Heaven on a Half-Shell: Red Square Caviar Bar in Rehoboth

How do we define Perfection?

I have been waiting to write this post since before this blog was even conceived. I have been set on going to this restaurant for about half a year.

Being a Marylander, summer means that it is time to migrate. We pack up our autos, meander through the highway system, cross the Bay Bridge, and then continue Eastward until we hit the Atlantic. We then spend a few days at whatever Ocean Resort we can get our hands on. Ocean City, MD is a little too busy, so I stick with Rehoboth, DE. Since it’s Delaware and not Maryland there is no Old Bay at the French fry stand, but I can take it if it means a more relaxed atmosphere.

In some ways Rehoboth is very much like Ocean City though. Can any desirable vacation destination avoid the air of becoming a tourist trap? There is plenty of overpriced dollar store junk; knives with your name cut into them, sandals that will hopefully last the week, and cute little plastic sandcastle sets. In short, its kitschy. Yet again, I think America is all about kitsch. As much as I try to fight it, this is simply the way it is. America is all about the massive gorilla statue outside of a car dealership.

America is all about the facade. And that is fine. But it only made the experience I had more profound.

I found perfection in Rehoboth. It was tucked into a nice little block of shops. It has walls painted a deep malachite. It had a massive bar with hundreds of different vodkas. It had Soviet propaganda signs advertising happy hour. It had music with Russian lyrics. And, most importantly, it had authentic Russian food. Yes, amidst the hermit crab and beachy clothes shops there is a blink and you’ll miss it piece of Russia in Rehoboth. The shop opens up at 6 PM. Most people walk by it as the day passes. The adventurous at least go up to the window and look at the menu. Americans have certain stereotypes of Russian food, we’ll get into those later.

All that matters for the discussion is that the shop opens at 6PM and that I made a Reservation on 7/20 for 7PM.

Its 6:20PM. I wake up my mate and we get dressed. Its 6:40PM. I am driving down Coastal Highway and taking Rehoboth Beach Access Route A. Its 6:50PM. I find a parking spot directly across from the restaurant, feed the meter. Its 7. I’m seated in a bright red booth hugging an oval table. I am in Red Square.

This picture was taken at 9PM. The sun was actually up at 7PM but you get the idea yes?

Oh sorry I haven’t mentioned the name yet have I? Red Square! (Красная площадь [Krasnaya Ploshad])

I invite you to explore their website to see what its all about or plan your own trip: http://www.redsquarecaviar.net/

The tables are immaculate. The walls are a gorgeous malachite and are covered with paintings. The bar is stocked.

And I do mean stocked
And I do mean stocked

I only saw two other couples in the restaurant that night. I did not see many people in the night before or after. Most Americans are weird about Russian food (a point I will continue to kick down the road-keep reading) and most Americans on vacation would rather drink overpriced beer and have second rate pizza with their dull children than have an unforgettable meal and try something new. This place is all about quality, and it exists in regal defiance of all your expectations about vacationing on the eastern shore.

Oh god the menu. How do I pick? So many choices! I do not even know if I like caviar. Which meal should I get? How many courses? Which vodka do I pick from the hundreds at the bar? After the initial shock wore off (the same sort of shock I suspect an Otaku gets when visiting Otakon for the first time) I decided to go for it. I have been waiting for this and have worked hard, this would be my graduation present to myself. When in Red Square do as the Russians do…and it is my humble opinion that Russians have an unparalleled taste for luxury. This capacity is part of what got the Romanov family killed I suspect…

So I order the Prince Gourmet with a shot of Stolichnaya Elit. The vodka arrived first. My girlfriend is a fan of the Hellboy comics so she naturally ordered the cocktail named after the Mad Monk himself, Rasputin. I was astonished by how smooth her drink was. I suspect that Rasputin must have been just as smooth with Tsaritsa Alix…

Stoli Elit
The presentation: the shot was kept in a round vessel filled with ice water

I did not drink the vodka the moment it was served to me…I wanted it to be a chaser for the caviar. I suspect this may be a faux pas although I’ll need to do more research…

And then the caviar was brought out. 

Does a picture like this even need a caption?

