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Published: March 31st 2010
I write while sipping a glass of clear liquid in a vain attempt to nullify this same clear liquid’s lingering effects from the previous night, a headache, irritability, slightly blurred vision, tiredness, loss of appetite and an unsettled stomach to name but a few. There was a time, as recently as 2006, when I would have laughed at anyone who suggested that this clear liquid could be used to cure its own unwanted after effects, “hair of the dog.” I would have roared at an attempt to convince me of its medicinal qualities. Seeing a highly educated Russian who had lived in the West for almost a decade pour it into her ear to cure an earache might have tempted me to call the men in white coats. But not now, not in March 2010. I have had it's uses as a prophylactic and a treatment explained to me over and over again by people that I greatly respect so that I really cannot refute them any more without insulting the fundamental rationality of those people. And I have experienced the short term benefits of consuming a small amount for myself.
“Drink fifty grams a day while you’re traveling, it’ll
stop you getting ill.”
“Take this bottle with you to the Arctic, it’ll stop you getting cold.”
“Pour this on cuts and scratches, it’ll stop them getting infected.”
“When you’re on the train, wash your hands with it before you eat.”
“You’ve got the flu? Drink this with hot tea.”
"Beer without that clear liquid is a waste of money."
"If you die healthy, you've lived a boring life."
“I want to teach you how to drink it.”
“It’s not about the drink, it’s about the people you drink it with.”
One of the people I heard say the last quote, an academic and world expert in his field, was among the most intelligent and kindest I have ever known. He drank large amounts of the clear liquid every day, usually on his own, and died in his early fifties.
* * *
A newly-married couple wandered arm in arm down St. Petersburg's canalside alleyways. The year was 1992, the month May, so they were gladly soaking up the rays of the spring sun, enjoying the fifteen degrees of warmth and trying to forget the brutal winter they
had so recently emerged from. The future could not have been brighter for them: their love seemed boundless, unstoppable, they had no need for anyone but each other. And though the winter was still a very vivid and real memory, this sun, its luxurious warmth, the beauty its life-giving rays lent the canalside alleyways, all this at that moment in time after so much cold lifted their hearts even higher and filled the future with promise.
Yes, everything seemed perfect. For a moment on the bridge over the Griboedov Canal they held one another and gazed into each other's eyes. It was then that the smell of a certain clear liquid on his breathe filled her nostrils. She pulled away slightly.
"Why do you have to drink so much?" she asked. "You drink in Moscow, in Peter, at home, on holiday, always the same."
* * *
Given the fact that this see-through beverage is usually at least eight or nine times stronger than beer, you might expect people who drink it to behave even more wildly than the lager louts you see in any British town centre on a Saturday night. Not so. In
Moscow the weekend shouting, fighting, smashing glass and general primitivity are conspicuously absent.
When people drink at special occasions it is considered particularly bad form to overstep your limit. I am not saying that there is not a single inhabitant of Moscow who ever goes a step to far. As far as I can see most men, as in Britain, do it at the very least from time to time. However it tends to be more in the privacy of their own home, at informal gatherings with a few close friends.
The worst offenders when it comes to overdoing it are generally poor, uneducated and rural Russian men, although a recent article in Pravda suggested the problem was more widespread, stating that where once every family could have been said to have lost someone in World War Two, now everyone has a family member, colleague or close friend who is a serious alcoholic. The official statistic is, the author writes, 7 million alcoholics, but the real figure is suspected to be much higher. The average Russian (and this average has been calculated from every human being in the country from new born babies to old ladies) apparently drinks
27 litres a year. And apparently, according to the World Health Organisation, a country whose citizens drink more than 8 litres per year will die out. And, if one believes the statistics, throughout history the Russian government has been almost dependent on vodka taxes, getting as much as 40% of its revenue from them.
"It's sad but I don't see any future for my country," Sasha, an educated and well-off young doctor once told me. The Western media would certainly seem to agree with him as every article you read quotes statistic after statistic about the rise of alcoholism, violence, the breakdown of the family, the falling birth rate and collapse of society in Russia.
