On what they hate about us.

Once upon a time you asked a Russian if he’d enjoyed his recent business trip to Great Britain.

“Yes,” he said, “London was great. But,” he added, a look of slightly shocked disgust sliding over his face, “the British really drink far too much.”

This isn’t an isolated opinion either but pretty much the the first comment on the British way of life every Russian tourist makes on returning from their first trip to the UK.

You always find this faintly amusing. Mainly because the Russians are largely oblivious to their reputation in Britain as the hardest of hardened hard drinkers. That no British backpacker’s travelogue about the former Soviet Union is complete without a story of losing a battle of vodka shots with the locals. And that it’s obligatory that every year the Times newspaper runs a story about Russians getting drunk in the hot summer sunshine before drowning themselves by unwise swimming. Although that’s partly a comment on the fact that the Times frequently seems surprised that it doesn’t snow all the time in Moscow (and there aren’t bears roaming the streets).

It’s also true that the aspect of Russian life which causes that repulsed disapproving look on the face of British visitors to Moscow is seeing large sections of the population – young, old, men and women – nursing a beer or a can of ginntonic in full public view on the metro on their way from, and occassionally to, work.

What it all boils down to, of course, isn’t how much is drunk but how, and frankly ‘vast’ is the only way to describe the difference in drinking cultures between the two countries.

The first thing there is to understand is that in Russia society is divided sharply into two as far as attitudes towards drinking is concerned. You’ve got your respectable people and you’ve got your alcoholics. The alcoholics are the ones who you see in movies carefully pouring out a whole tumbler of vodka and then necking it in one go. It’s not that this isn’t a recognisable stereotype, but it’s not what most people actually do when it comes to vodka.

For most people, serious vodka drinking is strictly something that isn’t done unless it is accompanied by astonishingly large amounts of food. This means a five hour feast where there is at least three times as much food on the table as it seems can possibly be eaten although the insistent encouragement of the hostess cuts that down to only twice as much as is actually consumed. Of course, a huge amount of vodka will be drunk, but only in response to toasts, which means at measured intervals rather than all at once, and a lot of it will be sopped up by the food. Or the dancing. Or possibly the singing.

You are prepared to concede at this point that what you are talking about here is mixed company socialising. It’s highly likely that on the rare occasions when the company is all male there a little less food and rather more frequent toasting. You suspect it’s a combination of this and the fact that Russians of all sexes are practitioners of aggressive hospitality par excellance which leads to the travellers’ tales. That and the fact that Brits are not, on the whole, very good at the whole eating while drinking thing and are probably ignoring the food, and the soft drinks provided for sipping between toasts for that matter.

And basically even the most hardened Russian alcoholic wouldn’t dream of chucking back 200ml of samagon without chasing it with a bit of black bread and a salt cucumber. This is essentially the main reason why Russians are so horrified when they pitch up in a British pub of a Friday night.

The sight of so many people gathering in a place which is dedicated only to drinking, the sight of so many full, empty and half drunk glasses on a table entirely bare of food except for a couple of sad looking crisp packets, and the sight of such steady, dedicated and unbroken consumption of alcohol is genuinely shocking for Russians. And it doesn’t help that back home, while a bit of orderly public drinking is ok, public drunkenness definitely isn’t.

This sort of thing puts the British as a whole pretty firmly into the alcoholics’ camp. And the real point here is there is nothing more disdainful than a Russian from the respectable group talking about People Who Drink Too Much.

Except when they get onto the topic of gratuitous swearing perhaps…

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13 comments

  1. Awesome post. Jamaica’s drinking culture isn’t as prominent as England’s or Russia’s. If I had to choose it would probably be closer to Russia’s–there simply aren’t a lot of pubs/bars in Jamaica where respectable people just go to drink. My image of most bars (outside of hotels) before I moved to Canada was of dingy spots with old drunk hobos and idlers with the obligatory hearty waitress.

  2. Great post. Thanks to Hollywood, Russians are usually seen as a heavy drinking lot. But when I think about it, I’ve seen a hell of a lot more Brits pissed out of their tree than I’ve seen Russians in the same state.

    When I lived in Japan, beer was a common drink on a train platform as well. It didn’t mean that if you were drinking a beer on a hot day, you were fixin’ to get drunk. It just happened to be the drink of choice. I often wonder if this would be the case in North America if we could buy and drink alcohol anywhere we pleased.

  3. What a great post. I too have this image of Russians as big drinkers, so it’s good to have that altered somewhat. I live in Germany, where kids can drink wine and beer from the age of 16. While alcohol is a big part of society here, what’s more pleasing about the boozing going on is that it’s seldom aggressive and it’s very mixed age-wise. So if there’s a local fest (and we do love a fest) everyone, from the 16-year-olds to the pensioners, will be sitting on the bierbaenke having their beer. It’s more sociable and less frenetic than English public drinking, which seems to be about getting as pissed as possible as fast as possible.

  4. In Russia, there aren’t that many places you can just go to drink either, and in Moscow at least most of them are the expat bars of various English speaking denominations now I think about it.

    I suppose the beer on the metro thing is the equivalent of pouring yourself one gnt when you get home? Although I don’t know why they don’t just drink it at home. You’re right about it just being what they feel like drinking (_one_ of) right now. I also don’t think that the Russians really consider beer to be proper alcohol. I suspect that their disgust with the British is partly based on their mild horror at the idea of beer as being something to try to get drunk on.

    Anyway, I started off thinking about Russia, but your three comments have really got me thinking about the UK. And what’s obvious is that we have a really weird attitude towards alcohol compared with, well, everywhere else. It’s true that British drinking culture is, as Charlotte says, really just about getting drunk.

