A short guide to the St Petersburg hangover

When I got out into the open it was already getting light. Everyone knows - everyone who has ever blacked out in a stairwell and stumbled out again at dawn - everyone knows what heaviness I carried with me down those forty steps of the stairwell, and what heaviness I carried out into the open air.

Venedict Yerofeyev, Moskva-Petushki

You, of course, will be asking: 'And after that, Venichka ... and after that, what did you drink?'. But I myself hardly know what I drank. I remember - this I remember quite clearly - on Chekhov Street I drank two glasses of Hunter's Brew. But could I have crossed the Sadovoye Ring Road without a drink? No, of course not. So I must have drunk something else as well.


For those who have never stumbled out of a St Petersburg stairwell at six in the morning under a heavy cloud of pokhmelye, here is a short guide to the subject. I apologise to the reader in advance for not being able to reproduce the poetry of pokhmelye - for which there is no richer source than 'Moskva-Petushki', Venedict Yerofeyev's story of a tragic drunken train journey. And I urge him or her to think very carefully before taking the decision to drink in this country. On the one hand, there is no better way to get to know the intimate geography of St Petersburg than in the company of a bottle of portwine. On the other, geography can easily go too far; on broaching a bottle, the drinker can never be sure where he will end up: on which street, in which park or garden, in which town or city, in which Republic, in which year, in which crematorium.

First, then, to clear up a few local problems of semantics. 'Drinking' in Russia does not mean 'having a drink' or 'getting pleasantly tipsy' or 'passing the time of day with a glass in one's hand'. It means 'getting drunk': blotto, slammed, atkluchony ('disconnected', 'totalled').

Secondly, pokhmelye, the Russian hangover, is not an unpleasant after-effect of drinking, but an accepted and important part of the drinking process - a half or third-way stage, a significant marker. On reaching pokhmelye, the dedicated drinker does not stop drinking; he merely pauses. Allowing the alcohol to settle in his bloodstream. Steadying that part of his being which is still known in this country as the soul. Then he presses on. The verb pokhmelitsa ('to have a hangover') does not mean to resort to the alkaseltzer. It means - and we should be quite clear about this - to reach for another drink.

If the above has already deterred the casual tippler, so much the better. Getting drunk in Russia is not for the faint of heart. It is hard work. But staying drunk is harder; a proper state of drunkenness has to be properly looked after, monitored, stoked and fed. All this requires dedication, perseverance, talent, professionalism.

O ephemerality! O most powerless and most shameful time in the life of my people - the time between dawn and the opening of the shops!


To go back to the beginning. The first problem faced by the St Petersburg drinker is always the same: procurement of vipivka, booze.

Legend has it there was once a Golden Age when the shops were full of portwine at three rubles a bottle, vodka at four rubles twelve kopecks, and when certain bars spoilt the discriminating customer with a choice of at least four or five different brands of Georgian and Armenian konyak. Beer flowed freely and cheaply from queueless kiosks on every street. The wine lover smacked his lips every day on the best grapes of Moldavia, the Crimea and the Caucasus - not to mention those of Hungary, Bulgaria and occasionally France.

That age, if it ever existed, ended long ago.

What replaced it was the classic story of Soviet misrule: economic inefficiency, queues, a bungled attempt to make things better. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, almost his first action was to order the destruction of vineyards in Moldovia, Georgia and the Crimea. This piece of vandalism backfired. Instead of reducing levels of drunkenness, it merely drove people to harder forms of drink - to vodka, samogon (home brew, made from sugar and yeast or from more unlikely ingredients - certain kinds of inexpensive confectionery, glue etc), eau de Cologne, typewriter-cleaning fluid. Gorbachev also dramatically shortened the opening hours of shops and bars selling alcohol. As a result, vodka, by now almost the only surviving form of alcohol on sale, became even more of a deficit item. When I came to St Petersburg in 1991, there was only one place where there was any certainty of obtaining alcohol between the hours of seven at night and eight in the morning (an extension of Yerofeyev's 'most shameful time in the life of my people'): the piyany ugol or 'drunken corner'. Here, on certain dimly-lit street corners not far from the city centre, small groups of inconspicuously-dressed men gathered in shuffling lines, and bottles of Pshenichnaya and Russkaya travelled furtively the short distance between coat pocket and coat pocket under the cover of darkness.

The piyani ugol, for three and a half years a central feature of St Petersburg's alcoholic geography, no longer exists - rendered economically redundant by 1992's sudden spring invasion of trading kiosks. The latter, ubiquitous and often open 24 hours a day, offer an eye-catching array of clear and brightly-coloured alcoholic liquids in strangely-shaped bottles(1), as well as some more traditional vodkas and konyaks. But this does not mean that St Petersburg's drink supply problem has been solved. It has merely been re-posed in a more dangerous and more expensive form.

On drinking, the brightly-coloured alcoholic liquids turn out to be weak liqueurs which no self-respecting drunkard would consider worth wasting time on; the vodkas and konyaks, to be either harmlessly alcohol-free, or else highly dangerous mixes of technical spirit and other industrial fluids. In other words, the ordinary St Petersburg street's apparently rich choice of drink is really a choice between disappointment and death - between different qualities of fake.

