GIMI DRENKI.

Having finished a long detour into American history, I’m back to Russia and finally reading James Billington’s classic The Icon and the Axe. On page 86 Billington reports that vodka “appears to have reached Russia by way of a Genoese settlement on the Black Sea, whence it was brought north a century later by refugees fleeing the Mongol conquest of the Crimea.” He continues:

It was fateful for Russian morals that this deceptively innocuous-looking beverage gradually replaced the crude forms of mead and beer which had previously been the principal alcoholic fare of Muscovy. The tax on vodka became a major source of princely income and gave the civil authority a vested interest in the intoxication of its citizens. It is both sad and comical to find the transposed English phrase Gimi drenki okoviten (“Give me drink aqua vitae”: that is, vodka) in one of the early manuscript dictionaries of Russian.

(As you can see, my laptop and I made it to Santa Barbara. It’s not as warm as I expected, but it’s sunny.)

Comments

  1. “Gimi drenki” is also quoted here, via Philip Marsden, but with German spelling for aqua vitae: http://www.klett-cotta.de/literatur_buecher_l.html?&tt_products=1461&backPID=159&seite=leseprobe

  2. That link from Qaminante is actually a great article, for those who can read it—e.g. on the situation in the eighties in Russia when vodka production was reduced to a minimum and the Soviet Union’s vineyards eliminated:
    „Der Kauf von Eau de Cologne – auch “Intellektuellendrink” genannt – vor zwei Uhr nachmittags war verboten und im Übrigen auf zwei Flaschen pro Person beschränkt. Gleichgültig sahen Geschäftsleute mit an, wie verzweifelte Kunden noch am Tresen Flaschen mit Haartonikum hinunter stürzten.“
    “The sale of Eau de Cologne—also known as the Intellectual’s drink—before two in the afternoon was not permitted; after that time, each person was allowed two bottles. Sales assistants looked indifferently on as despairing customers knocked back bottles of hair tonic, not bothering to leave the shop to do so.”

  3. I’d only like to point out that the quota on cologne was not anything special, since everything was sold under a quota at some point or another, especially a luxury good like cologne. The situation might have reached a low point around 1995, when tickets for goods were issued in many places–and then universally ignored, because there were no goods on the shelves.
    In any event, group consciousness found drinking cologne pretty repulsive, since if you needed a drink that badly you could, you know, set up your own still.

  4. Huh. That’s actually an excerpt from Im Land der Federn: Eine kaukasische Reise, a travel book by Philip Marsden. But Marsden writes in English, as far as I know, and yet there doesn’t seem to be an English version of that book. Strange.

  5. This is the English original of the book, according to the Klett-Cotta author’s page.

  6. Ah, thanks! I’ll have to get a copy; I enjoyed his book about the Armenians.

  7. Wimbrel, your timing is wrong — since the Yeltsin-Gaidar government freed prices on Jan. 1, 1992, there have been no major shortages of any good in Russia.
    Some time after WWII Soviet leaders figured out that drinking was on the rise and tried to limit the sale of alcohol, which led to imperfect substitution such as cheap cologne and moonshine for vodka. Gorbachev took particularly drastic measures in May 1985, prohibiting the production of cheap wine (such as the famous бормотуха), raising vodka prices (putting an end to the cheap андроповка) and severely limiting the sale of alcohol.
    People applauded his intentions but hated the way his measures worked out — grapevines cut down and such. Substitution effects were severe, too: sugar and cologne were swept from the shelves. Later, vodka was rationed: two bottles per capita per month.

  8. Similar events took place in Poland; sale of vodka was limited and not allowed before 1:00 p.m. This of course effected a huge movement of home-distilling. Drinking moonshine is still a kind of social problem, especially in poor areas. But in spite of all bad effects, it has also produced some interesting language phenomena. Like for example an idiomatic use of the verb pędzić “to move quickly, to drive, to dash” as a colloquial word for “to distill at home”. And one of the best known polish pun jokes connected with that (untranslationable of course):
    - Gdzie pędzisz? (Where are you driving?)
    - Na strychu (On my attic).
    It’s based on two isuses: first – the double meaning of the verb (connected with a social mood; moonshining was prohibited, but it was like “everybody knows that everybody does it, but hush! nobody can hear!”), and second – that the verb itself has simultaneous transitive and intransitive meaning (“to move something” and “to move”); the question suggests the latter meaning, the answer the former (it’s in Locative, not Accusative).