The Prince Gourmet consists of 1/4oz each of Ocetra and Sevruga caviar served with clarified butter, blini, toast points, and crème fraîche. True Caspian Sturgeon caviar comes in three varieties priced according to rarity, size, and age of the species of sturgeon they are harvested from (the waiter explained this to me, incidentally he taught me how to actually eat the caviar too). These varieties, in order from most to least expensive, are as follows:

  1. Beluga: the rarest caviar, I cannot comment on the flavour or appearance as I did not have it.
  2. Ocetra: middle of the road with medium size and a brown colour. Has a rich but somewhat neutral flavour.
  3. Sevruga: the least expensive of Caspian caviar with small eggs and a dark colour. Still rich but has a saltier taste that lends a great umami character to it. This was actually my favourite although it seems to be more polarizing for other people. The flavour reminded me of anchovies although it is far more subtle. It is evocative of the briny smell and taste that winds coming inland from the sea carry.
A close up. The closer caviar is Osetra. Farther away is the lovely Sevruga.

The caviar came out on half shells astride chipped ice. It was served with a mother of pearl spoon as metal would contaminate the flavour. I tried a bit of straight caviar and then used it as a topping. Slather a toast point with the crème fraîche and add on some caviar, or maybe pour some clarified butter on a blini before adding caviar and wrapping it up. Perfection! I suspected that I was not necessarily eating it right but that is fine; better to make mistakes now right? No one was judging me.

I made it through the Prince Gourmet. My better half does not like the idea of eating roe which just meant more for me. As I mentioned before, I preferred the more pronounced edge that the Sevruga carried. It has a wonderful salty taste with plenty of buttery richness and depth. Caviar is an exceedingly simple food, but with each spoonful you notice something deeper, you go a little further down the rabbit hole.

After the caviar I took my shot of Stolichnaya Elit as planned, but not after I toasted with a cheer of Поехали! (Poyekhali!) That is what Yuri Gagarin alleged said before being launched into space. It translates to “Let’s go!” I’m not sure how much of a toast it is but I’m fond of it. The vodka goes does like water. I drank the whole shot at once although I left a little bit and had to take a second sip. I would have had more but I was the designated driver so I had to hold off. Next time though…

While waiting for our entrees we were treated to some lovely Russian Black Bread. It had a smell smell and taste of rye but was so excellent that my rye bread-hating girlfriend happily partook.

We were also greeted by the owner, Victoria. I mentioned that Russians have a great sense of luxury, they also have a magnificent eye for hospitality. She shared a bit of her story with us and was happy to ask us about our vacation was going. She made us feel very welcome, and very comfortable as well in the face of a new experience. She visited our table several times actually to make sure that everything was perfect. I mustered the courage to try some of my Russian language skills and we struck up a conversation. I even managed to learn a few Russian phrases from her.

The entrees arrived next. My better half is a fiend when it comes to dumplings so she ordered the Pelmeni (пельме́ни). They were absolutely divine and steamed to perfection; served with clarified butter, crème fraîche, and some apple cider vinegar. Victoria explained that this last addition was her husband’s idea. It seems to be an American-Russian taste. Regardless, it is a delicious idea.

Pelmeni

I ordered a dish that I had been fantasizing about ever since I have read about its immensely complicated preparation in Anya Von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.

The dish of my dreams, guest starring the Russian Black Bread

Kulebiaka (кулебя́ка) is as delicious as it is beautiful. It consists of fish (in this case salmon) put onto a bed of rice with capers and mushrooms before being wrapped in pastry dough. It was served with a refreshing dill sauce. Victoria explained that it is sometimes used as a wedding dish and then instructed me on how to proceed with eating it; one must cut into it, break it up, and mix up the various parts of it. I must admit, it was painful to destroy something that was so beautiful…

A tad blurry, but you get the idea

But it was worth it…It was absolutely worth it. The kulebiaka was at once rich and refreshing, heavy and light, filling and yet somehow airy. The salmon was cooked to perfection and the rice was absolutely delicious. The entire thing was perfectly cooked, and the shell was a rich golden brown as you can see. Every component melded to create a perfect harmony. I keep using the word perfect here…and I mean it!

