war on the rocks

Dispatches from the Kremlin: What’s a Torzhok?

January 19, 2016

When I first heard of “Torzhok,” I assumed it was some sort of primitive mauling weapon. It turns out it’s actually a small town of 50,000 people located four hours north of Moscow, and it’s a wonderful place where I had the pleasure of spending the first few days of the New Year. It is also home to the Berkuty, aka the Golden Eagles, Russia’s acrobatic helicopter team.

In the United States, New Year’s Eve is typically not a family holiday — in fact, most of us would probably not want our family members anywhere near us during our NYE celebrations. In the United States, we tend to salute the New Year with our friends and a big, warm champagne jacket. In Russia, New Year’s Eve is more comparable to American Christmas. Yes, there are those who go bar-hopping and yes, there are plenty of drinks, but until midnight in Moscow, the streets were relatively quiet because everyone was at home with their loved ones.

Once the bells of the Kremlin chimed midnight however, there were fireworks until the wee hours of the morning. The nightly salutes continued for at least the first ten days of the year, and I have a sneaking suspicion their noise was one of the main reasons we left Moscow for a few days.

We left for Torzhok on New Year’s Day and I looked up the coordinates on my iPhone, learning that it was a mere 200 kilometers north of Moscow. I figured that it would be an easy two and a half hour ride. Once again, Murphy’s Law (which seems to have a pretty strong grip on Russia) took its toll on us. The Russians aren’t lying when they make jokes about Russian roads — they are not great. It was also around minus ten Fahrenheit outside, which lead to our windshield wiper fluid freezing solid. I was impressed that my friend Zhenya, who was behind the wheel, could see anything. Furthermore, there were mile-long stretches of highway where the streetlights simply didn’t work. It took us around four hours to get to Torzhok, and by that time it was so cold that my mustache froze over within seconds when outside. Of course, we all quickly hurried to the bar in our hotel to defrost.

In Torzhok, the cold dulls people’s sense of urgency. We were immediately told that because of the size of our party (which was large — around 20 people, including children), we would have to wait about two hours for food. So, we did what any logical person would do and ordered a bunch of beers. As the only non-Russian there, I found it interesting that I was the only one who ordered Russian beer (with everyone else opting for either Asahi or Tuborg). I would soon learn there was a reason for that, as (see previous posts) Russian beer is not known for its superior quality. Interestingly enough, with a bit of inspection, we learned that both Asahi and Tuborg, despite being from Japan and Denmark, respectively, are brewed at the Baltika brewery in St. Petersburg. Essentially, we were all drinking the same stuff, though I’m pretty sure my hangover the next day was worse than anyone else’s.

My hangover was also due to a new elixir that I hadn’t tried yet, as I’d never seen it in Moscow. “Tverskaya Gorkaya Nastoyka” is a spirit made from cognac, apple juice, and various herbs and roots. In short, it’s pretty incredible. Native to Tverskaya Oblast (where Torzhok is located), it is perfect for the holidays and cold weather due to its warming effects. Though cognac-based, it goes down like apple juice, and the mild spice character from the herbs and roots distract the palate from the booze. I found that, unlike with many spirits, I didn’t need to mix this liquor because the flavor was so enjoyable. Of course, the next day I regretted not chasing it with anything, but that’s another story. Everyone was so pleased by the drink that we decided to make it our beverage of choice during our stay in Torzhok, and I’m fairly certain that all of us brought a few bottles back to Moscow with us.

Other than the bottles, I brought back a memory of Russia that will stay with me forever, and no, it has nothing to do with anything I drank.

On our last night in Torzhok, we were not the only large group in the restaurant/bar of our hotel. Several tables over, there was a group of middle-aged and older folks who had been hitting it pretty hard all day. I was fearful that they would be so plastered by the time we sat down for dinner that we may encounter some unpleasantness. I would say the opposite happened. Though rather far gone, these folks were quite pleasant and handed out candy to all of the children in the restaurant. Most importantly, they sang.

One of the gents in the group had an accordion and was playing the same refrain over and over again, while each person at the table took his or her turn singing. After about 10 minutes, I remarked that this was a rather long song (and I’m a Led Zeppelin fan). My girlfriend laughed and told me that it wasn’t a song so much as a “Chyastushka” — a tradition where each person improvises lyrics to a short verse and sings them to the same refrain. The goal is to come up with something humorous and/or political — a way to laugh about historical or personal hardships. It also seems that this is an avenue for vulgar humor, which is not nearly as common in Russia as in the American canon of humor — or perhaps I’m just not hanging out with the right people. I sat in awe as everyone, with great ease despite his or her intoxication, sang, drank, and laughed. I noted that none of these folks were looking at their phones or watching TV, but were completely present, sharing a rare human moment of old tradition.

My girlfriend asked me what the matter was, assuming that I was in a bad mood. I answered to the contrary, noting that my friends, family, and I have never done anything like a Chyastushka. I almost felt like I had been excluded from something, which led to the hope that we all may find our own “Torzhok,” meaning that for just a little while, we can put our phones away, forget the external noise and bustle of our daily lives and get back to enjoying the company that we are keeping — and a few small glasses of Tverskaya Gorkaya while we’re at it.

С Новым годом (Happy New Year)!

 

Max Shelton is an American currently living, working, and drinking in Moscow, Russia. In his spare time (while not drinking), he enjoys writing, reading, and watching Better Call Saul. He finished his MA dissertation at Middlebury College in Russian about American intervention in the Russian Civil War between 1917–1922.