Chacha and the FSB: Dispatches from the Kremlin
When reading the Russian classics, one quickly becomes acquainted with heroes of different nationalities. If you’re lucky, you can often infer their national beverage of choice. Of course, the Western reader (myself included) generally has no idea who these non-Russian heroes are, where they are from, or what they are drinking. Among these heroes are individuals from a nation nestled high in the mountains just south of the Russian border. They are, of course, the Georgians. While the novels often focus on the drinks, the food that these Georgians make is just as tasty, and their wine outdoes that of even France or Italy, in my opinion. Though the wine is delectable, their main drinking attraction is chacha — a grape vodka (or brandy) that goes down a little too easy and makes my friend, Volodya, very happy. Unfortunately, getting to the source of chacha can be difficult.
I’d tried chacha before I arrived on the Russia–Georgia border, but I was not unaware of its cultural relevance within the republic. I also didn’t anticipate how much of it I would be drinking once I arrived. Waiting for us in Georgia was an elixir rarely bottled or sold as retail goods. Most chacha is produced by individuals who sell their wares in plastic water bottles (which was entirely foreign and somewhat trashy to me as an American, because of how often “food safety” is foisted on us). Because of its bootlegged nature, chacha varies in color. I would eventually sample chachas ranging from absolutely clear to golden brown in color. The clear stuff, like vodka, is quite dangerous, as it does not taste like much nor burn as it goes down. I found the darker stuff a bit more hearty and flavorful, and it quickly became my preference. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time, but by the end of our first day, I would have accepted any drink that came my way, but that comes later. We had to get to the source of the chacha first.
From what I understand, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia are the geographical representations of Murphy’s Law. Any potential logistical problem can and will happen at any moment. I should have anticipated that when we landed in Vladikavkaz without a hitch. Vladikavkaz is one of the southernmost cities in Russia, and is a larger town trying to recover from a recently war-torn era. One way to get to our destination (Gudauri, Georgia) was to travel through the city. There are no trains, so one must sketchily book a “transfer” with an unknown driver, who may or may not have gone the last three days without sleeping. Our unknown driver informed us upon our arrival that the pass to Georgia (which goes straight through the treacherous mountains) was closed due to heavy snow. He casually told us that there was no alternative to the pass, that we probably wouldn’t make it into Georgia that day because of bad weather, and that we might want to stay the day and night in Vladikavkaz. We asked him what our options were, wondering aloud if there was anything of interest to see in the seemingly desolate city. He answered frankly: “Nope. This place is pretty much a shithole.”
After some deliberation, we received news that the pass was opened and we sped south. I was so relieved, thinking that the worst of our journey was over as we passed through extraordinarily picturesque mountains, dotted with sheep, cows, and the occasional Orthodox cross. The road became narrower and we started to see throngs of trucks on the side of the road, flanked by grizzled drivers who huddled together in the cold, smoking cigarettes and … drinking brews! I noticed beer bottles in their hands and realized that many of them had probably been waiting in place for the pass to open for days, as we were still miles from the border. Eventually, we slowed to a halt among a city of cars and waited with the rest. At one point, we got the sense that things were starting to pick up as the haggard drivers standing together in the middle of the road around us all bolted.
Excited, we peered around to see if there was any movement but quickly realized the drivers were not going to their trucks, but to one vehicle in particular. It was a large bus with tinted windows and in front of it stood a very upset driver, motioning violently to the bus driver. Apparently the bus had grazed his truck. When the bus driver did not exit the bus, the upset driver on the street picked up a nearby stone, insinuating that he was ready to break the bus window. It’s my personal opinion that the angry driver probably had a bit too much chacha and was already fired up before the incident. Luckily, traffic began to move again and we were quickly spirited away.
When we arrived at the border, my Russian companions passed through without any issues, but I, however, was told I would “have to wait” to get my passport back. I didn’t fully understand what that meant, and was shocked when the man inspecting my passport took a nice long smoke break right next to me, as I was still standing outside. Mind you, it was around 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside, so it was anything but balmy. Over the course of about 45 minutes, I asked the gentleman three times if I could have my passport back. Only after the third time did he give me a concrete response: “Just wait. They are coming to talk to you.” That’s when I realized the true fun had begun. …
“They,” of course, were the legendary FSB (formerly the KGB), and I got to know them pretty well over the course of the next hour. The only thing that kept me going was the promise of some delicious Georgian food and chacha at the end of the line. At this particular moment, I was especially focused on the chacha.
I was taken to a small office and kindly interviewed by two agents, who asked an array of questions, ranging from why I knew Russian to whether or not Americans liked Vladimir Putin or not. I was especially proud of the fact that, despite my precarious situation, I was able to slip in a few jokes. After calling my boss and my girlfriend to confirm that I was not a foreign agent, but a poor English teacher with an alcohol fetish, they let me go. I could almost smell the chacha as we, free people with empty bellies and dry gullets, crossed into Georgia.
Our friends had long since arrived in Gudauri via a different route, and were waiting for us in a small restaurant where they had ordered anticipatory food and drink. We ate khinkali (large dumplings with meat and broth inside), shashlik, and khachapurri (picture a bread bowl full of molten cheese and a sunny side up egg) while washing every second bite down with a small pour of house chacha, which quickly helped us realize how exhausted we were. It was a nine-hour car ride and interrogation, so we made up for lost time. One wonderful aspect of Georgian life that we quickly became acquainted with was that you can take house chacha or wine to go from nearly any establishment (I’m pretty sure even the shoe stores sell their own plastic bottles). We quickly took advantage of the situation and stocked up, toting several plastic bottles of wine and chacha as we made our way back to our lodgings, very pleased with the outcome of our adventure.
Despite our misfortune at the border, we were happy, our bellies were full, and our spirits were warmed by the wonders of chacha. One could argue that our condition was a microcosm of life in Georgia and much of the former Soviet Union: Things might get bad, but in the end, there really isn’t much you can do about it. Don’t complain, and while you’re at it, have a drink.
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.
Photo credit: Khuroshvili Ilya