This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Sparkling Socialism

Ickily sweet, bubbly and dirt cheap, no Russian celebration would be complete without the obligatory bottle (or two) of Shampanskoe, Russia’s answer to the rather more famous and – dare I say it, more palatable – French Champagne. There are many, many different varieties available in Russia today, but, beyond a shadow of a doubt the most popular is Sovetskoe Shampanskoe, available in various degrees of cloying sweetness – Brut, Semi-Dry, Semi-Sweet and Sweet – all at less than three pounds a pop. The product’s black and gold label is so ubiquitous that I assumed it had been around for years, however it was actually only in 2004 that it became a registered trademark. Nevertheless, the story of its creation is a good one, reaching back to beyond the 1917 revolution and stretching on right up to today.

Champagne (which, due to EU licensing laws that restrict the application of this title to products made in France’s Champagne region, we should technically call 'sparkling wine') first appeared in Russia during the eighteenth century. It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century, however, that production really took off. Prince Galitsyn, a Belarusian aristocrat, garnered international acclaim when his version of the fizzy drink, produced on the shores of the Black Sea in Abrau-Dyurso, won the Grand Prix de Champagne at the Paris World Fair in 1900, beating off stiff competition from the French Champagne region itself. Russian-produced Champagne, Russkoe Shampanskoe, quickly became a symbol of prestige and the high life – an example of how Russia could produce luxury products on a par with France, whose culture and way of life were so esteemed by the Tsarist court.

Then the Russian Revolution arrived, aiming to sweep away the injustices and excesses of Tsarist luxury and, along with it, champagne, which was clearly somewhat lacking in proletarian credentials. For the first ten years or so of the Soviet period, a puritanical aesthetic reigned as party loyalists attempted to purge the country of Tsarist era inequality. At a time when Communist Party officials dressed in grey overalls and stark leather coats and simply wearing a snazzy jacket was enough to incur the title ‘bourgeois’, which would likely lead to swift deportation or worse, it looked like this could be the end for Russkoe Shampanskoe.

But then something remarkable happened during the 1930s. In 1934, just one year after the Ukrainian famine during which approximately five million people starved to death, Stalin announced that the time had come to bring cultural and material prosperity to USSR. In an infamous speech, in which he claimed, ‘life has become more jolly!’, Stalin spelt out the new guidelines for Russian socialist society. No longer would people live by the principles of self-sacrifice and abstinence; the time had come to celebrate the gains of socialism. If capitalist societies could provide for their citizens, then surely the Soviet Union, with its vastly superior system of production and distribution, could too. Moreover, in contrast to their capitalist counterparts, luxury goods would be available to all citizens, not just a privileged few. And what better way to toast this new life style than with a glass of Soviet-produced Champagne, the ultimate symbol of the high life?

And so the party apparatchiks turned their attentions to the mass production of Sovetskoe Champanskoe. Under the watchful eye of the Minister of Trade, Anastas Mikoyan, Prince Galitsyn’s former employees were put to task creating a widely available Soviet variation of champagne, which they achieved by altering the fermentation technique so that champagne was made in small reservoirs rather than bottles. In 1937 the first bottle of mass-produced champagne popped off the conveyor belt – now everyone could enjoy the (achingly) sweet taste of champagne.

Of course, whilst in theory champagne was now available to everyone, things in the Soviet Union rarely occurred as they were officially described. Throughout the Soviet period a two-tier system existed, whereby those with connections could enjoy access to goods, whilst the majority went without. Certainly, champagne did not immediately appear on your average Russian’s table. Nevertheless, the widespread availability of champagne had a certain propagandistic appeal – Look! We give our citizens the best of everything – meaning that the authorities did their best to make sure everyone could experience it. Indeed, following victory in WWII, Stalin decreed that the people of Russia should celebrate with a glass of Sovetskoe, and by-and-large, they did. And so from herein, from 1937 right up to collapse in the 1991, champanskoe remained predominately available. Bizarrely, as queues built up for arguably more essential items (bread, potatoes, milk), champagne continued to be produced.

When the Soviet Union fell, Sovetskoe Champanskoe remained the generic label for any sparkling wine produced in Russia and a prerequisite for any wedding. In 2004 the name was bought by a state owned company and to this day if you ask for a glass of Shampanskoe, any barman will know exactly what it is you have in mind.

1 comment:

The Seargeant Major said...

Jolly good it is too!