In a country that loves to commemorate wartime victories, the Battle of 1373 is often overlooked.
Little wonder. That was the one where the Russians were so drunk by the time the enemy showed up that the Tatars won by default. The inebriated Russians were ingloriously thrown into the nearby river, which from then on was known as the Reka Pianaya -- the Drunk River.
To say that alcohol has played an important role in the history of Russia would be an understatement. It has unraveled the strategies of generals and thwarted the will of czars. In modern times, it has sent generations of Russian men to early graves. But to hear Russians talk, it also links a society stretched across two continents; it serves that part of the Russian soul that cherishes hospitality, camaraderie and trust.
So perhaps it was inevitable that here in Russia's imperial capital, a museum would emerge dedicated to that most Russian of drinks. The Russian Vodka Museum, preparing to open its doors to visitors this month, provides something of a tour through the Russian psyche -- the lust for life, the violence, the pride of craftsmanship, the ingenuity in overcoming anything that gets in the way of a good bottle.
"The whole history of Russian culture is tied to vodka," said Sergei Chentsov, one of the museum's founders. "We decided to repair a historical injustice. There are museums of French cognac, there are museums of whiskey. Russian vodka is known at least as much, if not more, and it has a huge history."
Chentsov and his partner, Roman Shevyakov, insist they are not out to celebrate vodka in a country where alcoholism is a leading cause of death, but merely want to present a balanced portrayal of its role in Russian life. "If it is tied with tradition, then it's good. If it's just everyday drunkenness, it's bad," Chentsov said. "We wanted to show how it can be good and how it can be bad. In no way is it propaganda for people to drink. But to close your eyes and ignore its place in our national tradition, it's impossible."
The vast majority of Russians drink vodka, often in great quantities. Rare is the host who does not proffer a glass along with pickles and brown bread when a visitor walks in the door, and to refuse is to risk giving offense. While beer has become increasingly popular in recent years, it is seen as a soda pop and does not compete.
Many Russians ascribe medicinal, almost supernatural, qualities to vodka. Parents soak cotton balls in vodka and dab them on children to bring down a fever or ease an earache. Vodka with pepper is prescribed for an adult's cold; vodka with salt for an upset stomach. Some nuclear scientists even drank it to protect themselves from radiation. And for centuries in a country that has known enormous misery, it provided one of the few releases from an often oppressive existence.
But vodka -- a diminutive for the Russian word for water -- has also become a national crisis. Alcohol use has spiked in the 15 years since Mikhail Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign; a government researcher estimates that the typical Russian man drinks 180 bottles of vodka a year, or nearly one every two days. As a result, alcohol-related deaths have pushed the average life span of the Russian male below 60 and the high mortality has pushed down the country's population.
"It's one of the biggest problems, maybe the biggest," in the country, said Alexander Nemtsov, the top researcher at the Health Ministry's psychiatric institute.
Nemtsov does not think much of a vodka museum. "We're talking about the popularization of vodka," he said. "The consumption of alcohol in Russia is huge and Russia has a lot of alcohol-related problems. It's almost criminal to have such a museum in Russia."
The new museum in St. Petersburg is not the first of its type in Russia, but it will occupy a far more prominent location than any previous one. There's one in the provincial town of Uglich, and a vodka distillery set up its own museum in the Moscow suburbs a few months ago essentially to pitch its brand.
But those were unknown to Chentsov and Shevyakov, friends who had been in real estate together, when they came up with the idea for their St. Petersburg museum. It actually came to them one day while they were downing a few at an airport bar.
Inside the well-lit, renovated space along a fashionable St. Petersburg avenue are exhibits tracing the history of vodka back 500 years, to when it was called bread wine. Even before that, alcohol played a defining role in Russian history; on the wall is an illustration of Prince Vladimir choosing Christianity as the official religion in 988. The reason, according to the museum? Because it would allow followers to drink every day, not just on holidays.
Other exhibits show a moonshine machine operated by monks, pistols to represent alcohol-fueled duels and centuries-old handwritten recipes. Much of the history of vodka is the history of czars, and later Communist Party general secretaries, trying to control, regulate or tax it. The prohibition endorsed by Lenin eventually gave way to the daily allotment provided soldiers by Stalin during World War II. Posters from Gorbachev's ill-fated anti-alcohol campaign adorn the walls.
Chentsov, 46, a physician, and Shevyakov, 32, a language specialist, borrowed from friends and received help from the city to put together their display. Aside from souvenir bottles, they said, they have not received help from vodka manufacturers.
"Alcohol is like every medicine," Chentsov said. "If it's a little bit, it's good. If it's a little bit more, it's poison."
But many outside Russia underestimate its spiritual importance, he added. "In the West, people go to psychotherapists," he said. "In Russia, we get a bottle and sit down and talk through all our problems."