Given that I live in the centre of two cities when in the Green and Pleasant land, alcoholics are not really a shocking sight. I shall expand on this further and say that the occasional person drinking beer in the street is not shocking. It’s usually Special Brew and they’ll be sat in the same place or in the same area walking on a daily basis. Fine. A little tragic of course, but it happens, it’s society. I’m not going to go on about the ills of alcohol here, I’m just going to write about cultural differences as I have experienced them.
What I didn’t expect to see, even having lived in Russia for a month before coming to Piter, was the amount of people drinking beer in the street while going about their daily business. The people who walk around drinking beer during the day are generally accepted to be alcoholics in England. This is not the same in Russia.
People drink beer as if it were coca cola or red bull in Petersburg. They drink it while walking to the shops, they drink it as part of their lunch (a little more acceptable), they drink it while walking around monuments. I saw people in the Peterhof on a day trip drinking beer. If it had been England, it probably would have been orange squash, or pepsi as a treat.
This is because beer has such a low alcohol content, compared to vodka or konjak for example, that until 2010, it was considered a foodstuff. In Russian legislature, until the law changed under Medvedev, any product containing less than 10% alcohol by volume was considered to be a food. Even now, this new legal recognition of beer as being alcoholic largely only impacts the level of tax paid on it – it has nothing to do with the licensing in actual practise. I couldn’t tell you if that is what was meant to happen or not, but anyway, theory and practise are often two very different things.
This brings me to my next point that beer is actually the most popular alcoholic beverage in Russia – despite most people’s preconceptions that it is vodka. Beer here is exceptionally cheap – about £1 a pint. OK, I say that, it is cheap by London prices. I’m sure any students in Liverpool or similar reading this will think that £1 a pint is not that cheap compared to their Tuesday night hangout, but that’s not the point! In Kazan, there was any number of beer shacks every 50 yards up the main street, emblazoned with beer brands. I could recite a list to you right now just based on what I picked up when walking to the Institute every day. I’m not talking about Kronenbourg either – the Russian beer industry is absolutely thriving.
Russia definitely does have a different perception of alcohol from the UK. I saw a group of Russian men ordering a bottle of vodka “for the table” in the Turkish restaurant that was one of our more frequent haunts in Kazan. In England, this would have been a bottle of water; in France, a bottle of wine. There is a comparatively relaxed attitude to what is considered small amounts of alcohol. In the summer, a popular drink is a beer-like beverage made from fermented bread called kvas, which is really popular amongst adults and children alike. This is considered a soft drink, even though it is mildly alcoholic - I think it may be something like 2%. While this isn't a lot, admittedly, it exists nevertheless. Oh and it tastes rather odd, but you have to try it once, right?
I have also been told an interesting point about the culture of money and oligarchs. In England, it is the “done” thing to do to boast about how much money one has saved when buying something. In Russia, it is all about how much one has spent.
In England – “I only paid half price for this!”
In Russia – “I paid double the price for this”
This is reflected in the sale of vodka and the trend for oligarchs and suchlike to buy French vodka such as the “Grey Goose” brand. This is not because it is regarded as the best vodka, but it is supposed to be the most expensive.
Can we therefore consider French vodka to be the new purple?