A History of Vodka in Russia

The Russian Vodka Museum is a stop you can’t miss on custom tours of St Petersburg or Moscow. Other countries claim to have invented vodka, but Russia isn’t having it. The very word “vodka” is Russian. A diminution of voda (“water”), “vodka” literally translates to “little water.”

“Little water,” indeed. Celebrated and reviled, boasted and banned, vodka is entrenched in Russian culture.

According to the museum, vodka was invented in Moscow’s Chudov Monastery in the 14th Century A.D. by a Greek monk named Isidor. Produced from barley, rye, or wheat, it earned the nickname “bread wine.” Alcohol-by-volume ranged from 20% to 60%. The first grain distilleries were quickly scooped up by Tsar Ivan III in the 15th Century, reaping a fortune from the first of many state monopolies on bread wine.

Party at the Tsar’s Palace

Tsarist Russia embraced vodka. Peter the Great innovated the “penalty shot.” Guests who arrived late to a banquet were required to down a 1.5-liter goblet of vodka at one gulp. Dignitaries traveled with deputies in case a “penalty shot” left them incapacitated, leaving the deputy to negotiate while the ambassador slept it off.

It wasn’t always a party in the court of Peter the Great. He invented the drunkenness “medal.” Far from a prize, it was a punishment, administered to drunks who made fools of themselves. The 6.8kg (15 pound) cast-iron medal was worn for a week or more as a sign of shame, similar to a ball and chain.

In 1894, what we know as “Russian vodka” was patented—a charcoal-filtered beverage with a proof of 80 (40% alcohol by volume).

Post-Revolutionary Pushback

The revolutionary period saw a long marginalization of the national beverage. Even before the October Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II banned the production and sale of alcohol by decree in 1914. The Bolsheviks took the ban and ran with it, destroying vodka publicly and punishing drunkenness severely, sometimes with death.

Prohibition of alcohol was lifted in the Soviet Union in 1923. Predictably, vodka enjoyed an enthusiastic revival. Josef Stalin launched numerous campaigns against excessive drinking. Taverns were seized and converted to tea-houses. The Soviet state launched the publication Sobriety and Culture, in print until 1997 when it folded due to lack of subscribers.

Under Khrushchev and Gorbachev, vodka prices fluctuated wildly. Riots erupted in liquor store lines, distilleries were bulldozed, and the government lost millions. When the Soviet Union gave way to the Russian Federation, pushbacks against vodka were permanently suspended.

The Russian Vodka Museum anchors a cultural push towards an “Era of Civilized Drinking,” an appreciation of vodka’s place in Russian heritage. Custom tours of St Petersburg and Moscow shouldn’t miss them.