Narrative brings 'King of Vodka' Pyotr Smirnov to life

— -- As a writer for BusinessWeek magazine during the 1990s, Linda Himelstein covered the story of a family with Russian roots, the Smirnovs.

Their ancestor, Pyotr Smirnov, dead since 1898, had accumulated wealth in 19th-centuryRussia against gigantic odds by rising from rural slavery (serfdom), finding his way to Moscow as a teenager, learning the commercial realm despite near illiteracy, producing vodka, then marketing the alcoholic beverage ingeniously.

After the death of the patriarch, his heirs fought relentlessly. Their inability to get along, combined with the Bolshevik Revolution in their native land and other upheavals around the globe, led to the demise of the family business.

The name Smirnov became attached to high-quality vodka again only after World War II, and only because a visionary marketer outside the family devised a plan.

When those in the Smirnov bloodline tried to wrest back their commercial heritage through the courts — the story that attracted Himelstein at BusinessWeek— they failed. Himelstein could not let the saga go, however.

"I wrote this book because I had to," she notes. "There was no choice for me. Once this little corner of 19th-century Russia grabbed me, I was lost to it."

Because so much of the material for the book resides in the former Soviet Union, and because Himelstein is not fluent in the Russian language, the degree of difficulty was enormous. That degree of difficulty makes the success of the narrative she has written especially impressive.

The first half of the book is built around Pyotr Smirnov's intense desire to overcome the burdens of serfdom to succeed at something in a grand way. His ability to achieve his goal is so impressive that Himelstein could have written a hero-worshipping account, or a maudlin rags-to-riches story. Instead, she manages to document Smirnov's rise without losing sight of his personal flaws or the socioeconomic conditions that made that rise possible — despite the improbability.

Throughout the book runs the theme of Russians' fascination with alcohol, a fascination that frequently devolved into drunkenness. Although some members of the Smirnov family fell victim to alcoholism, Pyotr never did. In fact, he became an apostle for the responsible consumption of liquor.

Another theme of the book is the need for merchants to curry favor with those inside the czarist ruling class to rise above a lot in life that barely sustained existence.

Smirnov had no obvious pathway into the czarist court and had to deal with cold rejection the first time he tried.

As Himelstein relates the story, "Smirnov now had two choices. He could lick his wounds and go on peddling vodka in the same manner he always had. Or he could craft an inspired plan, one that would assure him of the royal title he so desperately desired. It was a turning point for the vodka maker. The czar's refusal, rather than deflating Smirnov's outsized ambition, emboldened it. It aroused something deep inside the man, a creative spark that transformed Smirnov from a competent businessman into one of the most ingenious marketers of all time."

The piercing of the czarist regime and the remainder of the book are almost certain to fascinate any devoted reader.

Himelstein makes Russian history and even current politics come alive through an unlikely narrative thread — the creation of a fortune and the eventual demise of a vodka-producing family.

Steve Weinberg, who writes from Columbia, Mo., is the author of eight non-fiction books.

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