Nevertheless, all is not lost. There are places where the dedicated drinker can find ingredients for pokhmelye. They are far apart, these beacons of a disappearing civilisation, and unpredictable, subject to the strange laws of chance; but this is as it should be.

Real Moldovian konyak will grace the shelves of the Yeliseyevsky Magazin (the beautiful pre-revolutionary shop on Nevsky Prospekt) for two and a half weeks. Moldovian Cabernet will make a lightning two-day appearance in a shop somewhere on Vassilevsky Island. Five cases of a rich Bulgarian red will linger unsuspected for a whole week in a supermarket somewhere amongst the novostroiki, the lunar modern districts of St Petersburg. These supplies are podarki, gifts from fate. They do not last long and are unlikely to be repeated. To get to them, the pilgrim has to traipse huge distances across town, wearing out shoe leather, uncertain that when he arrives the last bottle will not just have been sold.

But this, as I say, is as it should be. Getting drunk in this city is not a simple or prosaic matter. It is a journey towards a distant and unpredictable destination. And the procurement of vipivka is not a simple exchange of roubles for alcohol. It is a separate journey, the first part of a larger quest.

There is one further ingredient a party of drinkers need before they can get started: zakuski, something to eat. Traditional zakuski are pickled cucumbers and peppers, garlic, boiled potatoes, fish, brown bread, fruit. The really professional drinker, though, may be in a position to look upon such stomach-fillers as an inessential formality. In his short story Lishny, Sergei Dovlatov writes of one drinking session: 'With zakuski there was no problem. How could there be? Sevastian had succeeded in cutting up an ordinary apple into sixty four separate slices'.

Recipe for Venedict Yerofeyev's favourite cocktail 'Bitch's Guts':

Leave to brew for one week together with a handful of cigar tobacco leaves and serve ...


So now to business. The vipivki have been procured. The zakuski have been laid out on the table. Three or four sobutilniki, drinking partners, stand at their marks - experienced, well-rested veterans of the bottle, ready to give of their best ...

... Take the first bottle of Russkaya in one hand. Strip off the metal seal, using a knife or teeth. Whip out the plastic plug, also using teeth. Decant generously into ryumichki (small-measure glasses) or beakers or mugs until the third glug of the bottle (the practised vodka-drinker measures with his ears, an art which enables him to pour out accurately under conditions of total darkness). Pause to pronounce a toast saying farewell to sobriety, which the drinker may not see again for days and days, possibly weeks. And tip the entire contents of the glass down the back of the larynx in one sudden swift swoop ...

The vodka hits the bottom of the stomach. What happens next? To anyone who is not familiar with the experience, the sensations that follow are difficult to describe.

The main impression is speed: the vodka hits the bottom of the stomach and everything speeds up. Internal contacts are made - instantaneously. Blood surges - tidally. Soul and body are fused, blasted together, radically reorganized. Time starts to come at the drinker in big shuddering gulps. Automatically, he reaches out for zakuski from the table - powerful pickled cucumber or garlic, a wad of brown bread, anything to gag the mouth and distract attention from the terrible nuclear changes that are occurring inside. The zakuski help. Gradually, time steadies to a trot. And a feeling of tranquillity spreads through the channels of the body and its spiritual annexes, a wonderful feeling of rest achieved after a period of great trauma and suffering.

If this seems an incomprehensibly perverse way of obtaining pleasure, try this analogy. Go to the local bath-house. Sit suffocating in the steam-room for fifteen minutes. On coming out, plunge straight into the pool of icy water next door. After the first jolting shock, the body will relax - overtaken by unexpected sensations of well-being. This enjoyment of sudden physical shock followed by equally sudden relief is something the vodka-drinker and the bath-house masochist have in common.

My sister-in-law would say:

"Boris has a hard time of it. You're both of you drunkards. But you're in the better position. You can drink for a day, or three days, or a week. And then not drink for a month. Boris, on the other hand, drinks every day. And then, quite aside from that, he has his drinking binges."

Sergei Dovlatov, Notebooks

If Russian pokhmelye were simply a matter of passively surviving a number of such physical shocks during the course of a single evening, any fool would be able to have a crack at it and make something of a showing.

Any fool, including the author of this book. On how many occasions have I retired to bed, proud to have kept pace with my companions through oceans of vodka and beer to the latter part of the early morning - only to be woken three hours later by loud voices rising in separate monologues from the kitchen? I stumble out, force open my eyes. They are still at it! They are still at it, these friends of mine!

Yura or Andrei has tripped over to Vasilyevsky Island to refill our empty bottles at the six o'clock razliv - the tanker which sells vodka straight from the distillery. And now they are back around the table. Glassy-eyed, bleary, half-ruined by the drink. But still drinking, still talking.

The air in the small room is heavy with the smell of pokhmelye, that distinctive smell of the human organism struggling to assimilate large volumes of alcohol and failing. The air itself is tired and failing. I look at my friends. Their morning pallor has already worn off; their faces are red, brick-red, brain-erosion red - the flag colour of the professional drinker.

At this point, I have to accept that I am merely an amateur in a field where I lack the resources and stamina to compete.

