A heady tale of tying one on royally—and, after briefly enjoying the ride, paying the consequences.
For hundreds of years, writes business journalist Himelstein, vodka has been at once Russia’s curse and its fuel, the stuff whereby its soldiers brought Napoleon and Hitler to ruin but condemned themselves and their compatriots to misery as well. Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov knew that misery well. Born into serfdom in a time of cholera and appalling infant mortality rates, he had the luck of being manumitted in the mid-19th century, at a period when the royal monopoly on certain kinds of alcohol manufacture was being relaxed. All he had to do was swear to not being a Jew, among a few other qualifications, and Smirnov was able to set up shop and acquire a fortune that, in time, “topped 10 million rubles (roughly $132.7 million), making him one of the wealthiest men in all of Russia.” Smirnov’s good fortune—and that of his rivals the Popovs and other distillers great and small—was that the tsarist’s statisticians had acquired a keen appreciation of how much revenue alcohol sales brought the state. Of course, this had negative consequences too, and some of the most interesting passages in Himelstein’s well-constructed narrative concern the delicate balance that Russia’s leaders have had to strike between abstemiousness and alcoholic ruin in order the keep the wheels of the state turning. Smirnov’s success came at a price to his heirs, beginning with a reimposition of the state monopoly on alcohol near the time of his death and continuing with the rise of communism, when some Smirnovs disappeared into the Gulag while others escaped to the West—including one who founded subsidiary ventures that, in 1934, would see the manufacture of the storied vodka in the United States.
A well-concocted blend of business and political history.