Those bubbly Russians

International laws say that only the sparkling wines produced in the French province of Champagne are to be called ‘champagne’ – with the marque ‘cognac’ reserved exclusively for the brandies produced in Cognac. All other similar beverages must be called, respectively, ‘sparkling wine’ or ‘brandy’.

Tradition lives on

The Soviets, however, treated those laws with their customary blithe contempt. Hence I grew up drinking ‘Soviet champagne’ and ‘Armenian cognac’ (sometimes in the same glass).

The memory isn’t altogether pleasant: the lighter beverage was a treacly, gassy concoction that got stuck to one’s gullet and refused to go any further. As for the ‘cognac’, it too was sugary with a smell of bedbugs that stayed in one’s nostrils for weeks after consumption – not that such long intervals were ever customary in my practice.

Since leaving Russia in 1973, I’ve made sure neither beverage would cross my lips ever again. Actually, some 30 years ago a friend gave me a bottle of Soviet ‘champagne’, but it has remained unopened. However, it has proved jolly useful in my cooking: I use it as a mallet to pound chicken or veal escalopes. The possibility of this particular mallet exploding in my hand adds some welcome frisson to the procedure.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has done little to heighten the Russians’ respect for international trade laws. Hence they’ve been stubbornly labelling their sparkling wines as champagne, even though these days the real thing is widely available thanks to French imports.

Yet the other day Putin decided to go the Soviets one better. The Duma passed a federal law confirming that the Russian sparkling wines would continue to be called ‘champagne’, and the French could go boil un oeuf. However, a new twist was added: henceforth it’ll be only Russian champagnes to be so designated, while the imported French products must be labelled ‘sparkling wines’.

In other words, champagnes are no longer champagnes, but Russian sparkling wines are. Orwell’s dystopic fantasies come together with Dali’s paintings and Golding’s Lord of the Flies to create a parallel reality.

The French predictably screamed bloody murder, and at first it looked as if they might bring the identity thieves to account. Last Friday, Moët Hennessy announced it was suspending supplies to Russia, meaning that those Russian ‘oligarchs’ would only be able to bathe their whores in water, rather than in Dom Perignon produced by the obstreperous firm.

But then things went back to normal. It turned out the suspension didn’t come from any principled stance. It’s just that Moët Hennessy needs some time to print new labels for the bottles to be exported to Russia, expurgating the C-word that now belongs to Russia by (her own) law. The reports don’t mention whether the cognacs produced by the same company will now be labelled ‘French brandy’, although this sounds logical.

Other ideas spring to mind that Russian legislators may find attractive, especially if Vlad likes them too. Scotch whisky may now be called ‘Scottish barley vodka’, BMW cars could be renamed ‘Bavarian Lada’, and parmesan could go by ‘Italian cheese-like product’.

If the Russians like such ideas, I’ll be happy to provide many others. Meanwhile, I’d rather draw your attention to the general tendency of which this thievery is indicative.

Putin clearly wishes to establish Russia’s status as a rogue state, mostly defined by its hostility to the West. But more important, he wishes to impose his will on the West by a chain of escalating steps.

The escalation is both implicit and inevitable. If the West accepts the theft of its historic trademarks, it may also, in due course, accept the theft of European territories.

Many techniques are used to that end, including, in this case, one described by Orwell in one of his essays on Nazi Germany (written at a time when he still hadn’t identified the Soviet Union as a parallel evil). As I recall, he wrote that the Nazis indulged in ridiculous pageants and rituals as a way of saying to the people: “We know this is ridiculous, you know it too, and we know that you know. But you’ll still be forced to do as we say, and wipe that sneer off your face.”

In other words, surreal displays like the rebaptising of champagne are important not so much for what they are as for what they communicate. The subtext trumps the text.

And the subtext is exactly the same as, for example, in the on-going ransomware attack on Western businesses around the world, launched by Russian hackers with, as a minimum, their government’s acquiescence.

I just wonder if the thousands of American businesses held to electronic ransom fall into the 16 categories specified by Biden as being off-limits for Russian hacker raids. If they don’t, there doesn’t seem to be much the Americans can do about this: the Russians aren’t overstepping the boundaries set by El Swifto in the White House.

Not that there is any appetite discernible anywhere in the West for stopping Russian banditry in its tracks. The cowardly, supine submission of French champagne producers is only one in the long series of surrenders, accompanied by open mouths, closed eye and raised arms.

The Russians have got away with many other electronic attacks, trade thefts, illegal territory grabs and murders committed with variously sophisticated weapons in the middle of Western cities. Each time the West first threw up its collective arms in horror, only then to do so in surrender.

The cumulative consequences could be dire, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

3 thoughts on “Those bubbly Russians”

  1. A Putin, to be fair, never had it so easy.
    The West only seems adept at being on their knees nowadays. Can a people so foolish and craven as they’ve shown themselves to be against evil in their own countries, really stand up to well-armed foreign bullies?
    Often as I ride in the metro (the ‘Underground’, as you English say) I am struck by all the faces glued and buried on their i-phone screens. You can stare and stare, and even aim a gun at them, but they’d never notice.

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