The ability of Russians to drink prodigious amounts of alcohol before getting knocked out is legendary in the West*. It is a subject at once of grudging respect for the hardy Russian soul and airy condemnation of their shallow barbarism. Actually, there is nothing particularly supernatural or mysterious about it, nor is it a result of genetic resilience to the embrace of the green serpent acquired over generations. It is a simple procedure that anyone can learn, albeit mastering it is more of an art. With the ongoing Christmas and New Year festivities, as your drinking guru I feel it is my duty to inform you of how to drink lots of spirits and enjoy it.
The traditional party begins with a meal in the evening and lasts well into the night. If you are a healthy, non-East Asian adult male, you can expect to consume around about 500-750ml of 40% vodka (that is, the equivalent of 2-3 13% wine bottles, or 4-6 litres of beer) during a typical “zapoi”. Adjust upwards if you have exceptional alcohol tolerance, adjust down if you are a woman (smaller body mass, higher percentage of fat), a pure-blood East Asian (many of them lack the gene that breaks down alcohol) or have health problems, particularly heart or liver related. Or if you’re a child…unlike the French, Russians are generally strict on this. At best you’ll get a glass of low-alcohol apple cider before being sent to bed sometime around 10pm. Now 500-750ml of vodka sounds like a really big amount, inducing a certain sense of fear and loathing in the average Westerner. But spread over several hours and consumed according to a certain procedure, you should overpower this beast with no problems.
The key principle is to fill your belly up with foods that slow down the transfusion of alcohol into the bloodstream. This should prevent the dangerous spikes in alcohol levels that knock out the uninitiated, albeit it does mean that you’ll remain drunk as late as next midday. This means that you should eat lots of fatty, starchy and salty stuff. A typical (hopefully) set-up for a zapoi will include some of the following: fried potatoes and onions; salads like Olivier, vinaigrette or potato salad with their heavy mayonnaise or oil-based dressings; cucumber, cabbage and other pickles; cheeses, sausages and hams; oily fish like sprats, herring or sardines, preferably pickled or oil-preserved. Perhaps the ultimate “zakuska” (something you “bite over”) is salo, salted pork fat. Personally I’ve always found it rather disgusting and refrained from eating it, regardless of my state of inebriation. It is important to eat a zakuska immediately after downing a shot so as to soak up the vodka and release it into the blood steadily rather than suddenly.
There is a large body of etiquette surrounding traditional Russian vodka drinking. The most important is that of the toast. When it’s your turn, pour everyone their “fifty grams”, think up of some noble ideal to drink to (world peace, the generosity and other many good qualities of the host, victory!, etc – creativity is encouraged) and announce it in as theatrical a manner as you can manage without overdoing it. When you’re sufficiently buzzed, judging how much you’re pouring by eye becomes hard – it’s much more effective to count out the appropriate measure in your head. This applies especially when you have to fill heterogeneous glasses. Everybody drinks at the same time – downing shots by yourself is disreputable, since that is associated with alcoholics. Follow it up with a zakuska, as mentioned above.
If you start feeling unwell or if you’re a drinking noobie, bow out of a few rounds by covering your glass when the bottles is coming round. By drinking with enthusiasm and honor at the start, you’ve shown your respect for the host and the other guests; getting stone-dead drunk is disrespectful. Folk tradition involves blowing out through your noise, downing the shot and breathing in with your first over your nose – nobody really does that anymore and I fail to see the need for it. Following the above advice, you should power through the appetizers and small talk, the main course with its weightier discussions and the desert with cakes and tea with lemon. You will have drunk a very respectable amount of vodka, but should remain at nothing more than a pleasant buzz.
Don’t make any of the mistakes stupid Westerners make (the further west they are from Russia, the stupider they tend to be). Eat before and while drinking. Don’t eat anything very spicy. Do not drink anything carbonated – that just accelerates the rate at which alcohol gets into the blood. Although purists strongly recommend against mixing, I am agnostic on it. Some people’s bodies seem to react badly when vodka and beer, or whiskey and wine, etc, mix; otherwise, if your body is OK with that, what matters is the level of alcohol intake per unit time independent of the beverage. As long as you keep a close eye on it things should stay under control. Especially in the late hours, when people become very drunk vodka can become like water and what I’d call a “race to oblivion” ensues; try very hard to avoid this temptation.
