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Authors: Linda Himelstein

The King of Vodka

BOOK: The King of Vodka
The King of Vodka

The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire

Linda Himelstein

To my family, the best there is

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.




Chapter 3:
The Land of Darkness

Chapter 4:
The Vodka Maker

Chapter 5:
“Demand Smirnov Vodka”

Chapter 6:
To Vienna and Back

Chapter 8:
Vodka Wars

Chapter 9:
The Vodka King

Chapter 10:
From Pursuit to Preservation

Chapter 11:
Monopoly Capitalism

Chapter 12:
The Tsar and 3,000 Flashing Bottles

Chapter 13:

Chapter 14:
Two Dead Bodies

Chapter 15:
A New Century, a New Reality

Chapter 16:
Monopoly Madness

Chapter 17:
From Bad to Bizarre

Chapter 18:
A War, Uprisings, and Then There Was One

Chapter 19:
Life and Death and Love and Death

Chapter 20:
Sudden Chaos

Chapter 21:

Chapter 23:
Smirnov with an “F”

Chapter 24:
The End is a Beginning

Main Family Characters

Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov
The King of Vodka

Mariya Nikolayevna Smirnova
Smirnov's third wife

Arseniy Smirnov
Smirnov's father

Grigoriy Smirnov
Smirnov's uncle

Ivan Smirnov
Smirnov's uncle

Pyotr Petrovich Smirnov
Smirnov's eldest son

Nikolay Petrovich Smirnov
Smirnov's second-eldest son

Vladimir Petrovich Smirnov
Smirnov's third-eldest son

Sergey Petrovich Smirnov
Smirnov's fourth-eldest son

Aleksey Petrovich Smirnov
Smirnov's youngest son

Aleksandra Petrovna Smirnova
Smirnov's youngest daughter

Supporting Family Characters and Others Connected to Them

Matryona Smirnova
Smirnov's mother

Venedikt Smirnov
Smirnov's uncle

Eugeniya Ilyinichna Smirnova
Pyotr Petrovich's wife

Aleksandra Pavlovna Smirnova
Vladimir Petrovich's second wife, mother of his son

Tatiana Smirnova-Maksheyeva
Vladimir Petrovich's third wife and memoirist

Valentina Piontkovskaya
Operetta star and Vladimir's lover

Martemyan Borisovskiy
Aleksandra Smirnova's lover, later husband

Konstantin Petrovich Bakhrushin
Smirnov's son-in-law

Arseniy Petrovich Smirnov
Smirnov's grandson born to Pyotr

Vladimir Vladimirovich Smirnov
Smirnov's grandson born to Vladimir

Nikolay Venediktovich Smirnov
Smirnov's cousin and vodka factory director

Oleg Smirnov
Smirnov's grandson born to Sergey

Boris Smirnov
Smirnov's great-great-grandson, through Aleksey's line

Smirnov's Vodka Producing Rivals

Aleksander Shtriter

Kamill Deprés

M. A. Popov

Nikolay Shustov

Emile Rouget

Keller & Co.

Key Members of the Russian Bureaucracy

Tsar Aleksander II
Known by some as the Great Reformer

Tsar Aleksander III
Proponent of the vodka monopoly

Tsar Nikolay II
Last Russian Tsar

Ivan Vyshnegradskiy
Minister of Finance 1887–1892

Sergey Witte
Minister of Finance 1892–1903


Vladimir Lenin
Leader of the Bolshevik Party

Leon Trotskiy
Lenin's number two and Commander of the Red Army

Josef Stalin
Future leader of the Soviet Union

Key Literary Figures

Lev Tolstoy
Outspoken Temperance Advocate

Anton Chekhov
Critic of Smirnov and other vodka makers

Maxim Gorkiy
Chronicled the Russian Revolution

Fyodor Dostoevskiy
Anti-alcohol, anti-merchant advocate

Aleksander Ostrovskiy
Playwright, outspoken critic of merchants

his historical narrative account is based on exhaustive research conducted over more than four years in the United States and Russia. Information included in the book was gleaned from over 500 archival documents, approximately 250 articles from periodicals and newspapers, more than 900 books, and interviews with a dozen or more leading experts in related fields. In some instances, primary sources could not be found at all, were incomplete, or in conflict with other sources. In these cases, available documentation and relevant historical context were relied upon to provide likely accounts of events. In other circumstances, corroborating evidence supporting personal recollections or viewpoints could not be found. For example, some of Vladimir Smirnov's many remembrances, recorded by his third wife, could not be verified. Notations have been included throughout the book to alert readers to these occasions wherever possible.

