The Paris Review

Booze in the USSR

P. Letunov, text reads: “Either, or,” with the bottle labeled “vodka,” 1983.

In the American imagination, the Russians are a vodka-loving people, every last one of them. They gargle with it. They water their plants with it. Their cars run on it. Is any of this true? Who cares? It feeds a treasured stereotype—the plump, stoical Russian, in some kind of furry ushanka, swilling that sweet, sweet fermented potato distillate until the first glimmer of dawn sweeps across the desolate, frozen Soviet horizon.

But get. It’s true! Even Tolstoy himself, one of the few Russians that Americans pretend to know and care about, eschewed the bottle. After his wild, drunken youth, he founded a temperance society, the Union Against Drunkenness, and he hoped to affix a label to all vodka bottles marking them as poison—with a skull and crossbones, the whole works. In an 1890 essay called “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?” he comes off as a total killjoy: 

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