At this point we were stuffed but we needed dessert. We got a house dish called the Strawberry Romanov. It was served in an over sized martini glass and consisted of layers of boozy strawberries with whipped cream. The vodka did not affect me very much, but this thing did and it was a fine way to end the meal.

This was easily the best meal of my life. 

After that we paid our bill and said our goodbyes to everyone. We stepped outside back out into the warm ocean locale. The sun hadn’t set yet. We had left the Tsarist court; we were now tourists again. There was nothing special about us. No one talked to us. Most people did what they normally do and just walked by. A few looked into the restaurant, perhaps not realizing what treasures lie inside. But as we walked I realized that we weren’t like the rest. We did not have pizza and burgers and bar food. We did not have a side of fries and an American Adjunct Lager. We just had an unforgettable meal of unparalleled luxury and quality. We had gone to Russia and back, all in the span of just a few hours. We had touched something new, something exotic and unusual and surely possessed by the Russian soul. I shuffled along on the pavement and then on the boardwalk but I didn’t feel like anyone else. I felt like I had left heaven to walk among mortals again. Wow I am starting to sound crazy here I bet? I guess caviar does that to you. Or maybe it was the Strawberry Romanov…Regardless, I couldn’t help but relish what was surely the most unique and fanciful experience Rehoboth, nay, the whole state of Delaware, has to offer.

The website for Red Square makes a bold claim that it will “bring you back to old Tsarist Russia.” It unconditionally makes good on this. The decadence, atmosphere, and quality of food and service are almost surreal and anachronistic. And yet Red Square is the realest place in all of Rehoboth. Here was something authentic. Here is a place that means something. Red Square as a restaurant is out of place in both Rehoboth Beach and in modern America as a whole. Its bold. Its pure. Both are rare in our kitschy and fast-paced culture. I read about Russia and learn about it every day, but to actually touch and taste Russian culture changes just puts everything in perspective. A picture is worth a thousand words but a meal is worth many, many more.

One more note, after our entrees arrived Victoria came to tell us how to approach them. She was happy that we ordered kulebiaka and pelmeni; most Americans simply opt for the more recognizable Chicken Kiev and Stroganoff. Most Americans seem to have an unflattering view of Russian cuisine. This is because they don’t read into it and aren’t looking for a challenge. Maybe they have trouble seeing past the smoked fish and borscht. Maybe they’re simply too comfortable with what they expect.

So I urge you all to go out and try new things. Go out and experience new corners of the world. I would say that Red Square is a perfect place to start your journey.

http://www.redsquarecaviar.net/

Anastasia Screamed in Vain

Sympathy for the Devil played twice on the radio today. Being an aspiring Sovietologist, I always look forward to the part where Mick Jagger sings about the Russian Revolution.

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

It played once on my way to work, once on my way back. I didn’t think much of it, or, at least, I wouldn’t have if a co-worker didn’t remind me what today was…

1918. The Russian Civil War was getting underway after the Bolshevik Revolution which had occurred less than a year before. The Tsar and his immediate family were in the possession of the Bolsheviks, being carted around to various locations as needed. On a quiet night, July 17th, 1918, the Tsar and his family were taken into the basement of a house in Ekaterinburg. Just another routine transfer yes? There was still hope that they might escape. White forces were on the march. There were many who sympathized with the crown. Someone would save them at some point. The Bolsheviks surely couldn’t last…

Imagine the Tsar’s surprise when a group of men went in the basement and announced that he and his family had been sentenced to death. Apparently the Tsar’s last words were “what?” I’m not sure if there should be an exclamation point after this or not. Does a man say “what” flatly when he is about to die? Does a man even say “what” when he is about to die? I imagine that Nicholas II would have said it without inflection.  He was aloof, apathetic, and ultimately ill-fit to the lead the Russian state. He really just wanted to lead a life with his family. He couldn’t even have that in the end.

Edvard Radzinsky’s the Last Tsar is a telling and somewhat conspiratorial biography of the Tsar’s life. While it contains excellent historiography, with plenty of details taken from the Tsar’s diary, Radzinsky at times writes like a playwright and entertains some unlikely theories. He still writes a great history though, with a special eye for all the ironies and rhythms that history follows. I recommend the book highly.

