Wholly Russia

“Shall we pop in for a swift half?”

If you think it odd that thousands of post offices should sell beer, you’ve never lived in Russia, where this innovation has been introduced.

I have and, though in my time post offices didn’t sell beer, I understand why they now do.

It’s no secret that Russians have a certain fondness for drink. Ancient chronicles cite this predilection as one reason Grand Duke Vladimir chose Christianity rather than Islam as the state religion.

Vladimir is alleged to have been turned off by the Muslim injunction against alcohol. “Drinking is the joy of Rus,” explained the prince. “We can’t be without it.”

Quite. In fact, alcoholism is a major problem in Russia, badly affecting such things as life expectancy, demand for medical care, absenteeism, crime rate, breakup of marriages – life in general.

Now one might think that selling beer not only in bars and off-licences but even in post offices would make the problem worse, rather than better.

That’s missing the point, or rather a point. For the problem isn’t just that the Russians drink too much, but that they often drink liquids not manifestly designed for human consumption. Hence officials hope that inducing men to opt for beer will keep them healthier for longer.

According to the Russian government spokesman, window cleaning liquid seems to be the current beverage of choice, closely rivalled by antifreeze, mouthwash and various tinctures.

Many of those delights contain methanol and other poisons, adding a certain frisson to each sip. The trouble is that, if common-or-garden alcoholism takes time to kill, some of those other liquids can do so on the spot.

In fact, rues the same spokesman, every year 1,200 people die for that reason, and I’m sure that number is understated by orders of magnitude. Then, of course, methanol can make you go blind, not just blind drunk.

Call me a soppy sentimentalist, but, reading such reports, I recalled growing up in Moscow with a twinge of nostalgia. Also, call me a reactionary, but I’m a firm believer in the plus ça change version of history.

Russia remains wholly Russia, just as it was back in the ‘60s, when, as ever, drinking was the essential rite of passage for any lad. I was such a lad and, at 16, my liver was bigger than it is now.

It’s important to note straight away that it wasn’t just how much, but what and in what way one drank that mattered.

The redemptive arrival of the consumer age was somehow being delayed throughout my childhood, and the acceptable urban middle-class booze included vodka (Stolichnaya for 3.07 rubles a half-litre bottle, Moskovskaya for 2.87), brandy (Armenian or Georgian 3-star for 4.12) and vile fortified wine named, as the spirit moved the manufacturers, port, cahor or jeres, all costing around 1.40 and bearing just enough resemblance to their illustrious namesakes to turn one off fortified wine for life.

The demographic disclaimer is necessary here because the rural population drank moonshine almost exclusively (as it still does), while urban lower classes seldom elevated their consumption above ‘white wine’, which in their parlance was the cheapest vodka available, and ‘red wine’, which meant the vilest port going.

These represented the upper limit of their tastes but not the lowest, which plunged into the area of dangerous liquids, such as floor varnish, methanol, antifreeze, cologne, deodorants and other arcana.

Benny Yerofeev, the late poet of Russian dipsomania, remarked correctly that while few people in Russia know what Pushkin died of, everybody knows how to prepare floor varnish for drinking.

I hope you won’t find it patronising if I divulge the secret to the uninitiated: you take a three-gallon bucket of floor varnish and empty a four-pound bag of salt into it. The salt will form a blob that will start sinking to the bottom through the dense liquid.

As it sinks, the blob will get heavier with the oils, ethers and other impurities it has absorbed and dragged down to the bottom. In about four hours you’ll be left with a brownish liquid, which would be unlikely to cause any sleepless nights to the makers of Lagavulin, but which can be drunk with relative impunity, at least in the short term.

Since I was definitely urban middle class, I stuck to regulation booze that, as etiquette would have it, was supposed to be consumed either from eight-ounce tumblers in one daring gulp or straight ‘from the neck’. As a concession to one’s wimpish origin one would have been allowed to empty the bottle in several pulls.

Suffering from a rare cardiovascular condition, I spent months in hospital and I still remember the lifts going up and down throughout the night on high holidays.

As Tamara Petrovna, the head nurse, explained to me, those were real men, not wimps like me, who had inadvertently drunk things they shouldn’t have. She then told me to shut the f*** up, which was her usual punctuation at the end of statements.

That was her Mr Hyde part. But Tamara Petrovna also had a Dr Jekyll streak of charity, compassion and camaraderie so characteristic of Russian women.

She knew that men, ill or not, needed their vodka. To satisfy that need Tamara Petrovna always kept in her office several bottles of medical alcohol, which was in such ample supply that no one at the hospital minded her purloining it.

Other nurses would simply sell it on the out for one ruble per 100 millilitres (or ‘grams’, as the Russians refer to alcohol measures). However, Tamara Petrovna preferred to serve not just Mammon but, by relieving the suffering of the patients in her charge, Aesculapius as well.

Her going rate was one ruble or a Prokofievan three oranges for an eight-ounce tumbler of the warm liquid, alcohol diluted to 40 per cent with water. (The chemical reaction between pure alcohol and water releases heat, which knowledge most Russian males acquire empirically before reaching puberty.)

As a gesture of good will, Tamara Petrovna would throw in half a teaspoonful of strawberry jam to stir into the liquid, changing its colour and making it look innocuous to a passing doctor.

You see how a short piece in The Times can bring back such loving memories? The sun must be over the yardarm somewhere, so, my eyes misted over, I’ll have a small Lagavulin, toasting the indestructible Russian character.

2 thoughts on “Wholly Russia”

  1. Russians have bad dental service? They cannot for the most part eat normal food. Must consume a lot of alcohol for the requisite caloric intake?

  2. Your recipe reminds me of the old bushman’s way of cooking Irish stew. Simmer a snake in salty water (an old boot will do if no snake available). After 24 hours throw the whole lot away.

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