  9. John Emerson says:

    Was the Genoese city Kaffa or Tana? Which year? It’s possible that vodka reached the Mongols at the same time. (IIRC distillation was a Muslim process and Muslim doctors used distilled alcohol as a medicine).

  10. Mr. Emerson, when are you converting? Is there going to be some ceremony-coffee may be? Are Jews allowed?

  11. I think Wimbrel may have meant 1985. Of course in the USSR people were drinking Eau-de-Cologne long before that. Yerofeyev’s classic “Moscow-Petushki” from 1969 has some fine cocktail recipes that contain far worse things than Eau-de-Cologne.

  12. michael farris says:

    A marginal hardcore alcoholic tradition in Poland (for those times when mere vodka or even spirytus (rectified spirits at 190 proof) won’t get the job done anymore) is denaturat (methylated spirits).
    Dyed purple (usually) it’s sold in bottles that are dead ringers for old time vodka bottles.
    Soemtimes stores place it among the cleaners while others drop the pretense and put it straight on the alcohol shelves.
    Supposedly (not that I would know) it needs to be filtered before you can drink it (very loose use of ‘can’) and stale bread is often used.
    for a glimpse:
    http://muzeumhumoru.onet.pl/_i/_h/denaturat.jpg

  13. “ash-dva-o” – deviz ne nash,
    nash – “tseh-dva ash-p’at’ o-ash”.
    Simple trochaic metre. Vivid rhyme. Reminiscent of Gorbachev’s campaign. Means “H2O is not our motto, ours is C2H5OH”. In Russian.

  14. You bring up something I’ve always wondered about but never thought to ask: how do Russians pronounce the names of Latin letters? It looks like “ash” is from French and “tse” from German; is there a list of such names online?

  15. John Emerson says:

    I have been listening to Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina, which features the drunken, thuggish streltsy (police/elite troops). Toward the end of the opera the streltsy have been condemned to death, and their wives / concubines ask the Czar to show no mercy. But he pardons them anyway. It sounds rather contemporary.

  16. John Emerson says:

    Michael F., the American custom is similiar — “rubbing alcohol” it’s called. It’s much cheaper than booze because it’s taxed differently. Filtering does no more good than prayer. Eventually you go blind, IIRC.

  17. michael farris says:

    There’s also sterno fluid (I seem to remember that Bela Lugosi was drinking that when he began working with Ed Wood).
    When I was a kid, a friend once mixed rubbing alcohol and grape juice to make ‘wine’. He drank a glass full and it didn’t seem to hurt him (at least not immediately) I (in a very rare display of good sense) would have nothing to do with it. (My parents allowed me small amounts of wine on occasions like thanksgiving, so I knew that stuff smelled wrong, wrong, wrong.

  18. Maya: Like for example an idiomatic use of the verb pędzić “to move quickly, to drive, to dash” as a colloquial word for “to distill at home”.
    This is interesting. The Russian word гнать (gnat’) also means both “to move quickly, to drive, to dash” and “to distill at home”, but pędzić and гнать seem like totally unrelated words. Just a coincidence?
    “The sale of Eau de Cologne—also known as the Intellectual’s drink—before two in the afternoon was not permitted; after that time, each person was allowed two bottles.”
    I would add that the stores were prohibited to sell alcohol until 2 pm and after 7 pm. That the cologne was not permitted to be sold until 2 pm is most likely an urban legend, though. :-)
    I’d only like to point out that the quota on cologne was not anything special, since everything was sold under a quota at some point or another, especially a luxury good like cologne.
    These were the quotes that every store established for itself, on each occasion. Today it could be two bottles, tomorrow three, another day one. As opposed to politics of centralized rationing of late 80s – early 90s (if my memory serves me right), when you would get a piece of paper (talon) with monthly quota printed on it.

