Astonishing drinking sessions and epic hangovers in the world's booziest nation

Chris Booth
It is vodka, inevitably, with which Russia’s reputation for astonishing drinking is associated - GETTY

With thousands of Britons undoubtedly looking forward to the end of dry January, Chris Booth – a former Moscow resident and reformed alcoholic – considers Russia’s infamous relationship with booze

“The greatest pleasure of this people is drunkenness, in other words, oblivion. Poor folk! they must dream to be happy...”

Words that might have been written yesterday, they in fact belong to Astolphe Louis Leonor, the Marquis de Custine, a 19th-century French aristocrat and traveller whose observations on matters Russian, including their love of the bottle, remain trenchant almost 200 years on.

And as we all know, that relationship with alcohol is indeed epic; existential, metaphysical, even. Russia can take your average, half-hearted office party bender and pump it up to Olympian feats of endurance and stupefaction. 

A tonic in the face of absurdity, or balsam for stunted joys; a splint for a broken soul, or prosthetic courage in the face of the country’s especially cruel fates. One of which, of course, being alcoholism itself. More than religion, it is cheap booze that deserved the epithet of ‘opium of the masses’.

Peter the Great, who otherwise strove to nudge Russia westward (as well as building the self-named capital city, his ‘Window onto Europe’, he banned beards and kaftans and compelled courtiers to smoke…), was himself an inveterate drinker. He founded ‘The All-Joking, All-Drunken Synod of Fools and Jesters’: a kind of hardcore, wintery Bullingdon Club. The tsar’s Great Eagle Cup, they said, could comfortably accommodate 1.25 litres of vodka.

A stuffed bear proffers vodka at a shop in Moscow Credit: GETTY

And it is vodka, inevitably, with which Russia’s reputation for astonishing drinking is associated. The word itself is simply an affectionate diminutive form of the word for water, after all. That said, when I moved to Moscow to try my hand at journalism in the very early 1990s, I launched what was to become a substantial habit with portvein instead, a grisly fortified wine that then cost the equivalent of about 15p a bottle. Sometimes after opening it you would reveal a nasty crust in the neck of the bottle and a troubling aftertaste. I used to buy two bottles at a time in case I needed to tip one down the sink. Why not? Live a little. Not for nothing was it known as ‘bormotukha’, translating roughly as ‘Old Mumbler’. My favourite brand of portvein was named after Agdam, now a post-Soviet ghost town made bereft by civil conflict. Which is approximately the sensation within your skull the morning after.

To an urbane Muscovite, it was comparable to drinking Special Brew on a park bench, but the Russian penchant for getting out of one’s head meant they knew how to distil the alcohol content from boot polish and Soviet toothpaste, while eau de cologne was famously ‘defitsit’ across the USSR. 

Venedikt Yerofeyev’s hallucinatory 1970s prose poem Moscow to the End of the Line is a drink-soaked, expletive-laced head trip set on a suburban train, in which at one point the protagonist describes with relish the many improvised cocktails known to him. Including one named ‘Bitches Gut’:

“What’s the most beautiful thing in the world? It’s the struggle for the freedom of humanity. But yet more beautiful (do note it down!) is this:

‘Zhiguli’ beer – 100g

Shampoo ‘Sadko, the Wealthy Guest’ – 30g

Lotion for the treatment of dandruff – 70g

‘BF’-brand glue – 15g

Brake fluid – 30g

Insecticide for the extermination of small bugs – 30g”

In Chekhov’s play The Seagull, two characters discuss heavy drinking. One justifies his thirst: “I have served in the Department of Justice for 28 years, but I have never lived, I have never had any experiences. You are satiated with life, and that is why you have an inclination for philosophy, but I want to live, and that is why I drink my wine for dinner”. The second warns of vodka, however, that, “Your ego breaks in two: you begin to think of yourself in the third person”.

Putin regularly opens his drinks cabinet to visiting leaders Credit: GETTY

Working in the news business in Russia presented a kind of double jeopardy, and pretty soon I was downing the hard stuff with the best of them. For one thing, the average Russian businessman or politician didn’t fully trust you until you had got paralytically drunk together, preferably over several hours in a sauna. Among the topics of conversation, apart from Yeltsin’s latest booze-fuelled public misdemeanours, might be hangover remedies, which are far less elaborate over there. Either you down the juice from a jar of gherkins or, more likely, you simply have another drink. Weekday mornings you could see queues of commuters waiting to buy beer from trailers of the stuff parked conveniently close to metro stations. And in any case, to the enthusiastic vodka drinker, beer didn’t count. (It was only recently classified as properly intoxicating. Prior to that, the label described it as a ‘lightly alcoholic sparkling beverage.’)

Vodka also got things accomplished quickly, which was handy if one were on a deadline. To cross checkpoints in Chechnya, I knew where to conceal a bottle of Stolichnaya and the benighted federal soldiers supposed to impede my progress knew where to look – the glovebox. Driving in winter, especially in the countryside, you could easily drift off the famously dire roads. There was no RAC to call upon, obviously, but if you could find a farmer, he’d pull you out with a tractor for a bottle or two. As the gerontocratic Soviet economy collapsed, money outside the big cities became as nostalgically irrelevant as the profile image of Lenin on a three-rouble note.

There was a vodka named after Gorbachev (who was nearly removed as General Secretary when he attempted to reform Soviet drinking culture – and there may never have been perestroika, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, had he been banished). And there’s a vodka named after Putin today. There were bottles with holographic labels that winked at you to prove the contents were genuine, and bottles with tops that played music when unscrewed. In fact, in the good old days, vodka bottles only had a foil seal. For convenience. And also because it wouldn’t occur to a Russian that there could ever be occasion to re-cap a bottle once opened. It just wasn’t the done thing.

How times have changed. 

Soviet anti-drinking posters Credit: GETTY

In the autumn, the World Health Organisation revealed that Russian alcohol consumption, especially of spirits, has plummeted in recent years. As much as 40 per cent on average, which means drinking is comparable to European levels. The younger generation prefers beer to vodka. In part, perhaps, because there are more recreational opportunities today than the go-to Soviet pastime of getting off your face as rapidly as possible. 

Russia without rivers of liquor as endless as the mighty Volga? It’s hard to imagine. You might need a stiff drink for that.

Chris Booth is a former BBC Moscow bureau chief and reformed alcoholic.