The national sport of the Soviet Union, as you know, is drinking. The country's national obsession is not politics; it is drinking. Its current national crisis is neither the economy nor the break-away republics; it is drinking. Its national idol is neither Raisa nor Yeltsin, but the Hero Workers of the Soviet vodka works. The reason: Making vodka is what Soviets do best.
Think about it. You pay top dollar for a bottle of Stolichnaya, right? What other Soviet product, from guns to butter, from autos to fashion, do you think of as the best of its kind in the world?
Even Soviet weapons, once prized by every murdering despot on the planet, sell at discounts in second-hand arms bazaars since laser-guided American missiles blew away all those T-52 tanks in Iraq.
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So it only stands to reason that, when one is in the Soviet Union one does as the Soviets do.
Some of this drinking is actually required, in effect, by Soviet law. A group of friends and I, driving into the Ukraine from Poland, were curtly informed by Soviet border police that we could not bring our bottle of heathen Polish vodka into Mother Russia. Pouring it out was unthinkable, so we bought some awful orange soda, mixed it 50-50 with the vodka (we couldn't find any ice), drank the whole bottle and tooled tipsily into the Worker's Paradise under the benevolent smiles of the guards.
But vodka isn't the only thing Soviets drink. Did you know the USSR makes a billion gallons of wine a year, twice the United States output, third in the world only to France and Italy?
Trouble is, none of it is any good.
I had a Soviet wine once that tasted vaguely like a feeble port, only muddier. It had a picture of power-generating equipment on the label and was named "Hydrook," after the local hydro-electric station. The name was apt.
The Soviets do make one pretty good "champagne" -- a sweet one they serve at diplomatic receptions with caviar. It's OK, a testimonial to the fact that enough sugar can cover up anything.
But take it as an axiom: Socialist countries can't make good wine. Economies geared to smelting 50-ton tractors simply lack the mind-set for it.
Somehow, vodka is different. I don't know why.
But I know that the only thing Soviets do better than making vodka is drinking it. Maybe it's because besides making it, there's little else to do there.
The problem is, vodka makes Russians maudlin. And when they're maudlin, they start blathering about world peace. It's a one-to-one ratio. A glass of vodka, a teary-eyed paeon to world peace. Another glass, another world saved.
"Za mir," they snuffle, glasses raised. "To peace."
So there I was in Tashkent, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, in Soviet Central Asia, 3,000 miles southeast of Moscow, 7,500 miles northeast of Miami.
It was a scene out of a B movie from the 1940s. I was with a group of Americans in the modern Hotel Uzbekistan. We were drinking the sweet champagne, eating caviar and smoked sturgeon and dark bread. A few couples were box-stepping to an industrial-strength orchestra that was inexplicably clanking out the Sheena Easton hit, Morning Train.
Suddenly a figure loomed over our table -- a massive Soviet pharmacist named Massif Tors. Massif was drunk. Carrying his bottle of vodka, he lurched up to Ruth, a matronly member of our group, bowed formally, thrust out his meaty hands and uttered the only English words he knew: "I want."
Massif only wanted to dance. Ruth wanted to be back in Akron.
Sensing defeat, Massif sat down heavily at our table and poured a glass of vodka for himself and one for me. Atranslator came by, introduced us, told me Massif was very drunk but intensely concerned about world peace, and left.
No matter. We were communicating now. Massif raised his glass, solemnly intoned the words "Za mir."
"Za mir." We drank.
He taught me to drink Soviet-style. Sons of the Steppes do not toss back the fiery glassful in a single gulp. That's for Americans and other capitalist running weasels. Soviets place glass to lip and drain it with excruciating slowness, lengthening the time the warming liquid has to slither languidly, lovingly over your tongue, across your palate, down your throat and into your stomach and increasing the opportunity for its fumes to insinuate intoyour very capillaries, thus maximizing the effect on your system.
Down banged the glasses. Up came the bottle. Two more shots.
Long, slow draw. Gasp. Again.
Massif caught me in a bear hug, kissed me on the cheek.
The ballroom quieted. The American table watched. In their eyes, Massif became Nikita Khrushchev, his shoe pounding that United Nations table, his peasant voice bellowing: "We will bury you!"
I was Sylvester Stallone. Or maybe Chuck Norris. Things weren't all that clear at the moment.
Again. Again. "Za mir!" "Za mir!" Another gulp, another gasp, another bear hug and, this time, Massif aimed for my lips. I turned the other cheek.
Massif was not offended. Massif was barely conscious. He arose wordlessly, wobbled, shuffled back to his table. He slumped at his plate, face down in his creamy salad. A friend pounded him on the back, trying to arouse him. In vain.
My God! I had drunk a Soviet under the table with vodka. With nothing like his decades of experience. What a thrill. And what a shock. No wonder communism collapsed. That'll teach 'em to mess with Americans.
But that was years ago. Today the Cold War is over.
And Massif, my comrade, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, I have a small confession. My wife, alarmed at my suicidal course, had sidled over and, ever since the second shot, had been filling my glass withmineral water, while you kept pouring yourself vodka.
I'd been firing blanks. Call it stealth vodka.
Sorry, Massif. Za mir!