But it is a sad trait of foreigners and Russians alike to be pessimistic and derogatory to an extreme when talking or writing about Russia. No one in Russia or anywhere else picks and chooses so many awful statistics with such ferocity to amalgamate them and prove points about Britain's drug and alcohol problems that are spiraling out of control, the rise of gun crime on the streets of London, the explosion of psychological disorders or the surge in teen pregnancies. As for
America, I'd like to write an article along the following lines: "33% of the population is clinically obese and this is increasing by about 1% every year. The average weight of the obese is also increasing by 1 kg every year. If these trends continue, in 15 years the majority of the population will be too fat to work or reproduce." I do not think there is as much of a market for this sort of writing as for articles slagging off Russia, however, just as journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya who expose corruption in Russia are given dozens of international awards whereas those who write similar works about America, treating such issues as George Bush's involvement in the Enron scandal, are labeled conspiracy theorists and nutters.
The truth is, on the ground, things in many ways seem to be getting better in Russia, or at least they were before the Crisis began. The birth rate is rising. In Moscow and St. Petersburg a middle class is developing. Salaries are increasing. Any claims about "The breakdown of the family unit" sound a bit ridiculous to me - Russian families seem stronger than British ones. Children live with their parents
until they get married and sometimes even afterwards. Cash flow between children and parents is often a two-way thing, each generation helping the other out when they can. The young generation, at least those I know (the ones from Moscow who can afford my English lessons), drink far less than their British counterparts.
"That's only in Moscow and St. Petersburg though," Nastya, a receptionist at a law firm, tells me, "the rest of the country is living in poverty." But things have improved. It's a pretty big country and it's had less than twenty years since the end of Communism to get back on its feet. Who knows what the future holds.
But I'm digressing now. Let's get back to that clear liquid. My first experience with it is New Year’s Eve 2006. The flat belongs to an artist called Volkov and the walls are hung with his pictures, many of them depicting village life in Uzbekistan where he grew up. In the main room two long, thin tables have been positioned in an L shape and something like thirty guests sit around them on either side. Rather than being served several courses, as would have happened at
an English dinner party, on the tables sit a vast array of meats, fish, pies, cheeses, salami, cabbage salads, carrot salads, mayonnaise salads and, to my surprise, almost as many bottles as people. It is all delicious, the colorless beverage worlds away from the filth you buy in supermarkets in England and the food enough to make your mouth water just by looking at it. The only exception is the kholodets, an inexplicably foul traditional Russian dish, lumps of meat floating in a deep tray of transparent, broth-turned jelly, so repulsive that no restaurant will serve it.
I am surprised because I have always thought it nice to have something with your meal that you can gulp in sufficient quantity to wash down your food, for me beer because I have never managed to civilise myself enough to drink wine. Looking back later, it will seem naive that I thought that this clear liquid could not be drunk in these quantities.
Words of gobbledygook flow left, right, up, down, all around me. I am the only one through whose ears and into whose brain their meaning does not filter. Every now and then, or to be absolutely correct
fairly often, somebody stands up and spouts a load of gibberish to which the other people at the table smile, nod approvingly, raise their glasses and down a shot in unison. No one drinks when this is not happening.
After everyone has finished eating people start to drink even when a toast is not being made. A man in his sixties with snow white hair, beard and moustache who is sitting next to me takes a bottle, pours a glass for each of us and, holding his up for me to chink, says the first words that I can really understand all evening: "Well, under the circumstances..."
By 'understand' I mean that I recognize the words themselves, as they are spoken in English with a highly educated, upper-class accent with almost no trace of the Russian in it. I have no idea why he says them though. What on earth does he mean, 'under the circumstances'? What circumstances? And why do they require the drinking of this clear liquid? I nod, smile politely and together we down our drinks. We don't say another word all night but what he said for some reason sticks in my mind for
years to come. Later I will infuse his words with meaning, even later I will think I understand him and that his words bear a powerful message about Russia and Russians, and later still I will realise it was probably just a throw away remark and I will never really understand anything about Russia or Russians.
"Eddy, Eddy, make a toast!" someone suddenly exclaims. (As with almost everything else that I understand from this night, it is translated into English for me by my girlfriend Lisa). My heart almost freezes over in horror.
"I'm afraid I really can't, I wouldn't know what to say..."
"Never mind, say anything!"
I refuse again, feeling absolutely useless. It's at the sort of stage in the evening where almost anything would probably have gone down well but having watched the long, heart-felt and much-appreciated examples that have gone before, my British reserve is really kicking in so I refuse again and resign myself to the role of quiet, self-conscious foreigner.
