Moscow, Aug. 2: The mood was businesslike, the company’s bigwigs had taken their seats and the table was laid with small dishes of herring, pickles and black bread.
Just before 9 am the managing director filled his glass, proposed a rambling toast to his guests from Moscow and knocked it back. Three more shots followed in quick succession. When the interview was over half-an-hour later everybody around the table was halfway drunk.
Welcome to a Monday morning business meeting, Russian-style.
The setting was a factory in Barnaul, a crumbling city in central Siberia, but it could have been almost anywhere in this huge, sprawling country.
If there is one enduring reality in Russia, it is vodka. It has battled capitalism and communism, poverty and prohibition, and survived.
This year the fiery liquid that is as much a part of Russia as snow and ice celebrates its 500th anniversary. There will be no bunting or parades. Nor will it be mentioned on any official calendar.
But all over the country, in fancy Moscow bars and remote village shacks, the shot-glasses will be clinking. Statistics indicate that the average Russian man drinks a bottle every two days.
A short trip to the Russian countryside is enough to realise that, at any given time, a large percentage of the population is plastered.
“Vodka makes us strong,” said Robert Palltaler, a Siberian businessman. “Russia is a big country and very cold. How could you walk half-an-hour in minus 50 degrees without it'”
Russia’s love affair with the bottle stretches back to the time when the land was fought over by eastern European princes and marauding Asian potentates. According to legend, Prince Vladimir of Rus, forced to choose between Islam and Christianity 1,000 years ago, opted for the latter so that his subjects would not be barred from drinking.
The communists tried to bar the drink until they began rapidly losing popularity. Stalin spent much of his life drunk and during the World War II granted Soviet soldiers a ration of 100 grams of vodka a day.
When he negotiated with Churchill on dividing up post-war Europe, Soviet contemporaries say they both regularly seemed to be the worse for wear.
After one session, it is recalled, Stalin turned to worried Soviet officials and slurred: “What' You think I’m going to swap my country for a drink'”
Critics would argue that Russian leaders have been doing just that for years.
During a visit to the US, the former general secretary Leonid Brezhnev spilled the beans to Richard Nixon on the internal struggles in the politburo after one too many. He was so drunk he also forgot to discuss an important grain deal.
Boris Yeltsin’s consumption was legendary even during his presidency. Where the leaders have led, ordinary Russians have followed.
The country consumes seven billion bottles of vodka a year. More than 30,000 die annually from alcohol poisoning and hundreds of thousands more from drink-related diseases.
Police say alcohol is a factor in more than half of the thousands of murders committed in the country. Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reduce consumption contributed in large measure to him becoming the most unpopular Russian leader in modern history.
Vladimir Putin, who does not drink, has been careful to avoid meddling.