Radzinsky succeeds in showing Nicholas II for what he was: the apathetic Tsar. Nicholas II was supremely indifferent. He just didn’t seem to care. Was he an airhead? Was he just blind from an upbringing in extravagance? Was he overpowered by willful advisers, a mighty police apparatus, and a domineering wife? Was he just the wrong man at the wrong time?

It is difficult to sympathize with Nicholas the Bloody. Plenty of people died in his wake and he didn’t seem to care. And yet it is hard to look at a picture of him and not feel pity. Behind the bright blue eyes and stately beard stands what I believe to be a melancholic disposition. Nicholas II did not have what it took to rule Russia. He couldn’t wield the force that the Tsar’s had relied on for so long. He couldn’t control court intrigue. He couldn’t rally the people against the Germans let alone provide bread for them. His journal entries give the impression of a man who wasn’t really in control of his fate; of a man who didn’t want to be in control of his fate. Nicholas II simply accepted that his life was guided by God’s will. That was good enough for him…

But was it God’s will that he would be shot in a basement at almost point-blank by some wayward revolutionaries? Was it God’s will that he died immediately as his family looked on in horror? Was it God’s will that Tsarevich Alexei, heir to the throne, would be the next to fall? Was it God’s will that Tsarina Alix and his 4 daughters would be killed too? Was it God’s will that the diamonds sewed into their dresses would keep them alive and force the executioners to use bayonets?

Alexei had survived far longer than expected given that he was a hemophiliac. According to Radzinsky he survived the initial volley and required bayonets and bullets. Allegedly he was the last member of the family to die.  The bloodline was putting up its last fight. It could only last so long though…

Honestly the best part of Radzinsky’s book is the murder scene. I feel terrible saying that. The entire thing builds up to it, and then it just happens. You can’t avoid it. You know what is coming. It’s ghastly and terrifying. It’s worse than you can possibly imagine. The basement scene alone makes the entire book worth it…

Why did the Bolsheviks do it? Who knows. The jury seems to be out on exactly why. The White forces they were fighting didn’t exactly want the Tsar back: they wanted the Provisional Government of Kerensky. The Tsar was an anachronism. He represented everything that was backward, everything that was wrong.

After the royal family died they were finally moved to their final prison, a mine shaft. Their bodies were mangled; they were burned and acid was used on at least two corpses. No one would ever find their bodies (at least not for many decades). No one could rally around the Tsar. The past was dead. The Revolution secure. The Civil War waged on. The Bolsheviks won. Anastasias and Alexeis popped up here and there, but did anyone really believe they were genuine?

God save the Tsar?

It’s a little late for that…

For Russia, the Iran Deal Is All about Europe

You might remember a previous post I made about sanctions and how their efficacy is limited. As of today Russia is still being sanctioned. Iran is also being sanctioned although, if the deal reached today turns out right, it won’t be for much longer. It is too early for us to judge if sanctions against Iran actually worked but for the time being it would seem like they have. So maybe we should reassess the sanctions against Russia. We also need to recognize that Russia had an important stake in the discussions at hand and that the recent deal between the P5+1 and Iran may change things substantially.

Before delving into the material lets establish a few things.

  • Russia did not want to see a nuclear Iran. If you have a big world ending stick the last thing you want is for other people to have one. Nukes are a nigh-perfect deterrent that radically alter power structures.
  • That being said, Russia doesn’t mind selling raw materials to Iran. Russia likes using its role as an energy provider to gain leverage. This gives them good power in Europe. It also gives them potential links with S. America and the Middle East. Russia has been contemplating selling nuclear reactors to Egypt. A friendly Iran also creates stress for the United States and for Armenia and Georgia.
  • Russia doesn’t really view Iran as a bad guy. They don’t consider Hizbullah or any Iranian backed groups to be terrorists.
  • Russia and Iran still aren’t best friends though. The USSR held onto part of Iran during WWII and only gave it up after an American threat of force. The Soviet-Afghan War did not engender warm feelings between the Soviets and the Ayatollah (also note that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan shortly after the Iranian Revolution; the distrust is mutual). Ayatollah Khomeini at the very least considered the USSR to be the lesser Satan (guess who the greater Satan was…) which, in the bipolar Cold War, meant a lot. Russia and Iran are still sorta friends although at times they squabble over oil in the Caspian sea.