"So what do you normally eat at this sort of event?" someone asks me. "Pizzas, burgers and chips, I imagine?"
"Not always," I reply, "we have Sunday roasts
The conversation directs itself back away from me. For a few minutes I let the flow of an as yet incomprehensible language submerge me until I receive a tap on the shoulder from Edo, Lisa's great uncle. A grey-haired, balding, tanned, cheeky-grinned 88-year old, with the Armenians' typical almost Mediterranean features and an enormous belly hanging over his trousers and kept at bay by a shirt and suspenders (all his clothes give the impression of being extremely old but of having been kept in almost brand new condition by meticulous care and cleaning), he is impossible not to like immediately.
He says something to me in Russian.
"He says he wants to remind you that he fought for Russia during the Second World War. He drove a tank," Lisa translates.
"Oh," I say, nodding and smiling at Edo. I nearly extend my hand and stick my thumb up at him but think better of it.
My next interaction with a fellow human being is several minutes later when the hostess comes and asks me whether I liked her food.
"It was delicious, absolutely delicious," I say. She almost explodes with radiance.
"You see, he thought it was delicious," she says proudly to her other guests.
I continue to write this blog. I have had a few glasses, hoping that it will give me inspiration, add flavour, produce ideas. In fact it has done the opposite, bringing my creative thought process grinding to a halt, and I struggle for a way to continue. In the end I go to sleep and the next day pick up where I left off.
* * *
The couple had been married for fifteen years. The lady stills looked young, healthy and in good shape for her age. The man had aged twice as fast: his back was hunched, his skin tough and wrinkled, what hair was left to him was grey. It had been five years since they had slept in the same bed.
* * *
Needless to say I have several run ins with this transparent beverage during my time in Russia: disastrous nights out in Moscow where I attempt to keep pace with random Russian met several hours previously; a night of sausages, salami, bread and mayonnaise in the cheapest common carriage of an overnight
train to Latvia with a bunch of random Russians in the days before I spoke any of their language, waking up the next morning on a baggage shelf with my nose almost pressed against the ceiling; wandering the streets of Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, in the minus 18 Centigrade cold of New Year's Eve 2007, bottle moving frequently between pocket and mouth in an attempt to stay warm; a night where shots followed home made blini laden with butter and black caviar, the tastiest thing I have ever eaten, which my ex-girlfriend's father had insisted on buying when he heard I had never tried it; a warm summer night spent sitting on the terrace of a dacha out in the countryside, the host a world expert on ancient Irish, knocking back shots, gradually erasing my memory and attempting to practice my increasingly faltering Russian with him as birds flitted from tree to tree in the twilight of his large, overgrown, walled garden and hedgehogs bumbled about their business.
"Why do you want to go to China, Eddy?" he asks me.
"To meet the people and find out about their culture I guess," I reply.
"But that's all just touristy stuff," he answers. "Myself I don't like to go anywhere unless I know absolutely everything about it, have read all its literature, all the writing on it and know the language. That's why I turned down an opportunity to go to lecture in Japan - I just don't know anything about the place."
"But I think you can learn something by being their, experiencing the culture for yourself," I say.
"Just touristy stuff," he repeats, waving his hand dismissively.
"So before you went to Ireland, you really knew everything about it?"
"You'd read every newspaper article ever?"
"No, of course not, I never read the newspapers in this country. They're absolute rubbish, 100%!c(MISSING)ensored. Someone who worked at one explained to me how it works - someone writes an article that the government doesn't like and they get fired. Their boss has to fire them because he gets threatened by the FSB or someone."
"Is it really that bad?" I ask.
"Of course, that's Russia for you. You can't get real news, you can't write what you want and you can't vote, or
at least there's only one party that can win our rigged elections."
We do another shot in silence. Suddenly he laughs: "You know, the other day I came out here during the week, I needed some piece and quiet to finish a translation," he tells me. "This builder, Yury, who's doing the repairs and staying here - one night I came downstairs at night to get something to eat and he was passed out on the floor in the kitchen with an empty bottle in his hand and the television, which is usually in our bedroom, switched on, volume up and sitting screen-down on his bare chest! Now that's a real alcoholic for you!"
Ten per cent of the country's population lives in Moscow and St. Petersburg, 63% in other urban centres and 27% in rural communities. Having described clear liquid experiences with educated Muscovites I would now like to zoom to the other end of the spectrum.
