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 Natyurlikh

Christian Diemer comes from Germany and spent time in Russia and Ukraine

I spent half a year in Saint Petersburg and everyone, from my mum to my fellow German bar hoppers, was unshakeably convinced I must have become addicted to vodka there. The truth is that I maybe never drank as little vodka in my life as in Saint Petersburg. I hate vodka and usually never drink it deliberately, either in Russia or at home.

Yukon_White_Light
Photo: Yukon White Light (flickr)
In Saint Petersburg, beer is the new vodka

I drank beer. Russian beer culture is an unknown realm to most Western Europeans, leading far beyond the Gorbachev and Yelzin bottles crowding our supermarket shelves. Imagine a country where lugging a crate of beer, which carves itself in the flesh of your hand, is banned from mankind's daily sorrows --as crates of beer don't exist. A country where rushing for the only petrol station in a night-time deserted industrial estate to find their last can of beer sold out is a growth of nightmarish fantasy – because here, you find that on every corner, on every street, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you can grab a divinely cooled can-to-go… A country where beer is set free from the shackles of merciless 0.5 litre glass or aluminium containers, where it spreads itself out without hindrance, gently held together only by a smooth and volatile plastic wallet of 1.0, 1.5, 2.0 and even 5.0 litres!

It was not easy for me to get used to my life in Saint Petersburg, and – with almost no Russian knowledge at the beginning, ghettoised in an eerie dorm for foreigners – it was especially hard to get into contact with Russians. So I have to admit that Russian beer was in my life already before I could say that any Russians imposed it on me. Though, even later, when I drank together with Russians, it stayed beer, not vodka.

One exception: my first date with my Russian friend, in a bar on Nevsky, the chic luxury boulevard. I ordered a Mojito, having in mind Pierce Brosnan's come-on to Hale Berry: "Magnificent view – Mojito?" I vaguely remembered that someone had told me that a man drinking cocktails in Russia could be considered "goluboy" (gay). But she was a cosmopolitan, iPhone-equipped young go-getter, so I rather expected her to join in. No, she said, I don't drink, I've never drunk before, I don't understand people drinking. You only live twice: hot chocolate for the two of us from then on.

My next Russian acquaintances, living in a cheap flat in a god-forsaken village near Saint-Petersburg, were more or less drunk whenever I met them, and maybe came closer to what a typical Russian should be like. Still it was only once that Pasha had to go to his brother, who was in a bad way for some reason, to drink a bottle of vodka with him, to be fine again. In fact, whenever I was with him and his friends: beer. Beer from bottles, beer from cans, beer from plastic canisters. Beer for at home, beer for the street, beer for the lake. Beer for the afternoon, beer for the night, beer for breakfast.

My start in Russia was weird, I felt distant to Russians, and it seemed to me that Russians felt distant to me, an unhappy intercultural perception. Maybe Bagbier became my favourite Russian beer exactly for that reason: because it seemed to me exactly what Russians deem German, without evidently having a clue.

The placards in the metro: „Achtung!“ (attention), „Verboten!“ (forbidden), with a huge 5 litres Bagbier canister smashing the prohibiting signs. In the background a traditional German town square with half-timbered gable houses, a Franconian idyll. Especially the „Verboten!“ was a bit odd to me, as my basic experience as a newcomer to Russia was that nearly everything allowed in Germany was „zapreshchenno“ (forbidden) in Russia.

Or the labels on the PET bottles: „Bagbier!“ „Das Qualitätsbier!“ (the quality beer), „Jaja, natürlich!“ (yes, yes, of course). „Natyurlikh!“ on some placards or labels even exists in cyrillic letters. But everything is topped by the backside of the 5 litres canister. A German hodgepodge in several columns that seems to tell the very, very weird version of the tale of the kings’ children separated by a river, ending with a cryptic conclusion indicating that where there are a lot of people, a lot of beer is needed and where is a lot of Bagbier there must be – jaja, natürlich – a lot of good people.