It is the second morning of the zapoi or binge. The serious drinking has only just begun.

My wife asked Aryev:

"Andrei, there's one thing I just don't understand: do you smoke?"

"You know," said Andrei; "I light up only when I'm drinking. But I drink continuously. Which is why many people mistakenly think that I smoke."

Sergei Dovlatov, Notebooks

My friends are people who usually maintain furiously that they 'do nothing' - as if to admit to gainful employment would be self-indictment of the first order. They are artists, actors, writers, cinematographers, kinophiliacs - but only in their spare time. Their real talent, their true vocation, is for mass bottle disposal; and they are very, very good at it.

In the next week or so, they will prove their abilities once again. St Petersburg's remaining supplies of portwine, vodka, beer, red and white wine will be severely tested by a sustained assault. It is possible - the thought has to be entertained - it is possible their zapoi will bring about a deficit of typewriting fluid. The city will be crossed and recrossed time and time again. Bottles of portwine will be consumed and abandoned in quiet, rubbish-filled courtyards and urine-fragrant stairwells. Brodsky or Kharms' houses will be passed and acknowledged. A visit may be made to Dom Actyora or Dom Dzhournalista (the professional organizations for actors and journalists) where, for those who can gain admittance, the konyak is cheaper and less prone to falsification than in other establishments. Rambling toasts will be pronounced. Uflyand and Rein will be remembered, Dovlatov quoted, Brodsky invoked. On the third or fourth morning, several members of the zapoi may retire to bed. But only to recoup strength for the next stage of the marathon. On the seventh morning, stray members of the expedition may wake up in hospital or Moscow. Or Koktebel. But by this time, nothing much will matter any more. True pokhmelye will have been reached. The journey will have been worth it. The aftermath of the week-long zapoi may well turn out to be literary.

Vipivki: what (not) to drink

Portwine: Favourite drink of impoverished drunkards and Leningrad intellectuals. Portwine (named somewhat loosely, libellously even, after the kind of port that comes from Portugal) is a rosy, sweet, viscose fluid which slips down the throat with all the smoothness of a rat down a riverside hole. It demands little or no effort of appreciation from the drinker, and is more intoxicating than it seems. It is also very cheap. An extremely cost-effective method of gradually homing in on pokhmelye.

Vodka: The fast lane. Taken properly -- i.e. neat and by the glassful -- vodka advances the mind towards intoxication with a series of sledge-hammer clouts. This is fine if it's intoxication you're after; if not, you would be better off sticking to gentler stuff (beer, coke, Amaretto). Bear in mind that a bottle of vodka, once open, has to be finished on the spot; in agreeing to partake, you are effectively signing away the rights to your life until such time as the last drop has been drunk. Also be extremely careful when buying vodka from street kiosks. Purchase of alcohol at such establishments is always enlivened by a feeling of uncertainty: the bottle you buy could contain vodka, but could equally well contain almost anything else - including plain water and death.

Konyak: Traditionally a drink for the taste- as opposed to cost-conscious (if a bottle of vodka used to cost 2 rubles, a bottle of konyak could have set you back anything from 6 to 10) - which does not prevent Petersburgers chucking it down in the same way as vodka, neatly bypassing the tastebuds. Connoisseurs come to blows over whether the best konyak comes from Armenia or Georgia. Personally, I prefer Moldavian. Look out for 15-year-old Prazdnichny and 10-year-old Dvin (both from Yerevan), both available on and off in the Yeliseyevsky Magazin on Nevsky Prospekt, and keep your eyes open also for dangerous imitations (recognizable - sometimes - by their obviously photocopied labels).

Champagne: Not very classy, not very bubbly, not very drinkable, not very expensive, not very cheap. Not even very effective. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Sovetskoye Schampanskoye (Soviet Champagne) is that it is extremely difficult to fake, and so you tend to get what you think you are getting - a mediocre imitation of a mediocre sparkling wine.

Beer: Just the stuff to get you going again on the second or third mornings of a zapoi, when your legs won't behave themselves long enough to let you stand in the queue for vodka. Russian beer has a pedigree and hierarchy of its own: the strongest are Leningradskoye (6% alcohol) and Stolichnoye (7.2%); Barkhatnoye has a 'sweet, slightly malty taste'; Porter, 'a beer for connoisseurs, is kept for sixty days in the brewery cellar and for another ten days in bottles before distribution'; Martovskoye, a slightly sweet beer, is kept for thirty days before bottling; Rizhskoye and Martovskoye have, amongst Russian beers, the most pronounced taste of hops; the most common light beer is Zhigulovskoye. (Quotations and information from the Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, Pishizdat, 1952)

Troinoi Odekolon (eau de Cologne): The traditional bestseller. Cheap, effective, very strong, almost always available (if you can't find it in the chemists or a perfume shop, look for it in the ubiquitous street kiosk; it's usually lined up in the No. 1 spot - at the front of the display, alongside the beer), and it doesn't smell so bad either. The original Troinoi Odekolon took first prize at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1884.

(1) To the Soviet eye, used to the four or five standard forms of glassware, any bottle of foreign provenance is automatically strange. Return