It is October 2007. My friend and I cycle into Gabrielev Posad, a small village perhaps three hundred kilometres outside Moscow at eleven in the morning. We stop in a tiny shop to buy food. Some cheap sausages held together by plastic wrappers, cheaper mayonnaise and even cheaper bread are almost all we can get. Just before we buy them two drunks stagger in stinking of spirits and beat us to the counter. One of them is an enormous skinhead, the type of guy who elsewhere could have made money as a bodyguard, bouncer or debt collector, who in more prosperous locales might have been able to afford to get his bald head tattooed. The other is a small, scruffy simian sort of fellow with huge amounts of facial hair. They go to the counter and the skinhead says something to the woman behind it, his voice exhuding the brusk confidence of someone reasonably stating what it is they want to buy. The woman starts waving her finger at him, shaking her head and shouting. He fakes a taken aback look, points at the bottles on the shelves behind her and spreads his arms as if to ask, "why on earth not?" She continues her act. He takes a few notes out of his pocket, hands them to her. She glances at them, sees they are not enough and slaps them back into his palm. He says something else, less confidently now. His voice suggests that given time it might begin to plead. She shakes her head and looks away. His shoulders slouch forward, he shakes his head, says something in a tone bordering on the dejected, half-heartedly waves the notes at her and turns to walk out.
We go to the counter and the drunks notice us. Clearly we are not from around here. After we buy our stuff the skinhead starts asking us where we're going. We tell him the name of the final destination of our cycling trip, several days away. His friend, the hairy little monkey, is so out of it that I am sure would be incomprehensible even if I could understand Russian. We spend about fifteen minutes with the skinhead trying to mime directions to us over and over again. We don't get it but his persistence is admirable and he really will not let us go until he is quite sure we have understood, that is until we have nodded in faked comprehension and thanked him profusely.
At the other end of the village we stop at a bus stop to ask for directions again. Three men are there. Two are semi-acceptably dressed, sort of half kempt and scented lightly of alcohol while the other one is in rags and so drunk he cannot walk. We spend around fifteen minutes with them trying to explain where we are going. We get into their car and they take us on a tour of the village. "Russia extreme!" they say, pointing at us and laughing. "Yeah, Russia extreme!" we agree and laugh back. "Gabrielev Posad extreme!" they say, pointing at their drunk friend. It seems the uproarious laughter and slaps on the back will never end. When we get out the drunk one manages to stand up, totter over to me, put a hand on both my shoulders and set off on a long, soulful and completely unintelligible ramble about something or other. After a few minutes I smile nervously at his friends and they tell him we need to leave now. Immediately he takes off his watch and hands it to me before delving into his pocket and giving me an old coin from Tsar Nicholas' time.
"Please, I can't take them," I say to his friends. They try to reason with him but he is having none of it. Hands on my shoulders, he burbles on at me, his eyes filling with tears of emotion, occasionally raising his finger to the air as he belches out a particularly significant point for me to note. I try to put his watch and coin back into his hands but he will not accept them. I offer them to his friends but they refuse. Eventually I have to pull myself away from him, pat him quickly on the shoulder, smile and wave goodbye before cycling off.
Despite the man's drunkenness I keep warm memories of Gabrielev Posad. The few people we met seemed, from our brief encounters with them, kind-hearted and hospitable. I dread to think what sort of reception two foreigners turning up on bikes in such a deprived area of England would receive.
The next village, an hour later, is Novoselka. The houses are without exception rickety wooden shacks. The wheels of the few cars we see have mostly sunk deep into the ground through years of disuse. The road we came on was bumpy, disintegrating asphalt but the one that leads out on the other side, the one we will take after lunch, is pot-holed dirt, so contorted that even walking on it would be dangerous after a few shots. And yet there are more villages further down that road.
We eat lunch. A girl walking towards her house through a wooden gate in a fence next to the bus stop where we are sitting turns her head to glance at us momentarily, looks back ahead then a split second later jolts to a halt. She turns back to us and stares, open-mouthed for several seconds, before continuing on her way.
Two battered old taxis arrive from the direction of Gabrielev Posad and drop girls off at the house opposite the bus stop. When the second one comes a bunch of shaven-headed young men swagger out of the tumbledown wooden bungalow that is nevertheless bigger than most homes in the village. The girl is ushered inside but, on seeing us, the youths saunter over, bottles in hand, to ask us what we're up to. They offer us drinks, which we accept, but soon bore of our non-Russian speaking company and amble back in.