Citations, both in English and Russian, are extensive, though they do not include references for facts that are
widely known or accepted. And unless otherwise noted, translations of Russian documents were provided by Tatiana Glezer. Names in the book are transliterated into a hybrid of Russian and English spellings to retain their Russian feel but make them easier to read. In addition, Russia followed the Julian calendar until January 31, 1918. Thus, all dates prior to that time are given according to the Julian, not Gregorian, calendar. Finally, converting nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Russian rubles into today's dollar equivalents proved to be a particularly daunting challenge. An elaborate three-step process was developed to make this calculation with the help of Sofya Alekseyevna Salomatina, coordinator of the Center for Economic History at Moscow State University, and an indispensable resource by Samuel Williamson titled
Six Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to Present.


he smell of mud and wet stone hung in the air. Moscow had been in the midst of an unusually warm spell. It was already late November, yet dandelions and daisies were poking out of the earth, nurtured by a steady balmy drizzle. The few flakes of snow that had fallen had quickly vanished, leaving cobblestones glistening on the ground. As the springlike days wore on, it seemed like winter might never come.

But it did, finally. As December 1898 arrived, a chill snuck up on Moscow like an invading army. Snow began to fall before daybreak and continued without interruption. Soon, a thick coat of white buried the city. Sledges, large wooden carriages that glided around town on metal runners, took the place of clumsier wheeled vehicles. Within a day, temperatures dropped another fifteen degrees, leaving Russia's then second-largest city in its more typical seasonal state: gray and frigid.

Little else, however, was typical that December day, particularly at the corner of Pyatnitskaya Street just past the
Cast Iron Bridge, a pathway that led directly to Red Square and the Kremlin. Since 8
, crowds had flowed into this neighborhood, known as a hub for Moscow's flourishing merchant class. Wealthy businessmen arrived with their elegant wives; important government officials and religious leaders left behind other pressing matters to make an appearance. Workers and peasants showed up in droves, spilling out into the street leading to St. John the Baptist Church. The crush was so dense that movement became almost impossible. Horse-drawn trams that usually seesawed through the center of Pyatnitskaya were forced to stop running as long lines of mourning carriages surrounded the block.

At 9
, the bell rang out, snapping the masses to attention. All eyes turned toward a majestic funeral chariot outfitted with a canopy of rich silver brocade.
It was parked before the grandest residence on the block, a three-story-high mansion that was a testament to the architectural beauty cropping up all over Russia. The home's sheer size—with thirty-one street-facing windows—would have been enough to stop even the most refined passersby. But this structure also looked something like a museum. Ornate carvings of flowers, leaves, lions, and two-headed eagles were etched into the outer façade. A cast-iron balcony adorned the corner of the third floor along with glorious artisan porches. At the main entrance, an elaborate, black-iron archway marked the home's stately gateway. Viewing the home at its cornermost point from across the Moscow River, it resembled a small luxury liner heading out to sea.

The heavy wooden doors parted and the archdeacon from St. John the Baptist Church emerged, softly reciting prayers. A group carrying a coffin cover decorated with a wreath made of natural flowers fell into line after him. A choir came out then, singing the Holy God prayer, followed by a dozen workers. Each carried a pillow with sacred medals and honors earned by the deceased during an extraordinary life. Other church elders and dignitaries followed next, including ten priests wearing shimmering robes.
At last, a coffin emerged, draped in a sumptuous fabric made of golden brocade and raspberry velvet.

It was the second day of December, and this eloquent tribute was not for a tsar or a high-ranking minister or a military chief. The man inside the long oak box was Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov, arguably the most famous vodka maker in the world.

That such a spectacle would be held for a man like Smirnov would have been unthinkable in 1831 when he was born at the family home in Kayurovo, a small farming village roughly 170 miles due north from Moscow. His parents were poor, barely literate, and most telling, they were serfs, part of Russia's legally bound underclass. They were essentially slaves, owned by the proprietors of the land on which they lived and worked. All that they earned was shared with their landowners, who had control over what they did, where they went, and how they survived.

