Pertsivka and Deténte
Just before the Russians melted into eastern Ukraine in their charming way, I was at a dinner in Kharkov, a city about 19 miles from the Russian border. The hospitality was effusive if nothing else. We were drinking local pepper flavored vodka called pertsivka. It’s a horillka made hot pepper for spice. What’s horillka you may well ask? Well, I did.
According to one of my hosts, “it is what Americans call vodka because you can’t tell the difference.” Whatever you call it, it’s supposed to be flavorless and tasteless, so I’m not sure just how the hell anyone tells the difference, but there we are. The name Vodka just took hold in the US because that’s the Russians name for it and they were scaring the pants off of us at the time.
Dinners in this part of the world are lousy with toasts, and to spend much time here it’s easy to see why. It is hard to get to the human truth of the matter without then drinking to break down inhibitions in what is essentially paranoid state. It is a perverse type of short-term trust in a bottle. The problem is that it also fuels the paranoia. Earlier that day I’d seen a policeman and twelve year-old share a cigarette and a beer, but in a world where ethnic hatreds can never be resolved because they are largely imaginary, those two will likely one day see each other as the enemy. You can stop a burglar from entering your house, but there is nothing you can do about the boogieman under your bed unless you outgrow it.
A little kid with a beer sharing a lung dart with a cop is a bit much. It isn’t like the Russian government never tried prohibition, but the maneuvered ended badly. Vladimir Lenin always held that Tzar Nicholas II’s ban on vodka in 1914 (for the hoi polloi at any rate) was the only time in Russian history that the masses were sober enough to see what the Tzars were doing to the people – and if you are going to carry on like that it helps if the common man stays a bit cloudy. Lenin, being Lenin dismissed the other theory that about a quarter of state revenue came from vodka and no government needs a pay cut like that when they’re heading into war. Root causes notwithstanding, the reluctantly sober Russian masses not only executed the Tzar responsible for prohibition, but his entire family for good measure.
Uncle Joe Stalin, something of a big government guy, repealed the alcohol ban in 1925 so he could fund all that grim soviet architecture and gulags. Today, thanks to his foresight, roughly 23% of Russians die of alcohol related causes.
Well, we didn’t drink to that, even though the Russians were making people nervous. We drank and we talked about the East and the West influence over pertsivka, beer, sausages and cigars. We talked about the Ukraine and Russia, communism and capitalism, and the savage tribalism of hatred and brotherhood. We drank to each other and threw questions around the table and answered them, I think, honestly. We were too drunk to lie well.
I like to think that I know my way around a bottle, but there was nothing I could do to keep up with these guys. I didn’t even try. I started taking one snort — chased with some fantastic Czech beer — for every two of theirs…then every third. They seemed warm. I was gassed.
As I got up and covered one eye to make my exit, I was sure we’d made progress. So much so that looking back on my notes, I appear to have started writing with the Cyrillic alphabet. Or was that Arabic? It’s hard to tell. We’d fixed the problem of the Russia versus the West; we had a solution if the world would just give us time. Too bad none of us can remember what it was.