Nine months later I am in the Russian Arctic. There is a town, far north of the Arctic Circle, called Naryan Mar. A horrifically ugly sprawl of concrete and wood built in the 1930s in an environment so harsh that it is impossible for anyone to be happy or healthy, it can only be accessed by boat or plane. Its 20,000 inhabitants are isolated from the rest of the world by the tundra, a vast wasteland of swamps that only the Nenets, the reindeer herders indigenous to the area, know how to live in. If you take the twice-weekly forty-seater riverboat four hours north of Naryan Mar to the end of its route you arrive at the village of Nelmin Nos, a ramshackle collection of ragged wooden huts far more decrepit than anything in Novoselka. The homes are separated from each other by patches of grass and swamp and rather than streets there are wooden gangways that prevent people from sinking into the bog. In the height of summer it is still freezing. On windy days the biting cold becomes unbearable and when there is no wind, clouds of mosquitoes descend to plague the inhabitants. On such days there is never a moment when they are not crawling all over my face, throughout my hair, up my nose and into my mouth.
Why would anyone choose to live there, you ask? The truth is no one did. It was Stalin's policy to force all nomadic peoples out of the tundra and taiga to settle them down, make them a part of the Soviet economy and Russify them. The Nenets from the island of Novaya Zemlya were forced to live in Naryan Mar and, much like you or I would have if we had suddenly been dropped in the middle of the tundra, they died, mostly from alcoholism or suicide. Others more fortunate, despite having their children forcibly taken away from them and Russified in Soviet boarding schools, were allowed to live closer to nature and breed reindeer working on collective farms. Thus Nelmin Nos was born, or "Drunk Village" as it is known in Naryan Mar.
There is evidence that, much as Stalin deliberately imprisoned and worked to death millions of innocents to develop Siberia and the Far East, much as he purposefully engineered famines that killed millions in Central Asia, the Ukraine and Russia to "break the back of the peasantry", he also introduced alcohol to the nomadic indigenous Siberians to keep them settled at no matter what the cost. He must have known that indigenous and tribal people, forced out of their traditional way of life all of a sudden and having had their entire worldview shattered, are particularly susceptible to alcoholism, drug addiction and depression, but either way his actions in many cases achieved the desired effect, one that has lasted until the present day. Although there were a few groups of nomads who roamed such extraordinarily remote regions that they survived settlement and collectivisation of their herds entirely and continue to live today much as they always did, and although there were other groups who survived the kolkhoz (collective farm) without resorting to alcoholism, the Nenets of Nelmin Nos were not among them.
"Nenets people can't handle alcohol, they have some gene that makes them react badly to it," my friend Yury in Naryan Mar told me. "The most common cause of unnatural death here is murder. We even have a special word for it - when someone kills his drinking partner and doesn't remember why the next morning."
"Don't leave this house after dark," Mikhail Semyonovich, the head of Nelmin Nos, tells me.
In that same house I am introduced to Stepa, the Nenets who tomorrow will walk with me into the tundra to find a band of reindeer herders. Their traditional livelihood has experienced a resurgence since the fall of the USSR as there are so few other ways to make a living here. The people he will take me to live a nomadic existence for three months much as their ancestors did then return to Nelmin Nos to drink for three months while others take their place in the tundra.
Stepa is so drunk he cannot focus on a map right before his eyes. "Buy a bottle from the shop," he begs me.
I forget Yury's words and, in an attempt not to have to buy him drink, stupidly admit that I have a bottle of a certain see-through drink that measures 70%!a(MISSING)lcohol content, home-brewed from berries in the back yard of a house in a remote Armenian village and whose medicinal qualities are allegedly second to none. I have brought it as a defense against the cold in the tundra but Stepa insists on having a glug now.
Throughout the day his demands for my bottle become more and more insistent. I realise I will have to start drinking it too just to limit the amount he will be able to drink. Our conversation flows, he never once leaves my side and by midnight, when he, another Nenets and I are clambering into a motorboat, we are calling each other "my friend" and "my brother".
As we skim along the surface of the water I offer the bottle to Edik, the biggest Nennets I have seen in Nelmin Nos and the owner of the boat. "I don't drink," he replies.
