Russian Drinking Tales — Round 3

A year or so ago, I published two posts (here and here) related to wine, beer and another, quite exotic, alcoholic beverage in the former Soviet Union. Previously, I’d created two other posts (here and here) about experiences with vodka in the USSR. Today, I’ll briefly return to the subject in a sort of “hair of the dog that bit you” post.

In early December 1977, while working at the U.S. consulate-general in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), I accompanied our consul general, Thompson “Tom” Buchanan, on a trip that took me as close to the North Pole1 as I’m ever likely to get — Arkhanglesk (Archangel), Russia’s port on the White Sea.2 Actually, the locals were enduring a “warm spell” — as I recall, while we were in town temperatures hovered around 5 degrees F (minus 15 degrees C, or as the Russians say, 15 degrees of frost), and people were complaining that it wasn’t cold enough to freeze the ice on the Northern Dvina River sufficiently thick to support the trucks that normally used it as a wintertime highway to and from points southeast.

Arkhangelsk (the red dot marks the spot)

But I digress. I was intending to write about alcohol, not antifreeze!3

Over three days, an ever-changing cast of Soviet hosts fed us the very same meal at each of the luncheons and dinners — at factories and institutions of various types — that had been arranged for us. It was hard not to conclude that the ingredients for this hearty banquet fare had been shipped up to this northerly outpost on the same plane we’d flown in on — a culinary Potemkin Village4 created in an effort to obscure the local scarcity of tasty vittles.5

The main course, as you might have guessed, was vodka. Our hosts were all having a fine time trying to drink us under the table. Knowing my limits, I took only a small sip with each of the countless toasts. Consul General Buchanan tried harder than I to show that Americans could hold their own in a contest for which we were woefully ill-equipped to compete. By the morning of our last day in town he was fighting back nausea.

At least the consul general fared better than our deputy principal officer, George L. Rueckert, who, after returning from a similar trip to Murmansk, was suffering from an actual case of alcohol poisoning. Upon his return to work three or four days later, he still looked pale and unwell.

Drinking with gusto

Vodka is colorless, but it certainly colors life in Russia. At various times, both while serving at the consulate and earlier, as a graduate student on my first visit to Leningrad in 1967, I would regularly witness public drunkenness at a level I’d never seen before or since. I remember seeing one fellow flat on the ground near a trolley stop one mid-morning. He was trying to get up, but he managed only a pitiful “three-point stand” — on his face and knees. Sometimes, as I’d be driving through the city on a wintertime evening, I’d see people lying motionless on the sidewalk in the snow. I always wondered if they were alive and, if so, whether the police would manage to pick them up to thaw out — and dry out — before they succumbed. Very sad.

***

  1. Arkhangelsk is 1,765 miles from the North Pole or, if you prefer, just 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle. That’s pretty much the same latitude as Baffin Island, the Yukon and Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.
  2. The White Sea is open to shipping for about seven months of the year, thanks to the effects of the Gulf Stream, which conveys enough lingering Caribbean warmth north and east across the Atlantic to keep the port of Murmansk ice-free all year long. While Arkhangelsk is farther south than Murmansk, the Kola Peninsula largely isolates it from the more open Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean, where the Gulf Stream ends its northerly journey. The Gulf Stream is also responsible for the palm trees that grow along the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland.
    Arkhangelsk is also near the place through which the Muscovy Company, in the days of Queen Elizabeth I and Ivan the Terrible, established a trade route between England and Russia. I recall being intrigued by this as a graduate student since I discovered that one of the key English figures in this trade had the amusing (to me) name of Jerome Horsey.
  3. When vodka is in short supply, Russian air force personnel have sometimes been known to imbibe the alcohol meant for aircraft coolant and braking systems.
  4. Potemkin (Потёмкин) is pronounced Potyomkin.
  5. One morning, Tom Buchanan and I took a walk around town to get a better feel for the place. I remember stepping into a butcher shop (the Soviet-era sign over the door read simply Meat [Мясо — Myaso]) and immediately saw, in the long row of empty display cases, just one small tray with a few sausages. “Do you have any meat?” (У Вас есть мясо? — U Vas yest mayso?), the consul general asked, thinking, no doubt, that — in accord with a time-honored Soviet practice — there might well be some meat kept in the back, to be produced at the request of a big shot or other favored customer. The attendant at the far end of the shop, dressed in the typical white smock and cap, must have found the question hilarious — she responded with a hearty laugh.
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