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Through a Glass, Very Darkly

by Andrew Stuttaford

Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State, by Mark Lawrence Schrad (Oxford, 512 pp., $35)

If you cannot face going to Russia to see the real thing — in a dank Moscow underpass perhaps, or a broken attempt at a village — the best introduction to that nation’s drinking culture is to meet up with Venya, the narrator of Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line, a strange, bleakly comic, forbidden masterpiece of the early Brezhnev era. In the course of its first page, he drinks four vodkas, two beers, port “straight from the bottle,” and then, more vaguely, “something else.” It’s downhill from there.

In meandering, chaotic prose, Erofeev describes a drink-sodden, phantasmagoric train journey, punctuated by depictions of decay, echoes of Russia’s past, and recipes for cocktails that would make Appalachia blanch. With luck, no Russians ever drank “The Spirit of Geneva” (White Lilac, athlete’s foot remedy, Zhiguli beer, and alcohol varnish), but, as Mark Schrad, an assistant professor at Villanova University, notes in his absorbing, no less drink-sodden, not much less meandering, and even more horrifying Vodka Politics, they came close, not least during the time when Mikhail Gorbachev was cracking down on alcohol production:

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