So  what does Russia have to gain from an Iran with subdued nuclear ambitions? It seems like they are giving up a lot of leverage in the area. Still, Russia can’t miss the talks. Why give up an opportunity to be relevant and show that you are up there with the great powers? The Iranian deal also has certain provisions that bring the Security Council into play. Per Obama the SC will apparently be a gatekeeper for adding or removing sanctions as Iran defies or complies with orders. Russia will be able to have a continued say on matters. Keep in mind that Russia has a veto power so it has some leverage here. Overall though I think the Iranian-Russia deal hurts Russia. Iran, for the time being, cannot be utilized to give the US a hard time. I’m curious to see where some of Russia’s other nuclear clientage will stand after these decisions. Russia may very well recoup its losses in Iran by redoubling efforts and agreements elsewhere in the region. Or maybe Russia will just start selling more conventional military equipment to Iran. Russia may also make itself available to Iran as a means of storing or disposing enriched Uranium.

There is also talk that oil prices will fall. This does not bode well for a Russia which is facing continued economic stress.

So what does Russia have to gain from the Iran deal?

The answer is fuel. Not nuclear fuel. Not oil. We’ve already discussed how that works out. No. Russia gets propaganda fuel.

I’m less interested in the Middle East side of things though. I think the Iran deal has a much more important meaning for Russia in Europe. Russia is primarily focused on Europe at the moment and so will seek to maximize leverage there. The deal in Iran will bolster Russia’s domestic and international propaganda regime. How? Well lets consider Russia Today, which wasted no time in publishing a story about how Lavrov expects that the US will remove anti-missile systems from Europe.

So it all comes together…

The US makes Russia nervous. It expanded NATO despite alleged promises made to Gorbachev. To add insult to injury the US has decided to put anti-ballistic missile systems in some of the new NATO members (mostly good ol’ Poland). This makes sense to the US. Iranian missiles might not be able to reach the US, but they could develop ones that would reach Europe. ABM systems are therefore seen as a way to protect Europe from a nuclear Iran. Here is where the fun begins: the ABM sites aren’t really completed. I don’t even know if construction began, but I do know that the US is now at a critical juncture. With Iran allegedly pacified what will the US do with its ABM plans?

Just a note on ABM systems. Russia doesn’t like them. No, it’s not because they thwart Putin’s complicated invasion plans. I don’t believe that Putin means any harm to NATO. No, it’s not because they make Russia’s ICBMs useless. Russia still has PLENTY to go around and the ABMs could not hope to shoot them all down. Russia also has ballistic subs parked all over the place, so they could still assure mutual destructive in the advent of war. There is a much more fundamental reason why Russia, and many people, dislike ABMs. Put simply, they disrupt deterrence. Recall the security dilemma discussed in an earlier post: when a nation gets a new toy it makes other nations uncomfortable, driving them to get new toys that in turn make the original innovator uncomfortable, and so on and so on. Nukes are a great deterrent and produce remarkable stability. ABMs would upset this delicate balance and drive states to build better nukes, something that even a nuclear power would shudder at. Massive price tag aside, I don’t think any leader or sane man would really want to roll out a new line of harder/faster/better/stronger nukes.

Without the original impetus of the Iran threat, the United States therefore has a choice to make in Europe.

  1. Maintain plans to build ABM systems in Poland. This would make Russia unbelievably uncomfortable, heightening their perception of encirclement by a threatening NATO. It may drive Russia to focus more on its military budget and start doubling down.
  2. Pull the plug on ABM systems in Poland. This would enhance US-Russia relations and make the two states more likely to begin to wind down sanctions and the current period of tension. Conflict won’t vanish but it will simmer down.

The Russia Today article I brought up mentions that the US made a promise not to build missile sites now that the Iranian situation has been dealt with. I would like to find where the US made this promise, if at all. I suspect that this may be a repeat of the promise made by Bush to Gorbachev not to expand NATO; a promise believed by some to be Russian propaganda, hearsay, and/or misunderstanding. Regardless the Russians believe that Bush said he would not expand NATO; it is after all convenient for them to believe this. It doesn’t matter if Kerry promised Lavrov that the US would cancel its missile project; the Russians will believe it happened simply because it is a good alibi.

