When Vodka Lost its Accent and Babushkas Wore Kimonos

Wise NASTYng Doll © Rozenblyum Couture

When vodka lost ze akcent and babooshkas wore kimonos…

-Dear, I’m home!
-Why so late?
-The bear twisted his ankle on the way, so I had to give him vodka.
-Please take a seat everyone, let’s drink vodka.
-Mom, I’m going to go play with the bear!
-Fine, but first, drink vodka
-Where is grandpa?
-He’s been standing in line for bread ration tickets for two weeks already
-It’s good that he got to drink vodka before he went! And you, too, don’t sit around doing nothing, drink some vodka!
-Ok, son, go play now, and don’t forget to send the daily report to KGB before you go to sleep!
-Dear, it’s so hot in here, please turn off the nuclear plant!
-I will, just let me finish the vodka; and you, meanwhile, please play on balalaika!

translated from a piece seen online “What the world thinks of Russians”

Of course the above is not true. I hope. But stereotypes are carved into our minds. And from them some things arise that don’t always hold true. Australians, don’t always have kangaroos in the backyards, just like the English, don’t always drink tea. But of course, there are always exceptions

Vodka, How much sense do people put in this word? What comes first to mind to most of the people when they hear the alcohol filled, crystal clear, pleasantly flowing into throat word? Russians.

If we step away from mind embedded stereotypes, and look deeper into history a little, we’ll, unfortunately, find out that vodka may be a not so much Russian invention, and that matryoshkas would originally prefer kimonos or a Buddhist monk clothing over the peasant peacock clothes.

Although it’s a huge point of debates, lately for political, consumer and of course financial reasons(but we won’t go in there) there is no set answer to the question of whom the vodka belongs too. There are, though, three candidates. Russians, of course, Polish and Persians. All we’ll ever have will be a set of fact and guesses, that the favorable side believes in. No matter what but every side will be pulling the blanket onto its side.
Starting with the least pretty looking story: (and right off the bet, we’re having the “or”) It is said that the first person to discover alcohol in IV century was perhaps an Arab alchemist. Then, many believe that the first prototype of vodka, was  created by a Persian doctor in the XI century. And the story, pretty much, ends here, as alcohol is forbidden by Islam, and there is no happy end from such a potential great beginning.
Now, as an outcome from the above, for many centuries, all alcoholic spirits were used by doctors and apothecaries strictly for medical purposes. Sadly, no one tried to consume the medicine, to see how much fun that could be.

Vodka “Matrioshka”

A quick technical note, according to Britannica, and a number of other encyclopedias:

Vodka, distilled liquor, clear in colour and without definite aroma or taste, ranging in alcoholic content from about 40 to 55 percent.

Because it is highly neutral, with flavouring substances mainly eliminated during processing, it can be made from a mash of the cheapest and most readily available raw materials suitable for fermentation. Potatoes were traditionally employed in Russia and Poland but have largely been supplanted there and in other vodka-producing countries by cereal grains. Most of the times it’s alcohol content is 40% by volume (U.S. 80 proof, as usual, of course the system has to be different). The word vodka itself, is originating from different ways of Slavic spelling of  water, “voda” in Russian, or “woda” in Polish [as an extra point to Polish theory, the suffix “k” in wodka, adds a dimunitive meaning to word.]. In any case, the word itself, stood as general name for medicines based on alcohol, or, sometimes, even make-up.

Distillation was first learned in Russia from Italians (specifically Valentius, a monk, who used Arabic distillation techniques) that’s where the history of Russian vodka, that is closest to nowadays spirit, seems to begin. Yet, at the same the Polish say they’ve discovered their vodka, and it was then exported to Russia. Either way, the citizens of both countries found the beverage to be a good one, and the governments, in their turn, found this also to be a great product to levy with a tax. Towards the end of XVI century the Polish King Jan Obracht imposed a huge tax on the sale and production of alcohol, only limited both to the wealthy. Peter the Great, of Russia, also saw a huge profit in the tax revenue coming from vodka, and it’s said that the “window to Europe” was mainly built with the help of the “vodka money”.
Most of the differences at the time between the vodkas are the filtration and distillation processes. Polish advance with triple distillation in the XVIII  century. Filtration was done not just with potatoes and grains, but also, sand, charcoal, and felt.
A further spread among Europe is being credited to Napoleon. During the invasion of Russia, which ended with fiasco, he, and, most probably the fighting soldiers, discovered the drink that became popular. Who would’ve thought?
The dark spot on the Russian vodka makers was put by the Commies, right after the October Revolution in 1917. All private distilleries were taken away by the government. (Beware, next time you vote, keep in mind, Communism is a direct threat to vodka!)
And so we have the battle of the vodkas. Cheers!

Social anti vodka poster from USSR

With the world famous full figured wooden dolls, it is a little easier. Although the birth certificate definitely lists nationality as Russian, she’s of an Asian descent, Japanese, to be exact. The dolls were inspired by a set of kokeshi, Japanese wooden dolls, representing Shichi -fuku-jin, the Seven Gods of Fortune, specifically Fukurokuju (which happened to be the most outer doll), the god of Happiness and Longetivity. Back in 1890’s Sergey Malyutin, a painter from a folk crafts workshop visited the house of a wealthy patron of arts Savva Mamontov, where he saw the dolls. He, then, had Vassiliy Zvezdochkin carve 8 nesting dolls, which Malyutin painted.

Original set of nesting dolls painted by Malyutin

Kokeshi, in their turn, most probably, were designed after the Daruma dolls, which were modeled after the founder of Zen Buddhism Bodhidharma. Both, kokeshi and daruma lack arms and legs, and have simplified facial features.

Daruma, a papier mache doll originally comes with black eyes. One of the eyes is being colored in, while making a wish by the owner once received. The other eye is colored in once the wish is fulfilled, after that the doll is taken back to the temple where it was received and is burnt there.

DaruMAtryoshka © Rozenblyum Couture

Among peasants the name Matryona was a very popular female name, Matryoshka is the dimunitive of it. It is said that  name has a Latin root “mater”, which stands for “mother”. This name was associated with the image of of a mother of a big peasant family who was very healthy and had a, rather, large figure. Thus, the common name among non-Russians, “babushka” (grandma or old lady) is quite erroneous, especially that it is mostly a younger girl that is depicted on the outer side.
Matryoshka is considered to be a symbol of motherhood and fertility. I prefer to see it as advancement, where something little grows into big. Whether it’s a thought, a project, a person’s life, or anything else.
Images on matryoshkas, depict anything one could imagine, from traditional folk oriented art, to politicians, musicians, cartoons, robots, and the list goes on and on.

So next time, you see or imagine the usual stereotype of a Russian, walking the bear, while drinking vodka, and playing with matryoshka, don’t be so sure that it isn’t wodka he’s drinking; and that the Matryoshka-san, wouldn’t prefer a kimono over the sarafan (the traditional peasant dress).

P.S. Babushka, is pronounced with the stress on the first a.

P.P.S. And then, how Russian could a bottle of vodka inside a matryoshka box be?

Smirnoff Black

Tagged with 
  • Danylenko

    Interesting. And there should be some reasons.
    For those who might be interested, I just remembered Patricia Herlihy’s Thye Alcoholic Empire. Vodka and Politics in Late Imperial Russia, 2002.

  • Ask Erena

    Not all Russians drink vodka:-)))) I am Russian and not a big drinker at all! It is like we all think of Turkey as Turkish coffee. Yet they all drink tea there…
    hugs,xxAsk Erenahttp://askerena.blogspot.com