Vodka: A View from the 19th Century

Excerpt from The Russian People: Their Habits, Rites, Traditions, Superstitions and Poetry, by M. Zabylinny, Moscow 1880.

Vodka. Vodka is a product of Arabia and came to Russia no earlier than the end of the 13th century. Raymond Lulli, who was on the island of Mallorca in the hands of Arabs, discovered an educated man there who knew how to prepare vodka, which was called "the water of life" (Aqua Vitae) and he brought it to Europe. At that time, the whole world considered this vodka to be water taken from a mysterious stone. It was prescribed in drops and had curative properties.

Genoan merchants, discovering the means of preparing this drink from Arnold de Villa (who wormed the secret out of Lulli), sold it in glass bottles at a high price, as a medicinal balsam, under the name "water of life." They produced it through distillation of wine yeasts, succulent fruits and bread grains.

After the decline of Genoan trade in the 15th century, the secret of aqua vitae's preparation became known to all; it was sold throughout the known world as a medicine. It is entirely possible that, soon after the Genoans discovered the method of distilling vodka, it passed over to southern Russia. For the Genoans, having coastal possessions on the Tauride peninsula, traded with us. But in all likelihood, vodka did not appear in Russia before 1398, when Genoans delivered vodka to Lithuania and acquainted us with this pernicious drink.

Russian vodka was made from rye, wheat and barley. Vodka was generally referred to as wine and divided into types: normal vodka was called simple wine, the best of this type being called vino dobroye (good wine); still higher was vino boyarskoye (boyar's wine); finally, higher still was vino dvoynoe (double wine), which was extremely strong. Aside from these vodkas, there were vodkas made from sweet syrups, mainly for women. The head of the household infused vodka with various spices and fragrant grasses, also infusing it with cinnamon, St. John's Wort, bodyag, amber or saltpetre, as well as different fruits and rinds. Russians drank vodka not only with meals, but all day long.

Foreign wine, in the 16th century, was used only in distinguished homes and in ceremonial situations. But as trade began to acquaint us with European life, the use of grape-based wines spread among prosperous folk, and in the 17th century public wine-cellars first appeared in Moscow, here there was not only wine but merry company also gathered ...

In the homes of well-to-do persons, alcoholic drinks were stored in ice houses or in cellars, of which each home had a few. They were divided into separate parts and each part was filled with ice to last through the summer. Casks were placed in the cellars, and the casks were called "pregnant and half-pregnant." The capacity of one or the other were not always and everywhere constant, but generally the "pregnant" casks held 30 "buckets" and the "half-pregnant" 15. In monastery cellars, the casks were distinguished by their huge size, perhaps 3 sazhens long and 2 sazhens wide [a sazhen = 2.13 meters]. They were never moved and drink was poured into them and taken from them through a special opening in the cellar. Drinks were first poured from the casks into pewter or other large dishes, and from these poured into smaller vessels for serving at the table.

The sale of fortified wines and all alcoholic drinks was at first unrestricted, but as it was found that excessive use caused poverty and the destruction of countless families, this prompted the Grand Prince to limit its unrestricted use. Grand Prince Ivan III completely forbade the preparation of strong drink. During the time that the ambassador of Baron Gerbenshtein was in Moscow (at the start of the 16th century), the people were allowed to consume strong drink only on certain holidays. Tsar Ivan IV built a kabak in Moscow for his oprichiny [palace guard] on the Balchug [an island in the Moscow river], and allowed them to drink as much as they wanted. Yet he did not like drunkards; he only allowed them to imbibe in kabaks and only during Holy Week, on Christmas and on Dmitry's Saturday. At all other times one would be put in prison for drinking.

Tsar Fyodor ordered the destruction of kabaks, but Boris Godunov, thinking more about state revenues than about public morals, ordered them to be built again and allowed all strong drink to be sold and taken away. At the beginning of the 17th century there were kabaks in every city and village, and they were called kruzhechnye dvori, from the word kruzhka--the mug which was used to measure wine [dvor means "courtyard"]. In Siberia such dvors appeared in 1617 almost as a punishment. But so many stopped working, giving themselves over to a life of drunkenness and misery, that Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich destroyed all kabaks and established drinking houses where wine was sold only in bulk quantities. Tsar Aleksey again permitted purchase and take-away of liquor, ordering that a single kabak be constructed in every town, and three in Moscow. As a consequence, they multiplied beyond measure.

It hardly needs to be said that it is the appearance of vodka which gave significance to the development of alcoholic drinks here. But that is insufficient for understanding the entire impact of drunkenness or, more accurately, the full impact of unremitting drinking binges. Much should be written about this. Better yet, nothing should be written about this. Most likely, drunkenness would not have been conceived if vodka and hard drinks were not conceived. it is as simple as that. But just try to uproot that which has been bound to our roots. it is difficult!

Binges. Up to the time of Peter I, distinguished persons took part in drinking binges, which were not considered a vice. This was common throughout Europe. The host who did not offer plenty of drink to his guests was considered unfriendly, and not someone they wanted to be acquainted with.

An obvious reason for intoxication in times past was the toasts to the health of the sovereign, then the sovereign's spouse, then for every tsarist personage, for the patriarch, for famous dignitaries, for victorious armies and finally for ever one of those present. To not empty every goblet of wine for the health of each was a sign of disrespect for the house, to not wish it well, and also not to wish the best of health to whom one refused to drink. The host began with the first and unavoidable request to drink one's glass dry.

By the end of the 18th century, binges occurred only among friends, on name days, baptisms and marriages. And guests never left these without drinking, even the highest personages. In the villages and in homes, there was no partying without drink. There, sitting across from one another, they took part in binges that sometimes lasted a week, which were followed by an equal length of time to sober up. To not drink meant to humiliate one's self. Women who did not like strong myod (a honey-based drink) drank only "green" wine. At the end of the 18th century unrestricted binge drinking came to an end (in the capitals), and women drove drunkenness from their society. Time was, among the simple people there was (in distant districts) the custom of treating the guest, and compelling someone to drink was met with the saying: "don't enter a foreign monastery with your own charter." Now, on the contrary, there is a totally opposite saying: "it is good to drink; not to drink is a sin."

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