"Why not?" I ask.
"Because I can drink for a long time, five days without stopping."
Two hours later we arrive at a sealed metal cabin, less than two metres wide and not five long. Inside are two more Nenets, Ilya and Sasha.
"Do you want to drink?" I ask them, eager for any way to get Stepa to drink less. They are polite though and they refuse at first.
"Are you sure you don't want any?" I almost plead.
"We do want it," Sasha, a shaven-headed, weathered-faced, almost toothless man in his late thirties, suddenly replies, his eyes gleaming.
We drink most of the rest. "It's good, eh?" I ask them.
"It's alright," Sasha and Ilya reply. Damn it, I think, I've brought it all the way from rural Armenia, God only knows how many thousands of kilometres south of here, it's got to be better than alright!
Stepa collapses on the floor. He begins muttering something, trying to focus on me and crawling towards me. Sasha gets between us and motions me to the other half of the cabin, a wooden surface raised about three quarters of a metre above the floor. "Sleep there," he says, "where you'll be safe."
The next day Stepa and I journey into the tundra. Stepa drinks the remains of the Armenian stuff first thing in the morning. For eight hours we walk. He keeps collapsing and falling asleep and I begin to feel certain that we are lost. Amid an ocean of green, full of swamps and lakelets, bushes but no trees, only the smallest of hillocks, I naively believe that there is no way that this man who has spent so much of his life in the tundra can know where we are going. Yesterday he could not read a map right before his eyes so surely his claims to be able to see the chum (teepee) of the reindeer herders on the horizon, something even my 100x zoom lens cannot pick up, are rubbish. All signs of the previous day's drunken friendliness have disappeared in him to be replaced only by irritation and exhaustion.
In the end my doubts in Stepa prove unfounded. For an account of the week I live alcohol-free with the nomads, please have a look at the following blog:
Back in Naryan Mar I find myself at dinner with three visiting researchers from Tyumen university and one of the highest-ranking government officials of the neighbouring province to this one, the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. They've bought numerous bottles of a certain drink with them as well as a few of surgical spirits which they do not seem averse to drinking.
"You know I've always wanted to go to the Yamal," I tell the government official after several shots. Getting there requires almost impossibly hard-to-get permits though, as did my recent trip into the tundra, from the militsia, the FSB (former KGB) and the border guards.
"Why not then?" he exclaims, shrugging his shoulders and pouring me another shot from the glass vase containing five hundred grams, "come whenever you want and don't worry about permits!"
* * *
The husband had a fall and broke his leg, which never properly healed. For three years he was unable to leave the house. His wife could not to stop bringing him his thirst quencher of choice because he became so intolerable without it, but she limited his consumption to half a litre per day. They constantly argued and shouted. Although they never said it, deep down they still loved one another, belonged to each other.
He was diagnosed with one condition after another, one cancer then the next. The end came in hospital, and he requested that no one come see him.
* * *
This whole blog is now wandering from its subject so I will try to bring it to an end with my most recent clear liquid night in Moscow.
Two friends and I sit around a small circular table perhaps half a metre in diametre. On its surface are three bottles and a small wasteland of different foodstuffs: kolbasny syr (smoked, salted string cheese), a slab of salo (pure Ukrainian pig fat), black bread, shashlychnye sausages and a small multitude of other zakuski or drinking snacks from the nearest Produkty shop.
It has been three and a half years since that first experience in Russia and since then my confidence has bloomed.
"To Russia!" ring the toasts, always followed by a lump of black bread and a slice of the white, glistening salo.
Morning lessons for the next day get cancelled.
"We've known each other over three years, but it's been seven months since we last met up and did this!" yells Todd, "why don't we do it more often? Let's agree to do it at least twice a month from now on!"
The last metro home gets missed.
"Let's go for a walk and buy another bottle, there's a 24-hour Produkty shop five minutes from here!"
Dmitry's girlfriend gets called to tell her her he will not be home tonight.
"I raise my glass to you, relaxer of inhibitions, creator of friendships, healer of everything under the sun, destroyer of lives, relationships, families and peoples!" I never actually say this but what the hell, this whole blog is only about vodka anyway.
Click this link for advice on independent travel in Russia
, with individual sections on many beautiful, interesting, hard-to-reach and off the beaten track destinations within the country.
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