Russian Happy Hour. Photo by Kommersant
“ In America, you drink vodka.
But in Soviet Russia…vodka drinks you.”
—Yakov Smirnoff, comic genius
Russians as a species are disappearing from this planet faster than Chilean sea bass. With a mortality rate comparable only to that of African countries suffering from massive HIV epidemics, yet without a third-world birth rate to compensate, Russia has seen its population decline by seven percent since the collapse of the Soviet Union to under 143 million people. Russian men have what a recent World Bank report called “short, brutal lives.” Their life expectancy plummeted from 68 years to just 58 years, meaning they live at least 15 fewer years than Western men. If this trend continues, Russia’s population will fall to under 100 million by 2050.
And it’s thanks in large part to alcohol. Booze is the big reason why Russians are going extinct. Of the seven million Russian deaths in the last decade, 34 percent were due to alcohol.
How does alcohol kill? In part by making Russians drunk enough to do the dirty work themselves. Russia’s murder rate is one of the highest in the world, up there with Jamaica’s. Eighty-three percent of murderers and more than 60 percent of murder victims were slobbering drunk during the deed. A typical drunken murder story goes something like this: Two middle-aged male friends meet, go back to A’s apartment, and pound four or five bottles of cheap vodka over a two-day binge. A passes out drunk; B stumbles away, rapes and strangles A’s prepubescent daughter, steals A’s microwave oven, and sets A’s apartment on fire to cover his tracks but passes out while setting the fire, then dies of smoke inhalation. (This, by the way, happened to my ex-girlfriend’s next-door neighbors.)
Then there’s good old poisoning. Last year, 40,000 Russians died of alcohol poisoning. In the U.S., with double Russia’s population, only a few hundred folks died of alcohol poisoning.
But you see, Russians love highly unconventional spirits. Through trial and error (and a lot of blindness and death), they have invented some of the most kick-ass, hair-on-your-chest-sprouting cocktails in modern history. These cocktails were largely perfected during Mikhail Gorbachev’s failed dry campaign in the late 1980s. He severely restricted alcohol production to try to sober the nation up, quickly causing a brief upturn in Russian men’s life expectancy—and just as quickly a backlash that ended his political career and brought about the reappearance of Russia’s cuddly national mascot, vodka.
But even with vodka widely available in the post-Soviet period, that doesn’t mean that Russians have forgotten their favorite homemade brews, as those 40,000 poisoning deaths prove. Here is a guide to the six most-fucking-awful Russian cocktails.
Shipr on the Rocks
In 1974, Brezhnev announced work on the BAM—a railway running from Lake Baikal to the Pacific Ocean, well north of the Trans-Siberian line. The plan was to lay 2,000 miles of track through the cruelest geography on the planet, where temperatures range from 90°F in the summer to -70°F in the winter.
Obviously, one needed a nip here and there. Since vodka isn’t easy to come by in Siberian backwaters, BAM workers devised a special cocktail.
They took a bottle of shitty Soviet cologne, usually Shipr, and poured it down a long, iron bar (used to break up the frozen tundra before laying down track) into a waiting glass. They thought the “impurities” in the cologne—the rank additives that made a man smell like a real proletarian—would stick to the frozen bar, while the spirits would remain unfrozen. Bottoms up! Bourgeois capitalist pigs aren’t the only class that suffers from hair vanity. The Soviets had their own version of Aqua Net in a famous hairspray called Laq Prelest, which means something like “Charm Varnish.”
If you’ve ever seen a typical middle-aged Soviet woman, with her huge mold of hair bunned up in three stiff piles, you understand that Laq Prelest was serious, industrial shit.
So serious, in fact, that it attracted the interest of their Soviet husbands. Anything that smelled that toxic had to pack a punch. The process of turning Laq Prelest into a viable drink was fairly simple. They’d take the can, spray it into a cup with some water, and swirl it around to mix it up, diluting the Laq Prelest just enough not to completely poison them. Then, down the hatch! At the height of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, MiG jet fighters, the pride of the Soviet Air Force, earned the name “flying restaurants.” Not because of the wonderful food served on board, but rather because of the buzz-packing antifreeze that you could siphon from the jet’s innards.
According to 33-year-old Dima, who knew several people who regularly drank MiG antifreeze while he served in the army in Siberia, you could only drink five good shots of it per week. Otherwise you risked going blind.
One junior officer that he served with used to count how many shots he’d downed by pulling his belt a notch tighter with every drink because, as Dima said, “He knew when his pants hurt that it was time to stop.”
One of the most famous, and bizarre, of the Prohibition-era beverages was the shoe polish-filter cocktail. It’s not so much a drink as it is a filter whose residue you exploit—sort of like scraping the resin from a bong.
The ingredients for this drink are black shoe polish, a glass of water, and a slice of black bread. You take the black shoe polish, spread it on the slice of bread, then set it atop the glass of water so that it covers it up pretty well. Leave it sitting for a couple of hours while you try to pretend you’re not enduring the worst shakes ever. Then, when you can’t wait anymore, take the bread off the top and drink the poisoned water down. The fumes and toxins from the shoe polish, Russians learned, would be absorbed into the water enough to make it potent. Also, you could take the bread, scrape off the excess polish, and eat it, getting a major rush from the absorbed poisons. There are many ways to heal an injured man. One is to close his wounds with adhesive. For that, Soviet doctors relied on a surgical glue called BF-6 (slangily known as “Boris Fyodorych-Six,” a Russian patronymic applied out of sheer fondness for the stuff).
BF-6 surgical glue healed more than flesh wounds. It also healed a man’s unbearable need to get drunk on something.
This is the trickiest cocktail to make. You take some BF-6 and a stick and whip the glue around and around. Stir it diligently for two or three hours, until a magical chemical separation takes place between the undrinkable toxins in the thick glue that increasingly stick to the sides of your cup and the liquid that forms in the middle—liquid which was once considered the Ketel One of the DIY alcohol world. Your grandma probably used a rose water-based lotion to keep her saggy skin from turning into elephant hide. But if your grandfather—or you, for that matter—happened to be Russian, it’s doubtful grandma’s rose water-based spritz would have lasted long in the bathroom cabinet.
The greatest advantage to drinking a bottle of rozovaya voda lotion was that, unlike so many other cocktails, this one was ready-to-serve. Sort of like Smirnoff Ice. All you had to do was locate a bottle of rozovaya voda, open the lid, tip it back into your mouth, and guzzle the lotion down. That’s right—drink the tangy lotion straight. No clever little gimmicks. Just rank lotion pouring down your throat on a hot summer’s day. All you needed was one or two good hits of rozovaya voda and the warm fuzzy buzz takes over your whole persona until, you, slowly, fade, away, into the rosy abyss... of... nothingness.