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A shot of history

by at 23/07/2012 20:34

Historians are known to specialize in narrow, often esoteric realms of academia. Alexander Nikishin’s specialty may on the surface prove to be more popular than others, but he has found difficulty generating interest or support.

Nikishin is a historian of vodka, and the founder of a museum dedicated to the spirit.

Based at the Kristall distillery, the National Vodka Museum has been in operation since 2006, and consists of Nikishin’s personal collection of more than 50,000 items connected with the history of Russian vodka.

Origins

Nikishin considers vodka one of the most important cultural and historical properties of the country, and started his collection using his savings from his former job as a brand developer.

Gathering together vintage items, like a sealed 100-year-old bottle that could go for up to €100,000 ($121,000) at auction, takes a lot of time and enthusiasm, but Nikishin has plenty for the subject. A trained journalist, he has written several books on vodka, often adopting a humorous tone. His titles range from “Vodka and Gorbachev,” “Vodka and Stalin” and “Vodka and Napoleon” to “How Smirnov Became Smirnoff.”

As light as his tone may be in his writing, however, vodka is a serious historical, cultural, economic and even sociological topic for him.

Economic cornerstone

“It’s not something alien and evil like some would think,” Nikishin said. “It’s part of a huge agricultural system – a huge part of the grain harvest would be lost if we didn’t make it into spirit.”

Not everyone appreciates Nikishin’s efforts at education and enlightenment. Women whose husbands drink heavily, for example, consider such museums or serious discussions about the subject unnecessary, but Nikishin takes exception to the equation of vodka consumption with alcoholism.

“One can drink himself to the grave with anything,” he said. “Russians are people of extremes.”

The museum For Nikishin, vodka goes beyond simply drinking, to the point of being intimately connected to the country’s history. The Kristall factory itself, he said, is the most interesting showpiece of the museum, being founded in 1901 under the rather prosaic name the Moscow State Wine Warehouse No. 1.

Still, the Russian link between vodka and drunkenness detracts from a seriousness he would appreciate for the museum. Foreigners, he said, have culture a of visiting museums for education, while “our people, who haven’t seen the old items but only know the name, giggle at the entrance.”

Even officials were not easy to convince of the value of a museum dedicated to vodka, and needed considerable persuasion that it was not merely going to be an encouragement to binge drinking.

On the inside, though, the museum is obviously much more than a merry name. On display are bottles from the time of Catherine the Great; an exhibit on the history of Peter the Great through alcohol; unusual sealed bottles from the 1960s; and bottles in the shape of the last Russian tsar’s family, made the for 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty.

“Strange how these pretty, fragile bottles outlived wars, deaths of their owners, revolutions,” Nikishin said.

After appreciating the history of the drink, visitors are allowed to try samples of Kristall’s offerings.

The market and safety

Having observed the evolution of vodka manufacturers since the end of the Soviet Union, a lot of whom came from the criminal world of the 1990s, Nikishin said he was proud that he had managed to persuade some of them to create a real quality product, “to make them see that they are continuing a 500- to 600-year-old tradition.”

“I imagine it is high technology, nanotechnology,” he said. “We don’t know much about it, but to create quality vodka, they use machines similar to those used on space centers. It’s also a sellable product, and spirit is used in medicine as well – traditional medicine could never do without vodka.”

The safety of the vodka supply is also a serious concern for Nikishin. Identifying 60 percent of the world’s illegal alcohol market as coming from Russia, Nikishin advocates federal control over manufacturers as a way of curbing alcoholism, which producers could see as a way of bringing them higher profits. Reducing the amount of vodka distilleries are allowed to produce, he suggested, could be a way of cutting hospitalization rates for alcohol-related illnesses or injuries.

“I can’t advise to drink or not to drink,” he said. “As a historian, I only can state the fact that we have this national product, like the English have whiskey, Germans have schnapps and the French have cognac.”

“Buying vodka in shops far from big cities might be dangerous, it’s safer to buy it near manufacturing factories,” he advised, complaining that Western countries would never have such problems or a national drink produced so badly that it makes a person ill.

Nikishin laments the fact that vodka has become international, saying that most vodka brands today come from the West because Russians had been too naive to patent or trademark their invention. Even the Smirnov family lost its famous family brand to Americans, he said.

“When tequila was brought to Russia, they brought with it theme of Mexico, a small country we knew nothing about,” he said. “We started to learn about the country and its traditions through its national alcohol. People could learn Russian traditions through vodka.”

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