This commoner background, in tandem with Smirnov's ultimate notoriety as a leading purveyor of liquors, was not a life that typically beat a path to prominence. Moreover, for the last decade of his life, alcoholism was raging throughout society and calls for increased controls on spirits producers were rampant. Still, when Smirnov died at age sixty-seven of heart failure, newspapers treated the event as a national tragedy. Descriptions like “distinguished,” “exemplary,” and “a giant of Russian industry” appeared in news stories. Smirnov's passing shared the front page with the weightiest developments of the day—from the United States's intention to sell the Philippines, to the controversial and scandalous Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer was serving time on Devil's Island for allegedly passing military secrets to Germany. But supporters, including writer Émile Zola who published his renowned
letter, successfully proved that anti-Semites had framed Dreyfus. Ten months after Smirnov's death, Dreyfus was pardoned, later becoming a knight in the French Legion of Honor.

From a certain perspective, Smirnov was a lot like Dreyfus.
They were both underdogs, born into positions that were neither of their own making nor choosing. Dreyfus, a Jew; Smirnov, a serf—yet neither man let the disadvantage of their labels dictate their life choices. Smirnov had to overcome both his lowly status and a thoroughly unsophisticated, rudimentary makeup. Life in rural Russia was remote and plebeian, and as a serf Smirnov's main occupations as a young boy likely would have been helping his mother care for younger siblings, lending a hand with the livestock and crops, and picking wild mushrooms and berries. He could not have attended school even if he had wanted to as none existed where he lived. When he did venture beyond his home village, the journey was fraught with peril—particularly at night. Smirnov would have had to carry metal sticks with him, banging them together or against trees to scare off hungry, wild wolves that lurked nearby. Young Pyotr was surely better off at home, tending to the family's most immediate needs.

Young Smirnov, always obedient, did as he was told. But beneath his outwardly quiet and reserved demeanor, he must have been restless, internally agitated, a racehorse at the starting gate. It wasn't as if he knew where he was going. Rather, he was someone who made where he was the very place to be. He devoured his surroundings, taking in seemingly inconsequential events and details and spitting them out as life-altering encounters. This was how he came to vodka.


was as fundamental to daily life as food and the wintry chill. Around 1500, it is believed that monks were distilling the liquid in their monasteries, isolated hillside retreats where chemical experiments and scientific discoveries
were routinely made. Surpluses of grain made production relatively easy—and cheap. Monks used primitive stills, producing liquor that often had a greenish blue tinge to it caused by traces of copper sulfate from the copper fermentation vessels—and a foul smell.
In those days vodka wasn't merely consumed for pleasure, it was a medicinal product. It could be a powerful disinfectant for wounds or a soothing, warm balm massaged into the back and chest. Its uses changed quickly, of course, becoming Russia's beverage of choice when distilling methods were improved and medicinal additives were replaced with sweet aromas and tasty spices.

Almost overnight, vodka, whose name is derived from the Russian word
, meaning water, became a focal point for a variety of rituals. A practice known as “wetting the bargain” used vodka as an inducement to bring communities together to build a church, bring in a harvest, or construct a bridge. A job well done meant that vodka would flow freely. Vodka drinking was also a favorite pastime of Peter the Great, who instituted the “penalty shot” during his reign from 1682 to 1725. It purportedly forced anyone late for a meeting or gathering to pay either a fine or drink a large cup of vodka. Over the years, vodka was used as payment in lieu of money, as a bribe, and as encouragement for soldiers on the front lines. The so-called drink of life was even fed to women in labor and to newborn babies when other remedies failed to calm them. The tsarist government, which maintained firm control over the vodka economy, sanctioned and encouraged these practices. Increased consumption of vodka was an easy way to pump up state coffers.

By the time Smirnov came around, vodka was an entrenched national habit. More than that it was big business, having surpassed salt to become the dominant source of revenue for the government. Taxes on vodka covered one-third of the state's ordinary expenses and generated enough to pay for all of Russia's peacetime defense.

Pyotr Smirnov saw how powerful vodka could be. His uncle Grigoriy operated hotels and pubs in Uglich,
a town best known as the home base of Ivan the Terrible's son in the sixteenth century. Grigoriy also ran a brewery and at least one wine cellar.
As a young boy, Smirnov worked for his uncle. He washed dishes, mopped floors, waited tables, and tended bar. He must have observed how the men drank, how their teeth unclenched and their faces smoothed as soon as the drink passed their lips. He would have seen that the mere act of drinking, of swallowing, brought a pleasure rarely found within a Russian peasant's arduous life. And he surely would have understood that vodka meant money—good money. The pubs, inns, and wine business had made Grigoriy, also a serf, wealthy enough to buy his freedom. He became a successful and admired businessman in his community, and young Smirnov yearned for that himself—and more.

