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Vodka in the Northern Capital

The citys relationship with the famed spirit dates back to the reign of Peter the Great.

Published: August 6, 2014 (Issue # 1823)



  • Vodka continues to be a staple at any celebration in Russia, whether it be a national holiday or a birthday party.
    Photo: Anthony Knuppel / Flickr

When foreigners think of Russia, one of the first things that comes to mind is vodka. The alcohol has become an inseparable symbol of the culture and has been so for hundreds of years.

The first distillery arrived in Russia during the reign of Vasily II, the Grand Prince of Moscow in the 15th century. As the story goes, a man brought back a prototype of a distillery from Europe but Vasily distrusted not only it but the man who brought it, believing that the influence of the West had corrupted him. Eventually, the man was able to escape imprisonment and flee to Italy.

Since the somewhat awkward introduction of then modern technology to alcohol making, vodka has played an important role in the history not only of the country but also of St. Petersburg. Ever since the reign of Peter the Great, the builder of the city and a well-known lover of spirits, vodka has remained intertwined with the citys colorful history.

In Peter the Greats day, vodka was not nearly as alcoholic as it is now, more of a strong wine than a spirit. During the raucous parties thrown by Peter, affairs known to combine all-night drinking with the emperors love for the stranger things in life, vodka was a key component.

It was during Peters reign that a tradition became commonplace: the shtrafnaya. This is a penalty drink for arriving late and it usually involves drinking a shot of vodka. Yet Peters version was closer to a liter and guests were forced to drink all of it before joining the party.

It was not until Catherine the Great ruled Russia that the first license for a distillery was granted. This led to a boom in the production of the spirit and by the beginning of the 20th century, there were 40 distilleries in St. Petersburg alone, an astounding number considering there are only three today in the city.

It was in St. Petersburg as well that the common ratio of spirit to water was discovered by none other than Dmitry Mendeleev, the creator of the periodic table of elements. He discovered that the perfect ratio was 38.5 percent, although this was rounded up to 40 percent in 1894 and has remained the standard ever since.

Yet peoples affinity for the spirit did not prevent Nicholas II, the last tsar, from prohibiting the alcohol from sale and consumption during World War I. After the 1917 revolutions, vodka makers were imprisoned and it wouldnt be until Stalins tenure as leader of the Soviet Union that the drink was re-allowed.

During World War II, soldiers were given a ration of 100 grams of vodka a day to calm the nerves. Yet despite its important role in the war effort and the peoples love of the spirit, Gorbachev in 1985 prohibited the drink. Although not as strict as the prohibition at the beginning of the century, sales were severely limited and even when sales resumed in 1987, people could only buy vodka from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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Friday, Oct. 31


Put your grammar and logical thinking to the test in a fun and friendly environment during the British Book Centers Board Game Evening starting at 5 p.m. today. The event is free and all are welcome to attend.



Saturday, Nov. 1


The men and women who dedicate their lives to fitness get their chance to compete for the title of best body in Russia at todays Grand Prix Fitness House PRO, the nations premier bodybuilding competition. Not only will men and women be competing for thousands of dollars in prizes and a trip to represent their nation at Mr. Olympia but sporting goods and nutritional supplements will also be available for sale. Learn more about the culture of the Indian subcontinent during Diwali, the annual festival of lights that will be celebrated in St. Petersburg this weekend at the Culture Palace on Tambovskaya Ul. For 100 rubles ($2.40), festival-goers listen to Indian music, try on traditional Indian outfits and sample dishes highlighting the culinary diversity of the billion-plus people in the South Asian superpower.



Sunday, Nov. 2


Check out the latest video and interactive games at the Gaming Festival at the Mayakovsky Library ending today. Meet with the developers of the popular and learn more about their work, or learn how to play one of their creations with the opportunity to ask the creators themselves about the exact rules.



Monday, Nov. 3


Non-athletes can get feed their need for competition without breaking a sweat at the Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament this evening at the Cube Bar at Lomonosova 1. Referees will judge the validity of each matchup award points to winners while the citys elite fight for the chance to be called the best of the best. Those hoping to play must arrange a team beforehand and pay 200 rubles ($4.80) to enter.



Tuesday, Nov. 4


Attend the premiere of Canadian director Xavier Dolans latest film Mommy at the Avrora theater this evening. The fifth picture from the 25-year-old, it is the story of an unruly teenager but the most alluring (or unappealing) aspect is the way the film was shot: in a 1:1 format that is more reminiscent of Instagram videos than cinematic art. Tickets cost 400 rubles ($9.60) and snacks and drinks will be available.



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