The King of Vodka

By Linda Himelstein (HarperCollins, RRP: $34.99)

REVIEWED BY GWEN CHALONER
Last updated 05:00 06/02/2010
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Whether or not vodka is your favourite tipple, and whether or not you're into history, The King of Vodka: The story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire is a fascinating saga of one man who made a huge difference to a whole nation.

Pyotr Smirnov began life as a humble serf but his intense ambition and brilliant business sense put him on a path to fame and fortune. It's hard to believe that alcohol paid such a huge role in the course of global history, from Pyotr's early days working in his uncle's hotels to becoming official vodka purveyor to the Tsar.

Some of the accounts of the nation's drinking habits make New Zealand's feeble by comparison, but the old Russian proverb quoted at the front of the book sums it up well: "A man comes from the dust and in the dust he will end – and in the meantime, it is good to drink a sip of vodka".

This is a vivid account of a complex man, the patriarch of a family that helped define Russian society.

It's a rags to riches and almost back to rags again tale, when the Russian State put a monopoly on the production of vodka.

After Pyotr's death the business went to his sons and Smirnov vodka eventually fell out of family control when the licence to market the brand was bought in 1933 by American Rudolph Kunett, a Russian emigre who had changed his name from Kunettchenskiy. Kunnett westernised the Smirnov brand too and by 2008 a US business study estimated the Smirnoff empire to be worth $4.7 billion.

Back in Russia, vodka continues to hold a pivotal place in Russian society. In 2006 more than 30,000 Russians died of alcohol poisoning. It has been estimated that around half the vodka sold in Russia comes from illegal producers who are outside State quality control measures.

It seems that, as it was in the time of the Tsars, Russia's current economic, political and social landscape can't escape vodka's long shadow.

Linda Himelstein has carried out exhaustive research for this work, gleaning information from dozens of experts, hundreds of documents and nearly a thousand books, but it is an easy and enjoyable biography to read, and more than that it's a personal story of triumph and tragedy within a narrative history on an epic scale.

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