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…