  19. In response to Alexei (тёзка!), Vanya, and Map, I did mean 1995, not 1985. I’m a generation younger than you (I assume), and wasn’t of drinking age in the 80s. It also seems I came from a rather different reality. Maybe it has to do with living on the Ukrainian side of the Russian border. Liquor was available around the clock at the кооператив and in “kiosks.” Maybe it was buying it at the гастроном that was the problem.
    I do distinctly remember the quota coupons appearing in the mid-90s, simultaneous with the new, salad-green 10,000 krb notes.

  20. LH,I don’t know of any guids for pronunciation of chemical elements’ names in Russian for English speakers, but I surely would appreciate one in reverse, couple of years ago when I my son needed some supervision in HS Chemistry class.
    Boy, did we spoke a different language…

  21. Wimbrel, you’re talking about Ukraine, which pursued a different reform path than Russia. The shortages in Russia culminated in 1991. As soon as prices were freed in 1992, shortages mostly disappeared although there were cases of temporary supply disruptions. The early 1990s with their unexpected abundance of expensive Snickers bars saw a new generation of alcoholic drinks: спирт “Рояль,” ликер “Амаретто” (fake) and various cognac spirits sold as коньяк.
    Michael: I thought denaturat contained a different type of poison, not methyl alcohol. The poison can be filtered out — not through a paper filter I suppose, rather with sorbents or by distillation. Cologne is safer anyway. I think I’ve mentioned my favorite name for a drink — Alexander III, a mix of two Soviet colognes, “Sasha” and “Triple.”

  22. michael farris says:

    “Michael: I thought denaturat contained a different type of poison, not methyl alcohol. The poison can be filtered out — not through a paper filter I suppose, rather with sorbents or by distillation.”
    Beats me, I got that translation from a dictionary. By the time a person’s down to Denaturat, then they’re probably not too health conscious anyway. Another use for the stuff (I’m told) is to pluck chickens.
    “Cologne is safer anyway.”
    “Safer” is such a relative word …

  23. John Emerson says:

    American denatured alcohol contains a mix of toxins specifically intended to make it undrinkable. Redistillation might work if done right but I can’t see how filtering possibly could.
    Pure 95% alcohol is less than $10/ gallon, which would be the equivalent of approximately ten fifths of 95 proof vodka. (“Pure” alcohol is only 95% because it absorbs water from the air; 100% alcohol is harmful to tissue and much more toxic than 95%).
    Denatured alcohol for non-drinking purposes isn’t subject to the liquor tax, so it’s very cheap, but it’s purposely poisoned.

  24. LH: You bring up something I’ve always wondered about but never thought to ask: how do Russians pronounce the names of Latin letters? … is there a list of such names online?
    http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%9B%D0%B0%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%BD%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B8%D0%B9_%D0%B0%D0%BB%D1%84%D0%B0%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%82

  25. Thanks, that’s exactly what I wanted! Here‘s the direct link.

  26. Map: The Russian word гнать (gnat’) also means both “to move quickly, to drive, to dash” and “to distill at home”, but pędzić and гнать seem like totally unrelated words. Just a coincidence?
    Etymologicaly unrelated, but there is also gnać in Polish. They both are very similar in meaning, almost synonims. I can’t find it now, but maybe there is in Russian some equivalent of pędzić, too. As both the words can be traced back to Pra-Slavonic or even farer.
    But in Polish only pędzić can be used with reference to moonshine. And as you’ve pointed, in Russian only гнать can serve this purpose. That’s interesting!

  27. Trivento says:

    ‘Etymologicaly unrelated, but there is also gnać in Polish’
    Perhaps there is a pun related with cognac.

  28. Perhaps there is a pun related with cognac.
    I don’t think so. The pronunciation of gnać doesn’t resemble that of cognac (in Polish written koniak). The “g” in gnać should be pronunced like in English gone. It’s not silent, and the following “n” isn’t softed.
    If anything at all, cognac could be associated with a Polish word for a horse, koń. In fact, in childhood I thought that cognac was a kind of alkohol made for (or of) horses :-)

  29. michael farris says:

    “I thought that cognac was a kind of alkohol made for (or of) horses :-)”
    One mental image delights me, the other fills me with dread.
    And as long as we’re making embarassing admissions, for a long time I thought słonina (pork fat sold in slabs) was a joke name meant to make it sound like ‘elephant meat’ (elephant = słoń). I was an adult when I thought this.

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