And here is the danger. Now we are entering the strange realm of politics that centers on public image. Now that the Iran deal is reached Russia can begin to leverage massive pressure against the US to cancel its ABM systems. Russia may care about its economic ties to Iran, but it is willing to sacrifice these in exchange for security.

So now it is up for the US to decide what to do. I fear that this is a difficult decision with no right answer. There are two outcomes based on the decisions outlined above.

  1. If the US builds ABM systems than Russia will be deeply alarmed and have a great chance to attack the US with media. Perhaps they will say “the ABM systems are really aimed at Russia!” or “the US isn’t serious about the Iran deal and still deems Iran to be a threat.” Either claim would make us look bad, especially to the Russian people and the Iranians.
  2. The United States pulls the plug on ABMs and Russia is satisfied although Europe/NATO may feel abandoned and Republicans will accuse Obama of being soft on Communism Russia.

I feel that Obama, due to his desire to avoid criticism and placate Europe, may choose the first option and leave ABMs in Poland. Obama may rationalize this decision as a “dynamic reassessment in light of changing realities.” That sounds like something a president would say…

And think of where Obama is coming from. He just forged a deal with Iran after having them under sanctions. For Obama, sanctions worked and are the main reason for the success of negotiations. Currently we are sanctioning Russia, so Obama may feel the need to continue pressing sanctions against Russia. Building ABM systems would heighten this pressure by forcing Russia to make very difficult economic decisions: “do we modernize our military further or give in and make peace with the West.” Russia may be taking a beating but Russians are proud and Russia has more contacts and resources than Iran did, so they may hold out until the EU cracks and lets up its sanctions on Russia. Putin, who built his power base on nationalism, risks unwinding his whole regime by backing down in the face of sanctions. Iranian power though is also built on a sort of antipathy for the West, and they were willing to back down and deal with the West, so maybe applying pressure to Russia may work…

Regardless of what America does it needs to be aware of the power of alleged promises and of the Russian capacity to capitalize on reversals and perceived hypocrisy. The US holds the cards and can grind Russia into submission with sanctions, but it may not be worth opening new fronts with Russia that may only generate greater distrust and dislike of America among Russian citizens.

I can see it now. President Obama coming on television and saying that we will continue to build ABMs in Europe due to the threat posed by Russia. Oh the irony of Putin’s actions. Such is the security dilemma…

The Spirit Haunting Russia Part I: Brief Overview

How do we even begin to deal with a subject like this? Is it even remotely possible to wrap our minds around it? Can we explain why the giraffe has spots? Why water is wet?

I guess we should start with the basics.

Russians like alcohol. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most Europeans like alcohol (as a descendant of Irish and Germans and Italians, oh my, I can attest to this). For the record Russians also like books and are considered to be some of the world’s most prolific readers. Russians are also extraordinarily fond of tea, something often left in the shadow of their vodka consumption.

But we’re not talking about tea here and we’re not talking about books…we’re talking about alcohol. How central is alcohol to the Russian identity? Allegedly Islam’s banning of alcohol is what drove Vladimir the Great to choose Christianity when he was selecting a new religion over a millennium ago. The Russian word водка (vodka) is related to the word вода (water). Yet again this is not really out of the ordinary since other European countries referred to alcoholic solutions as aqua vitae (water of life).

The Russian government has always been precariously dependent upon alcohol. At various times there have been state monopolies on vodka, and the stuff has always been an essential source of tax revenue for the government. A new book by Mark Schrad that I just ordered today deals heavily with this topic. An abundance of vodka has at times been a curse for Russia, especially when gently shaken with economic collapse, poured into a stifling shot glass, and garnished with a failing political system. Public drunkenness became inordinately common in Russia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Brezhnev did not seem to care much but his three successors, Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev, did. Gorbachev personally did the most to try and stem it but without much success. Russians were unwilling to give up their alcohol. When Gorbachev raised prices of vodka the economic posturing of the USSR weakened as tax revenues declined. Higher prices just drove Russians to brew their own. The Russian term for moonshine is самого́н (samogon) in case you were wondering.

