The Prose (and Cons) of Vodka
Drawing extensively on his own first-hand experience as someone who came of age during the prolonged “stagnation” of the Brezhnev years, and then witnessed the upheavals of perestroika and the breakup of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev and the wild-West capitalism of the 1990s under Yeltsin, the writer and journalist Dmitrii Stakhov explores the changing fortunes of vodka, Russia’s “alcoholic drink No. 1,” and its enduring significance as a symbol, “cultural yardstick,” and economic unit of exchange over the last quarter of a century in this hard-drinking and hard-pressed nation. Stakhov’s essay details Russians’ long love affair with vodka, as well their sometimes dangerous dalliances with various vodka substitutes (often of unknown or highly dubious origin) and their more recent infatuation, in a new era of seemingly unlimited consumer choice, with other, more manifestly “Western” alcoholic drinks (whiskey, beer, wine). Stakhov suggests that the recent shifts in drinking habits in Russia (with Russians developing more discriminating and highbrow tastes) has in certain important ways entailed a loss of cultural values and a diminished sense of community and camaraderie. No one looks after the local drunk any more, and no one is interested any longer in going in on the proverbial “threesome” of Soviet times (a bottle of vodka split three ways): now it is a Darwinian world of “every man for himself.” For better or worse the old poetry and mythos of vodka, Stakhov concludes, has died, replaced instead by the harsher (and less interesting) prose of the free market.