    We do seem to have an inkling that there might be something wrong. We are calling the whole Friday night thing Binge Drinking and wringing our hands about it at the moment.

    But I don’t think we’ve made the connection that this is just a logical extension of our drinking culture more generally.

    I think some of the things we’ve been blaming are symptoms rather than causes of this: town pubs mostly exist to serve alcohol which means their entrie profit margins are based on trying to pour as much alcohol into everyone as fast as possible. But they only exist because it’s all about the drinking in the first place.

    Likewise, people say that pubs closing at 11 puts pressure on everyone to make sure they are thoroughly drunk before that, which is part of the reason for the frenetic way the British behave when confronted with alcohol, but doesn’t really address the problem of why it’s so important to get drunk in the first place.

    I wonder what would happen if we closed down the pubs for five years or so?

    *Rolls up sleves and prepares for a bit of social engineering*

  5. Ah the town centre high street with bar after bar after bar of high speed vertical drinking establishments. Going to a pub and drinking with friends is different. I mean there are places to sit and you can have a chat and put the world to rights, rather than have to stand up holding (a rather expensive) drink with nowhere to place it down which means you drink faster. No chance of conversation over the music, so you drink faster.

  6. Well, yes, I agree and that sort of quiet drinking in pubs is great. I miss it, in fact. Maybe I’m getting old, but I don’t find much opportunity to do that on a weeknight for logistical reasons and if I wanted to do that at the weekend I wouldn’t be able to because _all_ the pubs I know about within reasonable radius of where I’m likely to be turn into lagar lout factories. Most of them are on weeknights too, for that matter.

    In fact, me and a few people staggered out of a concert (classical, if you must know. Do I sound 55 or what?) at around ten a couple of weeks ago on a Saturday and wandered off to find a pub for a quiet drink before going our seperate ways. And ended up huddled in a corner of what normally lokks quite a respectable establishment for all the bar area has a grass roof, with techno music pumping from somewhere down the other end and next to a table of 20 somethings waving bottles of champagne who periodically got up to lurch round in a manner I think they fondly thought was dancing and… well, you get the point. I thought at the time that this was _not_ what I signed up to pub culture for.

    I know we’ve suggested before this might be a Nodnol thing, though.

  7. I would invite you to my local in the village but when I went up last night it was full of people from (gasp) elsewhere! That and a small brass band playing christmas carols and other seasonal stuff. Not much in the way of small talk to be had standing next to the big bass tuba.

    Even in Nodnol there are still pub pubs rather than bars, though 10pm on a saturday it might be pushing it to find one.

  8. And I can’t have the moon on a stick because…?

    *Green with envy regarding your pub and the brass band* Ah but then I’d have to live in a village… B would go nuts.

  9. Very nice festive decor in here.

    I grew up in Italy and I tell you, Italians too, for all their glasses of wine every lunch, think we British are but totally the drunkenest louts. I remember a friend of ours staying with us in Nodnol, and talking about the previous night out with my brother (who, in his youth, was the Champion Liver of Leather for our street).

    ‘Why do you drink so much?’ he asked, politely.

    ‘Because it’s fun, it’s what all blokes do together, with your mates, it’s great, you can get really hammered…’ mumbled my brother, fumbling with the paracetamol bottle and necking black coffee.

    ‘But you were sick. You were sick, in fact, four times,’ said friend, astonished.

    ‘Yeah, it’s great, it’s like, I was that hammered. It’s fun.’

    ‘But why is it fun to drink until you vomit?’ friend wailed, piteously.

    After a long pause, my brother said, or, rather muttered, that it gave him something to talk about next time he was out drinking with his mates.

    At which point I took pity on him and opened the pill bottle for him.

    Now that my brother is married with two kids and a mortgage, and therefore needs his liver and his brain of a morning, he doesn’t even know where those particular friends even live any more. I like to think in part because we introduced him to at least one person whose cultural upbringing made him perfectly capable of spending an evening nursing one beer and talking intelligibly throughout.

  10. It is nice, isn’t it?

    Great story! One of the people down the pub on the night of drunken revelry which inspired this post was Italian. He was very tactful about how odd he found us all:

    “In Italy, we wouldn’t do this,” he said, waving an arm at the evidence of the gallons of alcohol already drunk and yet to be consumed, “but this is good too, I’m sure.”

    He drank one beer all evening.

    One of those things the British have to come to terms with, I reckon, is that their fond belief that Continentals view us as exceedingly polite gentlepeople with a stiff upper lip and a subtle sense of humour isn’t really correct.

    Long exposure to package holidaymakers and football fans means they tend more towards the view that the British are fat and badly dressed, and the men are drunkan hooligans and the women are drunken sluts.

    And the Russians have a saying: ‘thin English humour’. They say it when someone has made a joke which isn’t funny _at all_.

  11. Interesting post this, from more than one aspect.

    The Finnish side of me is used to the Russian way of drinking – never on an empty stomache, and always in company with lots of food. Never in a rush, usually over the time of several hours, no music, lots of conversations.

    The Swedish side of me is, however, more accustomed to binge drinking, with little or no food to go with it, loud music, impossible to hear what anyone is saying.

    Years ago, Swedes used to be notorious in Spain for their behaviour at what we call ‘grisfest’ (pig party, literally – whole pigs being roasted over open fire, all the wine you can drink). It was an almost compulsary, and also very popular, activity for charter travellers.

    Last I heard though, the Brits are considered the worst charter drinkers in Spain – wasn’t there some kind of documentary (BBC?) about their behaviour (which was quite appalling, by the way).

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