In truth, Pyotr probably would have preferred a more outwardly honorable, less controversial vocation. He was a devout Orthodox Christian all his life, presumably attending confessions from the time he was seven. He was a collector of religious icons and a churchwarden of two Kremlin Court cathedrals, which were much-revered positions.
As for liquor, he did not much care for it personally. He drank minimally, mainly to taste his own concoctions, join celebrations, or avoid insulting a thirsty guest. He rather despised the loud drunks who swallowed away what little money they had and made nuisances of themselves.

But those feelings were quietly set aside. More than anything, Smirnov was an opportunist and a capitalist. Liquor was what he knew—and he made the most of it. When Pyotr Smirnov died, he was the country's leading producer of vodka, the chief of a business worth an estimated 20 million rubles (about $265 million today).
He was one of the largest retailers of liquor in Russia—the purveyor to the tsar and Imperial Court—and his bottles were on the tables of royalty from Sweden to Spain. His
personal fortune, including two immense homes, two vacation compounds, one factory and numerous shops, warehouses and cellars, topped 10 million rubles (roughly $132.7 million ), making him one of the wealthiest men in all of Russia.
In 1886 he even captured one of the most elusive awards when he earned the title of hereditary honored citizen, an extraordinary accomplishment for an ex-serf and an honor that was bestowed on only the most deserving citizens.

It was an unexpected life, to be sure, built on sheer determination and an unwavering sense of purpose. Smirnov, a tall dashing man with a commanding presence, never had much use for the shades of gray that inhabited most people's lives—tell him something couldn't be done and he would do it twice just to make a point. It was a quality that brought out fear in some and great admiration in others. However it affected those around him, they knew they were in the presence of a man who would not be bound by normal constraints.

Perhaps that is why so many had turned out that bitter December day to stand in the cold and watch a funeral march by. The solemn, black-clothed crowd followed the slow procession, their footsteps crackling as they crunched through the freshly fallen snow. St. John the Baptist Church, one of Russia's most ancient houses of worship, never looked more beautiful. Its three-tiered belfry, which towered above all else on this section of Pyatnitskaya Street, served as a beacon to Russians passing by that day. Tropical plants and brilliantly colored flowers framed both sides of the church; a walkway before the entrance was layered in black cloth. At the helm of the ceremony stood the highest ranked member of the Russian clergy, the Metropolitan Vladimir. He presided over official events for Russia's tsars, and his presence alone left no doubt about the importance of Smirnov's death.

Candles lit the way to the raised platform in the church where Smirnov's body lay. A collection of sterling silver wreaths adorned the coffin. One wreath from his three older sons was
inscribed: “To the unforgettable parent from his heartily loving children, Pyotr, Nikolay, and Vladimir Smirnov.” Another from Smirnov's wife read: “To a dear, unforgettable husband from his loving wife.”
Other wreaths from friends, workers, and admirers were piled onto the coffin as well.

The cold had crept into the church, but those who managed to make it through the doorway seemed not to notice. Heat coming from their bodies and breath offered enough warmth, especially as the voices in the choir began to rise. The liturgy lasted a full two hours, followed by an hour-long burial service.

The lengthy journey to Smirnov's ultimate resting place began as his coffin was loaded onto a luxuriously adorned barrow. Three carts bursting with wreaths came next, followed immediately by the funeral chariot. Then, some one hundred carriages lined up to make the four-mile trip to the cemetery. The commoners would walk the route, which took them over the Cast Iron Bridge, past the Kremlin, and through Red Square. When they arrived at their destination, it was 3
. Daylight would last only another twenty-eight minutes.

Smirnov's body was placed in the ground just before darkness fell and covered with stones and fresh dirt. A simple metal cross was erected, and then, it was over. Or was it? Smirnov was not a man to leave his final destiny to chance. He had requested in writing that prayers be said in at least forty churches for forty days after his death. His belief, which followed Russian Orthodox doctrines, was that it would take those forty days to determine whether his soul was bound for heaven or hell. He had instructed those around him to pray that his sins be forgiven and a place be made for him in paradise.

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