Tasting the Lithuanian version of Manischewitz sweet, kosher wine — which I wrote about last week — was only one of three non-vodka alcoholic adventures I had in the USSR.1 The other two both took place in Riga, Latvia.
The first of these was a taste provided by my Soviet-Latvian hosts of what today we might call a craft beer. I was told it was brewed on a local kolkhoz2 (collective farm). They poured me a big mugful straight from the spigot of a small wooden cask. It was a little sweet and very easy-drinking … but its most notable feature was the head. I’ve never seen such a frothy head, almost like the bubbly foam that is often visible at the foot of a waterfall, or around rapids, and which I often attribute to pollutants in the water. The Latvian beer, however, was delightful (not in the least polluted!) and I’d gladly drink it again, if only it were on tap here in California.
My final drinking discovery was of a considerably more potent libation — Riga Black Balsam. You can learn about it at this link, but here is what I recall of my hosts’ telling me at the time. It’s made according to a closely-guarded recipe passed down over more than 200 years. All they could say was that its ingredients include a great many herbs and botanicals. The potent (90-proof), bittersweet liquid is as dark as the blackest coffee you’ve ever drunk, and it’s bottled in a distinctive brown clay vessel.
So, have I made anyone thirsty?
2. Kolkhozy, collective farms, were born in one of the ugliest, most repressive episodes in the grim history of the Soviet Union. Stalin began his big push to “collectivize” Soviet agriculture in 1929. What that meant in practice was that the government, at the point of a gun, seized all farmland, farm equipment and animals and, in effect, made them the property of the state. All farmers and farm workers (peasants in Russian/Soviet terminology) became, in essence, state employees. Independent farms were outlawed. Formally, each “collective” farm existed for the benefit of the peasants who lived and worked on it, but in practice, the government dictated quotas for the production of grain and all other farm products — and their prices — and each kolkhoz had to meet its quotas, which were high. Prices, on the other hand, were rock-bottom, so farmers were motivated to work not by hope of prosperity, but rather by simple force and fear.
Stalin’s purpose was two-fold: (1) to get grain cheaply so it could be sold abroad and the proceeds used to buy industrial equipment that would speed up the country’s economic growth and (2) to more easily exercise political control over the peasantry, the great bulk of the country’s population. Collectivization was a brutal, bloody process that resulted in deliberate, government-induced famine that killed millions of men, women and children. “Rich” peasants — i.e., any family that owned more than one cow or horse, or who had machinery of some kind — were denounced as kulaks (literally: fists) and most were exiled to remote, thinly settled areas of Siberia and Central Asia where thousands died of hunger and exposure. Farmers had their crops confiscated at gunpoint. Even seed for next year’s crops was often seized.
Collective farming was not voluntary. It was mandatory. This is why kolkhozy should never be confused with kibbutzim, the collective farms in Israel, whose membership is entirely voluntary. The other big difference between Soviet collective farms and Israeli kibbutzim is that collectivization destroyed not only farmers’ natural entrepreneurial incentive, but overall agricultural production. Before the Bolsheviks (Communists) came to power in Russia, the country was a grain exporter. Following collectivization, production plummeted. Most Israeli kibbutzim, by contrast, because their members want to share the work and benefits collectively, are thriving communities.