Despite a lack of documentation on Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov’s early years, Linda Himelstein’s heavily sourced “The King of Vodka, the Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire” creates an entertaining narrative of the Smirnov dynasty. Smirnov’s rags-to-riches story, as told by Himelstein, includes re-created scenes based on auxiliary history (especially regarding Smirnov’s childhood) as well as references to her inability to verify some information, but is no less inspiring for it.
Relying on what remaining records she could find, news items and the memoirs of late-generation Smirnovs, Himelstein chronicles the rise of a poor but ambitious young Smirnov to first-class merchant and Purveyor [of fine vodka] to the Imperial Court. Born in 1831, Pyotr earns his way out of serfdom even before its abolition in 1861. As a young boy, he was granted permission to work outside his home village of Yaroslavl, and went to work in Uglich where his uncle Grigoriy had established successful businesses. Grigoriy’s taverns and inns served drinks far superior to the moonshine being made in small villages like Yaroslavl, and it was from Grigoriy, who had “almost at random” taken the name of Smirnov, that Pyotr was inducted into the world of entrepreneurship.
The way Himelstein tells it, Smirnov is an upstanding, flawless individual who by sheer virtue of his own hard work becomes a highly successful, very rich patriarch. Even though the awards, titles and advances that Smirnov sought were dependent on a merchant’s philanthropic efforts, she offers plenty of evidence of Smirnov’s generosity within the community. And during a time when ill-treated employees were rioting and striking against the competition, his employees were reportedly treated with exceptional fairness and respect. There were political changes that contributed to Smirnov’s success as well, including the shift toward a more liberal Russia.
Later on, however, the evolving political landscape leads to a government-imposed vodka monopoly and the ultimate demise of the Smirnov business. Himelstein posits that the main purpose of the monopoly was to increase revenue for the government, but also writes of an honest grassroots movement to instill a sense of temperance among Russians who were known all over Europe for their unfettered drinking practices. Alcoholism was widespread and contributed to unemployment, crime and the demise of the Russian military. Also contributing to the temperance movement were authors Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoevskiy who make brief but important appearances in The King of Vodka.
Much more of the book is devoted to the next generation of Smirnovs who lack the dedication and business acumen their father possessed. Born into privilege and wealth, they live assuming, reckless lives – often embarrassing their hard-working father of more humble roots. But their marriages, children, illnesses, affairs, failures and successes all make for entertaining reading. After Pyotr the patriarch passes away in 1898 and his third wife a few months later, the Smirnovs find Russia at war with Germany and themselves at war with each other. Business-related disagreements are overshadowed by squabbles about inheritance, and the future of what was once an empire in its own right remains precarious at best. Revolution brings new challenges and being members of the elite, the Smirnovs become enemies of the lower classes. Many wealthy Russians are forced to flee, some are arrested and others suffer an even worse fate at the hands of the Red Army and the Cheka. The family ends up somewhat estranged and although what happens to the business is blurry in legal terms, licensing and distribution rights are sold throughout Europe and, in 1933, to a Russian émigré living in the United States.
With more than one million cases being sold in the U.S. by 1955, Smirnov – now Smirnoff – vodka had secured a large share of the market. The story behind its rise to success is full of surprise, intrigue and politics that coincide with World War I, the death of the last Russian tsar, and the growth of communism in Russia. A business writer by trade who bears an obvious respect for Pyotr Smirnoff, Linda Himelstein’s extensive research renders an interesting tale packed with history, struggle and success amid political upheaval that might inspire readers to do some research of their own. The King of Vodka is her first book.
The King of Vodka by Linda Himelstein
HarperCollins, May 2009