Drinking in Russia

Alexander Nazaryan, a Russian expat English teacher in Brooklyn who has written for the Village Voice, New Criterion and other publications, and is working on his first novel, “Golden Youth,” about Russian organized crime in Brooklyn, had the following op-ed in the New York Times last week (click through to read a number of comments the piece attracted). In it he observes:  “But perhaps because our foods are less sensuous or readily appealing than Mediterranean cuisine ― sour cream is not so sexy, it turns out ― only the [vodka] bottle lingers in the imagination.”  He might not have limited the comparison to Mediterranean cuisine, since Russian food suffers by comparison to virtually any other cuisine you can name. It’s an observation we made long ago, that Russian cuisine is a perfect microcosm of Russia itself, gross and unreformed, because the people of Russia simply can’t be bothered.

There are few bars in my native city of St. Petersburg, and none at all, as far as I can tell, in Brighton Beach, the Russian enclave of Brooklyn to which I return whenever the memory of stuffed cabbage dumplings and accordion music begins to beckon. Not that sobriety has too much traction in either: when I returned to St. Petersburg in 2003 for the first time in 20 years, it was much more common to find open beers in the morning crowd than cups of coffee. And in the extravagant cabarets of Brighton Beach ― those gilded mafiya haunts now frequented by well-heeled families from Montclair and Stamford ― each dinner table is marked by an endless cavalcade of Smirnoff and Courvoisier.

The notion that Russians love to drink is true, but somewhat misses the point. Russians love abundance, and alcohol ― especially vodka ― has been one of the few steady pleasures in a nation historically steeped in war, poverty and unrest. During the Soviet era, vodka promised a sanctuary from Marxism-Leninism: ideology does not exist at the bottom of a shot glass. Mikhail Gorbachev must have forgotten that when he launched his misguided anti-alcohol campaign during the bleak mid-80s as the Soviet dream was on the verge of unraveling. The historian William Pokhlebkin, in his “A History of Vodka,” an amusingly thorough account of Russia’s love affair with “the little water,” writes: “The clumsy prohibitionist measures taken against vodka were not only ineffective … but contributed to the disruption of state finances.” When vodka became scarce, many resorted to making their own, known as samogon, which sapped the nation of its sugar reserves and further enraged the thirsty populace, as there was now nothing to sweeten tea.

My family left for the United States around this time, and I mostly grew up in Connecticut, in a household where alcohol was less common than Sprite. I learned to drink like an average American, because becoming American was something every Russian immigrant aspired to, even if it meant aping a culture that we hardly understood. Several of us “new Americans” went to college together and joined fraternities, and suddenly we were drinking Milwaukee’s Best from plastic cups instead of discussing Solzhenitsyn in some cramped kitchen where cold vodka and political unrest flowed freely. In those days, the only nod to my roots was a miniature Soviet flag that drooped from its resting place inside a novelty beer cup I’d smuggled back from Cancun.

That changed when I graduated college and moved to New York, where I worked seriously on a biographical novel about St. Petersburg. It went nowhere ― first novels rarely do ― but last year I started working on a second novel, about the organized crime that thrived in Brighton Beach when many of the Soviet Union’s finest criminal minds made their way to America’s golden shores, where the getting proved a lot easier with the K.G.B. conveniently half a world away.

Writing requires research, and research in Brighton Beach ― if it is to be faithful ― requires drinking. These days I have many willing “research assistants” in the form of American friends for whom neighborhoods like Brighton remain a largely foreboding but tantalizing ethnic hinterland. Like Virgil leading Dante through the netherworld, I guide them through the maze of caviar hawkers and overflowing fruit stands, past the overpriced restaurants on the Riegelmann Boardwalk, to Café Gina, a wonderfully inauspicious restaurant that is perhaps the neighborhood’s best paean to those twin loves ― food and drink ― of the elusive Russian soul.

Here we eat only as Politburo fat-cats could have back in the day, while the rest of the country stood in line for meager provisions: meat-stuffed cabbage leaves swimming in tomato sauce; steaming Ukrainian borscht with dollops of sour cream; veal dumplings, also covered in sour cream; and, of course, pumpernickel bread stacked with pickled herring and onion slivers, chased with a shot of vodka.

There are no bars for us to visit in Brighton because they are anathema to the Russian manner of drinking. Pokhlebkin, perhaps the most passionate and erudite defender of vodka consumption in recorded history, notes that “the correct role of vodka at a table drink is to accompany and to highlight exclusively Russian national dishes. Above all, vodka is the appropriate drink with meat and meat-cereal dishes, with salty and sharp-tasting dishes, and with fish.” No less than the Italians or French, Russians treat drinking as part of a complete gastronomic experience, and divorcing the two would be unthinkable for anyone with a modicum of taste. But perhaps because our foods are less sensuous or readily appealing than Mediterranean cuisine ― sour cream is not so sexy, it turns out ― only the bottle lingers in the imagination.

It does take a measure of stamina to drink like a Russian, and I’ve given up long ago trying to keep pace with the natives. I remember an American friend’s incredulity as four middle-aged women complemented their lunch at Café Gina with a bottle of Smirnoff they treated more like a bottle of Poland Spring. Meanwhile, at a recent dinner at Café Glechik, an Ukrainian restaurant, 15 of us brownstone Brooklynites struggled to finish a mere two bottles of Tito’s Handmade Vodka (that we were drinking a vodka which, while excellent, was distilled in Texas, is worthy of its own discussion). There is no counting calories or drinks at the Russian table, a byproduct of those fatalistic times when a drinking buddy might simply disappear into the gears of the Soviet machine ― as millions did ― never to tip his glass again.

Today, the memory of the Soviet Union has faded for many, and the crème de la crème of Russian society is no longer the Marxist ideologue but oil-rich oligarchs who favor, among countless other indulgences, the Swiss resort Verbier where, according to the U.K.’s Daily Mail, “the cheapest champagne costs more than £100 a bottle [and] the most expensive is nearly £11,000,” while a measly mojito runs £50. Such is today’s Russia ― flashy, bombastic, aggressive ― and there are sure to be legions of students, as there were during the Cold War, eager to once again understand a nation Churchill famously branded “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” My suggestion is a plate of veal dumplings under the striated shadows of the subway tracks, washed down by a Baltika beer. Just don’t forget the sour cream.

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