Long Live the King of Vodka: The Life of Pyotr Smirnov
We are in high spirits this week for our next Thrift Store Find: The King of Vodka, by Linda Himelstein. Everyone knows the brand Smirnoff vodka, and if you haven’t found yourself waking up the next morning regretting your choice of flavored vodka the night before have you even been to college? But did you happen to know the wild ride that is the life story of the brand’s original founder, Pyotr Smirnov? Our guess is you haven’t, and boy are you missing out.
Paige took a shot on this book when we visited Goodwill many months ago, I mean, hey, alcohol = interesting. How Linda Himelstein, a respected investigative journalist, author, and producer, came upon this story in the first place is interesting. After graduating with a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University, Himelstein went on to write for The Wall Street Times, Business Week, Legal Time, The New York Times, and more. Originally she began writing on legal matters, but would expand her repertoire to include business and tech stories. Beyond writing, Himelstein has also produced two documentaries, The Hunting Ground and The Great American Lie. The Hunting Ground, covering the prevalence of and response to sexual assault on college campuses in the United States, is currently available for viewing on Netflix. The legal background perhaps explains her original interest in the Smirnov story. After moving to the Bay Area, Himelstein learned of the recently resolved court case that involved members of the Smirnov family who were trying to sue the brand for using their family name and recipes. The extended Smirnov family members lost their case in court, but the story sparked Himelstein’s interest, leading to a discovery of the life and times of Pyotr Smirnov.
Once again the topic of popular vs. academic history came up in this week’s episode. For those of you wondering what that means, labeling a book as “popular” history is not necessarily a slur against it’s quality (though some do tend to use it that way, which is ridiculous). Usually the determining factors for a popular history are that is has not been published by an academic press – think Oxford University Press, for example – and that it generally has a more engaging style, free from jargon and theory, that appeals to a broader base of readers outside the historical field.
While Paige was at first thrown off by this style, her discomfort vanished after the prologue. The story of Pyotr Smirnov is an amazing one indeed. Paige suggested The King of Vodka be made into a TV series, and she’s right, the drama of this family’s history seem tailor-made for a creative interpretation. Pyotr Smirnov was not born into wealth or privilege, he was born a serf. We have included a few resources about serfdom down below, but as a quick recap: serfdom was a form of slavery that had its roots in the Roman Empire, and at one time was widespread across Europe. However, by the time of Pyotr’s birth in 1831, Russia remained the last stronghold of serfdom. Being born a serf usually consigned you to a life of hard labor, as you worked the land you were tied to for a master, almost exclusively a member of the Russian aristocracy. What set the Smirnovs apart was their admittedly limited education, and their incredible business acumen. Through the efforts of Pyotr’s uncles, and eventually his own, they were able to make enough money from selling vodka to buy the entire family’s freedom.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Pyotr experienced several personal tragedies, and the company he created weathered several storms: the conservative regime of Czar Alexander III that tied vodka to immorality, and the Bolshevik Revolution that targeted capitalist ventures, to name a few. By the time of his death, Pyotr had indeed become the King of Vodka, but this title was hard won. After his death in 1898, it would be a title his heirs were hard-pressed to keep. The story of the Smirnovs is intimately connected to the story of modern Russia itself. The events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that swept across the entirety of the country also played out in the internal family dramas of the Smirnovs. If you want to understand modern Russia, this is as good a place to start as any. Plus there’s booze.
Overall, this was the first book Paige read for the podcast that she truly enjoyed and would heartily recommend. Ignoring the hilarity that it took us seven weeks to reach a book that Paige liked, The King of Vodka has her endorsement and earned 4.5 out of 5 stars. If you are at all interested in Russian history, perhaps already having binged your way through Empire of the Tsars or The Last Czars on Netflix, then this is a book for you.
*PSA*: If you noticed some background noise – like scratching or bells or meowing – in this week’s episode, be advised you are hearing Paige’s gang of cats doing their best to break the door down and succeeding.
We are just buzzing about these links:
- For more complete information about Linda Himelstein and her work, visit her website.
- For a list of all flavored Smirnoff vodkas currently sold in the US, look here.
- What is serfdom? We didn’t really talk about it in the episode but check out the Britannica article on the origins of serfdom to learn more about this specialized form of slavery entrenched in Eastern Europe as late as the 19th century. Britannica also has another short article on Alexander II and the emancipation of Russia’s serfs. If you are so inclined to learn a great deal more about this topic, Jennifer can recommend Orlando Figes’ outstanding work, The People’s Tragedy. Assigned as a book for Jennifer’s legendary class on modern Russia, this book is hefty, but engagingly written and incredibly comprehensive (5/5 stars).
- For more on Czar Alexander II, his Wikipedia page is extensive, and includes sources for further reading – some of which are even kind of recent!
- According to Himelstein in The King of Vodka, the annual per capita alcohol consumption in Russia at the time of Smirnov was 2.7 liters, while in France it was nearly six times higher at 15.7 liters.
- Unfortunately Jennifer wasn’t able to find much on the Pavlov vodka brand (in English) and whether or not it is the same as from the time of Smirnov. Possibly the brand we can find in stores was named after a Russian psychologist, but Jennifer isn’t sure about the accuracy of this fact.
- The toxic ingredients found in Smirnov vodka were fusel oil, ethane diacid, sulfuric acid, and aniline dye, all of which are known to cause stomach, mouth, and kidney problems.
- The most recent data Jennifer could find on the top grossing liquors was from a Forbes article from 2018. According to this article, while Smirnoff only ranks #6 in terms of all liquor sales, including local and international brands, they do still rank as #1 in international brands.
Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.8. If you’re enjoying the podcast so far, please leave us a review and follow us on social media (links above). Be sure to check out our Patreon for bonus BBE content as well, including bonus episodes. Until next time!