient, are simply recreations. Moscow’s largest church was a swimming pool for the better half of the 20th century, so when people tell me that it’s an ancient, sacred place where millions have convened to pay their respects, I can’t help but think of the millions of Soviet citizens who experienced the satisfaction of unnoticed public urination.
Much changed in 1917 when Russia withdrew from World War One and tumbled into revolution. Further change occurred in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed into pure capitalism, resulting in one of the greatest class divides in history. Even now, it seems as though what power exists is trying to consolidate imperialism, communism, and ruthless capitalism into some sort of macroeconomic Frankenstein’s monster. Despite the state of constant change in this mysterious country, there is one thing that has remained as consistent as the sun rising: the drinking.
There’s an oft-repeated trope that Russians like to drink. In my experience, I wouldn’t necessarily say that they drink for pleasure, but rather out of necessity. Think about it. When something significant (good or bad) changes in our lives, we drink. Now imagine if monumental political and social changes were the norm — you might find yourself tippling a bit more than normal as well.
The funny thing is, from my gleanings on Russian culture, Russia is not the nation of alcoholics that we make it out to be. They mostly drink “like Russians” during events such as holidays, birthdays, weddings, etc. Of course, I still remember my first morning in Moscow walking along Leningradsky Prospekt seeing the gents standing in an underpass chugging beers, and thinking, “Wow! It’s true! They drink all the time!” What I didn’t realize is that, just like the morons in the United States that give us a reputation for being simple, those guys were doing the same for Russia. Russia is not a nation of alcoholics, it’s just a nation where having a bit (read: too much) to drink is not a reason to judge someone’s character. I kind of like that.
When I first came to Russia in 2011, you could still drink from open containers on the street, smoke in restaurants, and buy beer from a kiosk whenever you wanted. Furthermore, my Russian friends introduced me to the concept that laws were mere suggestions. We climbed the walls of the not-so-ancient monasteries and drank in their closed-off courtyards. And we played drinking games on our long commutes home on the metro.
I remember returning to the states in 2012 and speaking with my professors from Russia, telling them that it was a “free” country in this regard: you really could do whatever you wanted. They looked at me, aghast, and asked me why I thought that. Luckily, the American department head came to my defense, supporting what I had to say. Life had been a lot of fun in Russia — way more fun compared to the western European countries or the United States.
Fast-forward to 2014.
Coming back to Moscow is ruthless in terms of jet-lag. It usually takes about two weeks to fully adjust. One thing I’ve found that helps is a pint of brew or a cocktail. Sadly, I realized, that despite Russia’s moving further and further away from the West ideologically, they continue to grow closer in terms of living standards. I was shocked to learn that it is now illegal to buy any alcoholic beverages in stores past 11pm (the hilarious part being that you can still buy beer at any store starting at 8am). Three years ago, if I ran out of beer at home, I could run to a kiosk at any time. Now, one has to be creative, either find a 24-hour bar (of which there are plenty; the only issue being that they tend to attract the sort of crowd that goes to 24-hour bars) or look like a total booze-bag at the store while stocking up on alcohol for the evening. Also, and perhaps most disappointingly, gone is the romantic, smoky haze of the average Russian bar or restaurant, thanks to a ban imposed in 2014.
One thing that has changed for the better here in Moscow is the beer and cocktail scene. Three years ago, pretty much all you could order in a bar was Baltika, mediocre Czech beer, Guinness, or a shot of vodka served with a pickle. Even the few breweries that existed in Moscow had a Svetloe (light), Tyomnoe (dark) and Nefiltrovennoe (literally ‘unfiltered’ but in practice, crappy wheat beer). Now, much like blue jeans and Michael Jackson, the craft beer culture that started in the States, along with its robust IPAs, has arrived in Moscow. It’s hilarious that nearly every Russian I meet is so quick to verbally attack the United States and its foreign policy, but will wait twenty minutes in line at a bar to get their hands on a Red Machine IPA from Moscow’s Victory Art Brew. The same sort of thing happens in nearly every sphere of life here — I’ve never seen people go so crazy for Jack Daniels or Jim Beam while deeply criticizing their place of origin.
In the vein of magical elixirs, I also have to note that the cocktail revolution has made it to Moscow as well. Cocktail bars are springing up everywhere and, having sampled the wares, things are looking pretty good. I never expected to get a killer old-fashioned in the country known for drinking vodka straight and chasing it with herring, pickles, and brown bread. On that note, it must be said that vodka, fish, bread, and vegetables remain staples in Russian drinking culture, and they damn well should. As much as I love going out and sipping on a locally-brewed beer, or a stupendously-mixed cocktail, there’s just something so decidedly idyllic about sitting with friends around a table adorned with all sorts of raw veggies, meats, bread, and of course, vodka.
If there is one thing the Russians have on the United States, it’s that. When I go to my friend Volodya’s house, there are no phones involved, no loud music, and no drinking games. We sit, drink his father-in-law’s Samagon (a bootlegged spirit made from various ingredients that is very, very, very strong) and talk. The only games we play are board games and the only music is the occasional friend absent-mindedly playing the accordion or piano. Call me old-fashioned, but I think we Americans might be able to learn from such traditions, which place more emphasis on company than on what is being consumed. If we take a leaf from the Russian book and focus more on quality of company than quality/quantity of beverage, we might be pleasantly surprised. I think many of the issues that are currently antagonizing Russian-American relations could be more easily solved if the powers that be sat down, had a drink, and actually listened to each other, just like regular people do every day.
From Moscow, Za Starovya (cheers).
Max Shelton is an American M.A. candidate at Middlebury College currently living, working, and drinking in Moscow, Russia. In his spare time (when he is not drinking), he enjoys writing, reading, and watching Better Call Saul. He is writing his dissertation in Russian about American intervention in the Russian Civil War between 1917-1922.
Photo credit: Nan Palmero