It was much later that I found out that Bagbier is one brand of InBev, since 2004 the world’s largest brewing company with headquarter in Löwen, Belgium. It also owns the epitomes of German beer culture: Franziskaner, Löwenbräu, Spaten, Diebel’s, Beck’s

Russian beer culture is an unknown realm to most Western Europeans, leading far beyond the Gorbachev and Yelzin bottles crowding our supermarket shelves

Change of scene. I am in Sakhnovschyna, a tiny village near Kharkiv, east Ukraine. Goose, goats, pigs all around, drowsy nature in green-gilded sunshine, and somehow this golden, dazzling, almost bilious green seems to seep into the overgrown gardens with the battered Ladas on the lawn, through the cottages and little houses, over the pitted roads or field paths, thus quietly turning the settlement into a scene of nature itself.

I have been drinking vodka for all the past days. With pot-bellied mayors, with moustache-sporting headmasters, with daring army activists, with puffy, garlic-smelling babushki (grandmothers). No, not everyone drinks vodka. The young guys and especially the girls often neither smoke nor drink, for the sake of their health, beauty, future children. The elder ones do. Some offer samogon (self-destilled vodka) for breakfast at 6 a.m., before setting off into the countryside for a couple of shots with a rifle.

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Photo: Christian Diemer
Some Ukrainians drink vodka at all hours, even at 6 a.m.

Sakhnovschyna, evening, I'm on my way home, passing by a nightly illuminated little supermarket, men smoking outside, voices, laughter, singing from the inside. The village musicians, I am told. Big hello inside. Middle-aged men and women, eating, drinking, faces each with distinctive features, looking older and more furrowed than they might actually be. When I'm introduced to them, one claims to have German roots, shows me his blue eyes, shouts the few German and English words he knows, "all gut" mainly, with radiant eyes, and for the rest of the evening doesn't stop anymore running around wildly, bringing me vegetables, bacon fat, omelette… And vodka. One after the other. "Ne mozhno, nuzhno!!" ("not just possible, compulsory!") They play music for me, an old accordion, a guitar out of tune, and their rough voices are fuelled with emotion and passion. They phone my host mother, who is waiting for me at home, of course they know her. She'll come and join us, they shout, and she brings her own samogon with her!

KEY WORDS

Pivo: beer. Pivnyy Bar: beer bar. Pivnyy Dom: beer house. Zhivoe Pivo: Living beer (without preservative, a speciality in Russia and Ukraine). Kuda idyote? – Za pivo idyom!: Where do you go? – For a beer we go!

Jorsh: The perfect synthesis of this article: a half-litre suicide bomb, consisting of equal parts of vodka and beer. Ice cold, please, because it is disgusting anyway.

Bukhat’: to drink excessively. When a Ukrainian mayor's first question was, where we would "bukhat’", I was discreetly told that he must have contacts to the criminal milieu, because otherwise he wouldn't use that word…

She comes, she sits down, looking a bit shy, while the fat woman and the gaunt Armenian on the other side of the table start a somewhat obscene hugging session, screeching and roaring with laughter. She smiles a bit sadly when I tell her that I like her samogon, I like it a lot more than vodka, I still hate vodka, but I made friends with this samogon. It's basically bread, sugar and water, she tells me, that she puts together in a vacuum canister, and after a couple of weeks behind the cottage there's samogon inside. It's strong, about 50% alcohol, but the taste is rather mild, a bit like Raki (the Turkish schnapps flavoured with aniseed). The Armenian shows his golden teeth, the fat woman shouts with joy, the sturdy accordion player raises his powerful, dark voice for another song, everyone wants to join in, and my German bloodbrother is hopping up and down around the table with excitement, the samogon in his hand…

I have to leave for a minute. Too much emotion, too much hospitality. Not even too much samogon, it goes fine together with the bacon fat they provide me with. On the lonely road outside, behind the chestnut trees, in the moonlight, I see the silver double crosses on top of the village church. My guest mother's husband made them himself, they told me before. He died because of the Chernobyl catastrophe. I think of the house I will soon return to with my guest mother, the house she lives in with her small boy and his toys. The house is cosy, but still seems as if there should have been space for the happiness of more than just two people.

I stand on the lonely street, the stars in the clear summer sky above me, the taste of samagon in my mouth, for a while I cry.

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