There is no shortage of stereotypes surrounding Russian drinking habits. Some of us might recall the scene from Dr. Strangelove where fictional Soviet Premier Kissoff was drunk when the American president called him to try to defuse a situation involving a group of renegade nuclear-armed bombers. Robin Williams played on this same trope in a stand-up routine where he assumed a drunk Russian accent and talked about all the nukes that had been misplaced. I distinctly remember Mickey Rourke’s character in Iron Man 2 taking occasional swigs of vodka while building his robot suit. Stereotypes abound…

And there is some truth to the stereotypes. Alcohol is a key part of the Russian socio-political landscape. But I don’t think it is anything to really laugh about. The reality is quite disturbing. Russian food writer Anya Von Bremzen writes in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking about how her father, who worked on the commission responsible for preserving Lenin, would come home with the smell of formaldehyde on his breath after alcohol became too expensive. Stalin, as it turns out, was rather fond of having drunken parties in his dacha with all the boys. Khrushchev and his politburo would also drink heavily, although they did so at public parties and, if Gunther (1958) is to be believed, made some policy decisions while drunk. Yeltsin fought a very public and disturbing personal war with alcohol, although it was always pretty clear that alcohol never lost. Yeltsin was usually drunk in public, including foreign diplomatic trips.

Alcoholism is a grim spectre that greatly affects public health. Vodka became more and more popular during the economic disaster that was the 1990s and Russian men in particular turned to vodka when they were unable to provide for their families. A significant portion of Russian men died, and continue to die, in their early 50s. Women generally outlive men significantly (women incidentally prefer tea to vodka from what I have read) which only leads to a greater demographic crisis since women often have a harder time finding work and are now cut off from their Soviet era social programs.

We might find this odd, but Russians actually have several stigmas against alcoholics. Folk belief ranks those who drank themselves to death with suicides as members of the, so-called, unclean dead. These unclean dead were feared to come back if not properly disposed of and cause all sorts of mischief. The defining character of drunks was their thirst. Drunks who died of thirst in life were expected to come back and, presumably, drink water and create a drought. The unclean dead were not afforded Christian burials, and instead had their bodies mangled so as to prevent their Resurrection. Usually legs were chopped off or stakes were put through hearts. Dead drunks were taken far from civilization and cast into lakes where they could forever quench their thirst (Morrissey 2005; Warner 2011). Even if these stigmas exist (indeed, Russian folklore is still quite alive and well), alcoholism still poses a significant problem.

All in all, alcohol poses a threat to Russian health, demographics, and domestic stability. Mr. Putin, ever the pragmatist, seems to have walked a middle line, albeit a conservative one. Putin has certainly taken steps to try to promote a decline in alcoholism. Anthony Bourdain is a recent trip to Russia met up with the ska-punk band Leningrad, who had been banned from Moscow for promoting alcoholism with their songs (it doesn’t help that Leningrad likes to challenge politics). Putin showed a softened stance towards vodka with the recent economic problems of Russia, setting price caps on vodka. While Puritans might say that this keeps vodka affordable Putin says that is a decision made with public interest in mind. Massive vodka prices may drive some to resort to dangerous substances as they did in the 1980s. I think Putin is pretty mindful of the power vodka holds, which explains his moderate and realistic stance towards it. I am not sure if it really is possible to wage an effective prohibition campaign without losing significant political capital, so Putin is doing the best he can in the context.

I wasn’t actually intending for this to be a post about the history and place of alcohol. I was actually going to have this post be about my own interactions with Russian alcohol in a post-21 world.
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A few coworkers actually got me some Russian Standard vodka and some Baltika Beer; yes Russian’s do have beer although I can’t say they are big on wine-you have to go to Georgia for that.

Since I got so off-topic I have decided to make this part one of a series of posts. As I continue to try different alcohols and study different cultural trends I will report on the actual customs associated with drinking and the history of companies. I also did order that book Vodka Politics so presumably I can write a review of that and incorporate it into this series. I hope you all enjoy. Please drink responsibly and please also remember to do your research before engaging in stereotypes. True, Russians like to drink, but this is not the totality of their culture nor is it something that should be made fun of. Alcohol is a part of the Russian identity, for better and for worse, and it poses unique challenges to public health, economics, and politics.