A heady tale of tying one on royally - and, after briefly enjoying
the ride, paying the consequences.For hundreds of years, writes
business journalist Himelstein, vodka has been at once Russia's
curse and its fuel, the stuff whereby its soldiers brought Napoleon
and Hitler to ruin but condemned themselves and their compatriots
to misery as well. Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov knew that misery well.
Born into serfdom in a time of cholera and appalling infant
mortality rates, he had the luck of being manumitted in the
mid-19th century, at a period when the royal monopoly on certain
kinds of alcohol manufacture was being relaxed. All he had to do
was swear to not being a Jew, among a few other qualifications, and
Smirnov was able to set up shop and acquire a fortune that, in
time, "topped 10 million rubles (roughly $132.7 million), making
him one of the wealthiest men in all of Russia." Smirnov's good
fortune - and that of his rivals the Popovs and other distillers
great and small - was that the tsarist's statisticians had acquired
a keen appreciation of how much revenue alcohol sales brought the
state. Of course, this had negative consequences too, and some of
the most interesting passages in Himelstein's well-constructed
narrative concern the delicate balance that Russia's leaders have
had to strike between abstemiousness and alcoholic ruin in order
the keep the wheels of the state turning. Smirnov's success came at
a price to his heirs, beginning with a reimposition of the state
monopoly on alcohol near the time of his death and continuing with
the rise of communism, when some Smirnovs disappeared into the
Gulag while others escaped to the West - including one who founded
subsidiary ventures that, in 1934, would see the manufacture of the
storied vodka in the United States.A well-concocted blend of
business and political history. (Kirkus Reviews)
Plumbing recently unearthed archives and mountains of primary
sources, Himelstein has uncovered a rich historical record. In
prose that's vivid and assured, she takes the reader beyond the
formation of one of the oldest brands in business history and into
the personal lives of the Smirnov family and the tumultuous events
that lead to the Revolution. Authoritative, illuminating, and
deeply engrossing, "The Vodka King" is a monumental work of
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