Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"To Russia We Drink and Pour Again"

It had been a while since I had done anything touristy and stereotypically Russian, and culinary blogger and expat extraordinaire Jennifer Eremeeva (The Moscovore) was organizing an excursion to the Vodka Museum, so of course I signed up immediately.  Over the summer I had been in the vodka museum in Mandrogi, which had an impressive array of bottles from different eras and areas, but our schedule was tight and we only had time to admire the bottles and do a couple of shots before we had to run back to the good ship Sergei Rachmaninoff.  
Thus, I set off for the museum, which is housed in the fake kremlin next to the huge souvenir market at Izmailovsky (a Disney-esque structure minus the charm/magic of Disney) with a hunger for knowledge and a thirst for little water.  I made good time getting out to the Izmailovsky market complex, which was looking slightly more charred than usual as the result of a recent fire.  A friend of mine's friend knows the guy who owns the whole thing, and the fire was, to put it mildly, not an accident.  Neither were the previous two fires.  When you're the mafioso who operates the largest souvenir market in Russia, you're bound to make a few enemies.  Happily, the blaze had not affected the Vodka Museum, and the tour proceeded in an informative and entertaining fashion.

We got a pretty thorough history of the origins and development of vodka, which I shan't recount in its entirety because you can read about it on Wikipedia.  But some of my favorite fun facts were Peter the Great's 'penalty shot' rules, and the drunkard's medal.  Peter, in addition to being a fan of mustaches and a proponent of Western technologies, was something of a prankster.  Like most Russians, he enjoyed throwing a good party and occasionally having a laugh at his guests' expense.  Anyone who arrived late to a Peter the Great party had to take a penalty shot of vodka, a tradition which prevails with some people to this day.  The modern penalty shot is about 50 milliliters, however Peter, being a man of great stature and greater tolerance, considered an appropriate penalty shot to be one and a half LITERS, which meant that said latecomer usually spend the remainder of the evening on the floor.  So fond of this trick was Peter that he took to invoking the penalty shot rule on guests who were NOT late, to the point that foreign dignitaries began only attending the parties in pairs, so that one could take shot/floor duty and the other could talk policy with Peter.  Despite drinking heavily and often, Peter was able to stay coherent after DAYS of drinking, and he simply could not abide a drunkard.  In order to make an example of people who couldn't keep themselves together, he introduced the drunkard's medal, a 'prize' given to common folk found guilty of public drunkenness.  This engraved, weighty medal was designed to be worn around the neck, thus providing a major inconvenience for the wearer, as well as exposing him to the ridicule of his neighbors.

One more story, because it's a good one- Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg has an extraordinarily long spire topped by an angel statue, which is, of course, a striking and distinctive architectural detail, but it also means that maintenance is a pain in the rear.  In 1830, the angel's wing was broken by a storm, and city administrators searched all of Russia for someone brave/foolhardy enough to climb the spire and repair the wing without the aid of scaffolding.  They were about to abandon hope when Pyotr Telushkin, a plucky peasant from Vyatskoye, stepped forward.  Telushkin succeeded, and everyone was tremendously pleased.  The Tsar was so pleased that he summoned Telushkin and told him that he could have any reward he desired.  Telushkin revealed that what he most desired was a document with the Tsar's seal that would allow him to drink for free in any establishment in Russia.  The Tsar acquiesced, and Telushkin got his document, which he promptly lost after a night of imbibing.  He returned to the Tsar and asked for another, which the Tsar refused with the rationale that Telushkin would just lose that as well.  The Tsar found a brilliant solution however (what else are Tsars for?) and had the contents of the document tattooed on Telushkin's neck.  For the rest of his life, Telushkin had only to expose his neck to any barkeep in the Motherland, and he could drink to his heart's content.

Designed to look like an ordinary workman's toolbox, this was actually a clever vodka-smuggling apparatus. Lined with velvet so the bottles wouldn't rattle.

"Vodka without beer is money to the wind"

"No to drunkenness!  Sobriety is the norm of life!"

Counterfeit Smirnoff. Also, you used to be able to buy vodka in cans such as those. Those were the days...?

Found a bear.
So yeah, the museum was a little touristy, but also full of fun facts and cool things to look at.  Our tour also included a traditional Russian lunch of salad, borsch, salmon, rice, and blini, and, of course, a vodka tasting, which included a mild honey brew, a berry-derived vodka which was more reminiscent of madeira or something along those lines, and a standard but quality clear vodka.  I give the overall experience my stamp of approval- if you get the chance, check it out!