The name of the author of "Moscow and the Roots of Russian Culture" was incorrect in Thursday's Style story about vodka. He is Arthur Voyce.
The professor, dressed nattily in an argyle sweater, penny loafers, a bow tie and pleated gray pants, looked around in horror, realizing his students were violating the cardinal rule. They weren't drinking their vodka do dna, to the last drop.
And, worse, they weren't chasing the vodka with food -- they were eating the food first.
"No, no, no," Ilya Levin, Russian e'migre' and vodka connoisseur, reprimanded his "Vodka Connoisseurship, Russian Style" class at Open University. "You're doing it wrong. When you drink you toss it down in one shot, to do otherwise is considered bad manners. But, don't pour yourselves more than you think you can handle."
Ad hoc assistant Alexei Tsvetkov rose from the banquet table at David Lee's Restaurant to demonstrate: He took a deep breath, exhaled sharply, raised the iced glass to his lips and in one motion threw back his head, tossed the liquid down in one gulp and crrrrrunch, bit into a pickle.
"In Russia, it's considered a big breach of manners, at times a show of machismo, not to eat afterwards," said Levin, an editor in the Voice of America's Russian service and a PhD candidate in comparative literature at the University of Texas at Austin.
"In one story by Soviet writer Mikhail Sholokhov, called 'The Fate of a Man,' the protagonist is a Soviet in a German camp. The German comes to execute him, but pours him a last glass of vodka first. Then the German hands him a slice of bread with bacon, but the Russian says, 'I never eat anything after the first glass' to display his contempt at the German," he said.
"The German is amazed and pours a second . . . the same thing happens . . . and then a third. Then the Russian understandingly agrees to take a bite. The German, amazed and crushed at the strength of his body and spirit, spares his life!
"It's a very important custom to eat after drinking." said Levin. "If you don't do it you must have a serious reason."
Vodka, from the word voda, for water, stands for "little water." It is literally pure ethyl alcohol diluted with water and comes from virtually any grain or vegetable -- barley, wheat, corn, rye, white beets or potatoes. It is made in numerous countries, from Japan to Turkey to the United States.
Levin's assistant, Tsvetkov, a poet and the translator of the bestselling "Gorky Park" into Russian, credits the Poles for the invention of vodka in the 13th century. Others suggest it was three centuries earlier, while Arthur Boyce, author of "Moscow and the Roots of Russian Culture," writes that vodka came to Moscow in the 16th century, first as a monopoly of the ruling class and later shared with the upper clergy and noblemen.
The first Russian tavern, or kabak, was founded in 1552, during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. A century later the government closed them, only to sell vodka through specially designated stores, according to Boyce.
In even earlier days, everybody drank, according to Boyce, and that led, in the first half of the 16th century, to government-designated holidays as drinking days for commoners. But, with no control over the means of production, moonshine flourished, as it does to this day.
Vodka arrived in the United States in 1934, Levin said, when the heirs of the Smirnoff family, the first family of vodka making, then living in exile in Europe, sold the rights to Rudolph Kunett, also an e'migre' living in the United States. And now vodka, with more than 200 brands sold here, has become the chic drink of the '80s, said Peter Seremet, spokesman for Heublein Inc., a subsidiary of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
"It's easily the largest selling spirit type in the U.S., with 30 million cases in total sold a year," said Seremet. "Bourbon or scotch are a distant second or third."
While the consumption of alcohol of all kinds is falling in the United States, "vodka is so popular its share of total sales is still going up," said Steve Barsby, of Steve L. Barsby & Associates Inc., a Falls Church consulting firm specializing in the alcohol beverage industry. Vodka is drunk primarily by the young, up to the age of 34, with a high-income profile.
The reason vodka has become so popular is its versatility, Barsby said. "You can drink vodka with virtually anything mixed in, not only all kinds of flavors -- you mix it with Kahlua and you have a Black Russian, it goes in South Pacific kinds of drinks or by itself with virtually any kind of juice you want." Vodka screwdrivers and Bloody Marys have become American's favorite hard drinks, he said.
And that, according to Levin, is pure heresy.
"The fastest way to ruin vodka is to mix it in a Bloody Mary," said Levin. "On the rocks, that's another way to ruin vodka."
Another way, he said, is to buy diluted proof, "low-cal" vodka, which never went over big in the Soviet Union. "People in Russia used to be shot for diluting vodka," he said, "and here they make money off it."
The right way to drink vodka is straight.
"Vodka by definition has a neutral taste, either you mix it by flavoring it, or straight by chasing it with a good zakuska, so the clear aftertaste combines with the taste of the food," he said.
If it's the drink of the elite here, Heublein's Seremet said, "It's not a chic drink in the Soviet Union, it's the drink of the masses."
But according to Levin and other experts, the drink known here is not the drink of the masses there, primarily because the masses can't afford the stuff, and the best vodkas, such as Stolichnaya, are saved for export.
"Vodka in Russia is too expensive to be consumed casually -- it costs 10 times as much" as in the United States, said Levin. When he arrived in the Ukraine as a private in the Soviet Army back in 1973, the sergeants "went through my luggage in search of anything alcohol-based, even lotions and aftershaves," he said. A foreign-made deodorant stick was dissolved and drunk. "They figured out it had alcohol in it."
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's antialcohol campaign is bound to flop, said Levin.
"Prohibition didn't work in this country and it won't work there," he said.
Murray Feshbach, research professor of demography at Georgetown University, attributes the penchant for drinking partly to the Russian culture. "You celebrate everything, a new job, apartment, wedding, and anything is celebrated fully," he said. But Vladimir Treml, a Russian e'migre' and professor of economics at Duke University, thinks another factor is also behind it. "Soviet life is basically very boring," he said.
By now Ilya Levin's class has had a taste of Finnish Finlandia, Swedish Absolut, Polish Wyborowa, the inimitable Russian Stolichnaya, American Smirnoff and Gordons. The basic Russian zakuski -- creamed herring, red caviar, ham, smoked salmon, marinated mushrooms, liver pa te', halved baby cucumbers, pickles, rice-stuffed cabbage leaves, pickled tomatoes, rye and pumpernickel bread -- are ravaged to a crumb.
The nastoiki, delicately flavored vodkas you can buy or make yourself, come next. Pertsovka, pepper-flavored vodka. Coriander vodka. Dainty raspberry-flavored vodka. Bourbon-colored Polish Jarzebiak, flavored with rowanberries.
"Thank God we're taking a cab," said Bob Tendrich, a vodka lover and Washington lawyer who at home drinks only Stolichnaya, straight up and frozen.
"Frozen is a must," said Department of Energy official Jim Brown. "I think vodka should be spread around and will become more American."
The toasts became infectious. "Za professora! To the professor," said one student. "S Novom Godom! Happy New Year!" said another.
"The most important ingredient is conversation," said Levin. "You can't really enjoy your vodka with someone you don't like. There is no zipless drink."