Damage control. Most importantly, drink lots and lots of water before going to bed. I know it requires discipline, but you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches up the road. Take a few multivitamin pills if you don’t want to feel like a poisoned zombie next morning. Water and vitamin pills fight the dehydration and leaching of vitamins brought on by alcohol poisoning (however well you drink, the fact remains that consuming a vodka bottle in one night will poison you).
Wake up with the Sun, drink a can of beer and take a walk – cool air and dawn light has wonderful recuperative qualities. Even better, do some physical work. If you feel sick, then it’s better to be sick – pushing a finger down towards the back of the throat over the toilet does the trick. It’s unpleasant but you’ll feel a lot better afterwards. Unless you had the misfortune to be drinking bad moonshine, or medical spirit diluted with water and lemon juice (you never know what the crowd will insist upon when the conventional vodka runs dry!), then chances are you’ll still be somewhat drunk until around midday, but the hang-over should be mild and you’ll be pretty much OK by the afternoon.
The above generally assumes the party is a conventional, more or less respectable one. Of course, some are held just for the purpose of getting really drunk. This typically occurs when a smallish group of people, usually men, want to bond. In this case the zapoi can be continuous and may last as long as several days. Can’t really recommend much here, since I’ve never been in an extreme zapoi (and don’t intend to any time soon). For obvious reasons this should be done very infrequently unless you want to die of liver cirrhosis at fifty.
A drunk will never lie or do things he or she does not really want to do. As such, vodka is the enemy of hypocrisy. As I’ve noted many times on this blog, Russians know that they live in the matrix; Westerners point to them and laugh, unable to understand that they are laughing at a mirror. For Western civilization is systematized hypocrisy; this is not to condemn, but to explain – its self-belief and affirmation of itself as universal is probably its greatest strength, with hypocrisy an unavoidable consequence.
In contrast, Russian life is remarkable free of hypocrisy – it is either very open (even the old folk sayings tell – beware those who don’t drink, they’re untrustworthy), or very hypocritical (called Sovietism); but since the latter is so transparently hypocritical, it is easily negated. While Soviet citizens may have professed to believing in the party, the open reality was that the true object of belief was vodka. That is equivalent to belief in nothing and everything, in absolute relativism, in other words, the level beyond systematized hypocrisy, which inevitably leads to oblivion. And this Russian belief in nihilism, is every bit as universal in its own way as Western systematized hypocrisy, yet both are forms of spiritual suicide; their union will be the cardinal event of this century, in which one will die and one will live, but both will be.
Which leads to the next observation about the vodka binge – it is like a dream. What is clear and lucid and sublime in the Zone, blurs to incomprehensible psychobabble upon awakening. It reminds one of the Borgesian parable about how reality is a grim prison, while dreams can give us an image of freedom. When Dante was old, lonely and dying, God came to him in a dream and told him of the secret purpose of his life; “Dante, in wonderment, knew at last who and what he was and blessed the bitterness of his life. Tradition relates that upon waking, he felt that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something he would not be able to recuperate or even glimpse, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of men.” One has to live the dream to know it. Vodka is nothing more or less than a mirror into the soul. A mirror might be an illusory, sinful thing; but is all the more irresistible for that.
Therefore, I consider getting drunk to be a most spiritually uplifting activity (although as with most things, its the quality, not the quantity that counts). When you are in this Zen-like state, you may experience life-changing revelations and it is amazing how even a normally dull or stupid person is capable of making the most acute philosophical and psychological observations. It is interesting to speculate that in some form or another much of the world’s stock of epiphanies and doctrines may have first been expounded in a humble peasant izba or workers’ commune, rather than in the hallowed halls of academia of the bourgeois world…
And this brings us to the last point I want to make about Zen and the Art of Vodka Drinking… Should you ever become an alcoholic, talk like I do above. Intellectual drunks are funny, everybody likes them and you’ll get no shortage of small change from admiring strangers to fund your habit.
I do not remember whether or not I was drunk when I wrote this post.
* I use the “West” and “Westerners” and “Russia”, etc, as a civilizational generality in the tradition of Spengler and Huntington and Co., rather than the panoply of individuals and nations (or “imagined communities”) that come in whole or in part under those labels. Actually, saying so is a tautology, since the problem of defining the “West” is well-known, ancient and still unresolved, as is the subproblem of whether Russia is a part of it. Still, pointing out the obvious is sometimes necessary to avoid having to later justify myself before irate cyber warriors.
Legal disclaimer: The author cannot verify the truth or falsity of the above information – use it at your own risk. The author does not necessarily endorse what he wrote about drinking alcoholic beverages and may or may not have done the things aforementioned.