Russia's strange bread-sniffing ritual
“Somebody in Bristol started making a vodka called Novichok,” said our host, Natasha Ward, faux-scandalised at the reference to the toxic nerve agent. “And they were immediately told, ‘Stop it at once!’” She laughed as she finished setting the table for the day’s gathering in her home in South London, introducing the dishes as one might introduce guests at a party. “We start with herring, salted, not pickled – English people hate beetroot because they’ve only ever met it in this horrible vinegar, and those rollmop herrings that look like corpses, you know?”
Ward is a master of moving between cultures. She’s half-Russian, half-English, and has worked as an interpreter for such diverse parties as the United Nations, Angelina Jolie and Mikhail Gorbachev. Today’s task – explaining exactly why Russian people might sniff bread while drinking vodka – may not be quite so starry, but it does offer a portal into the realities of Russian life at a time when sympathetic cultural insight is sorely lacking.
沃德是在不同文化之间游走的高手。她有一半俄罗斯血统，一半英国血统，曾为各种不同的机构和人士做过翻译，包括联合国的机构、美国好莱坞巨星安洁莉娜‧朱莉（Angelina Jolie）和戈尔巴乔夫（Mikhail Gorbachev）在内。她今天的任务是向我解释俄罗斯人为什么会在喝伏特加的时候必定要嗅闻面包。这个任务可能不如她之前的工作那么耀眼，但在一个文化洞察力极度缺乏的时代，这的确为我们提供了一个了解俄罗斯人真实生活情况的窗口。
To armchair observers, relations between Russia and the West currently seem cartoonishly chilly; there was more than a touch of Cold War frost to recent news reports about the Russian and American withdrawal from a nuclear weapons treaty, the Salisbury nerve agent poisonings in the UK and, of course, the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“We were happy when the Russian football team finally lost,” said Anna Ivanov, while her husband Misha shrugged. Anna and Misha are the parents of Ward’s best friend, Helena Bayliss, and the couple moved here from Russia 20 years ago when their daughter married an Englishman. “When the team were winning, there was so much hot air in everything the media said. The mouth didn’t shut for a moment!”
当然，2018年俄罗斯世界杯是个例外。“俄罗斯队最后输了的时候，我们很高兴，”安娜·伊万诺夫（Anna Ivanov）说。她丈夫米沙（Misha）则耸了耸肩。他们的女儿海伦娜·贝利斯（Helena Baylis）是沃德最好的朋友。20年前贝利斯嫁给了一个英国人，他们便从俄罗斯移民到了英国。“俄罗斯队赢球的时候，媒体说了很多大话，嘴巴一刻都没合上过！”
“Now,” Ward said, “which vodka shall we start with?”
The choice was impressive, as it should be. Russia, after all, is the birthplace of the chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, who created the Periodic Table and is also said to have perfected the recipe for vodka as strictly 40% proof (a popular myth but a fun story). Accordingly, Ward offered fiery pertsovka vodka made with chillies, plain Russian vodka, vodka made in Newfoundland as part of a new venture by Hollywood actor Dan Aykroyd and homemade limonaya (lemon) vodka. “This is actually medical alcohol which is 95% proof,” said Ward matter-of-factly, “which you then water down, half and half, and add lemon.” Moonshine, in other words? “No, if it was moonshine we’d have to have a still.” Bayliss started laughing. “Natasha, you disappoint!”
他们最终的选择令人印象深刻，这倒也顺理成章，因为俄罗斯毕竟诞生了化学家门捷列夫（Dmitri Mendeleev）。门捷列夫不仅发明了元素周期表，据说还完善了伏特加的配方，将其酒精度严格限定为40度（此说法流传甚广，但只是一个有趣的故事而已）。因此，沃德拿出了用辣椒、纯俄罗斯伏特加、好莱坞演员艾克罗伊德（Dan Aykroyd）在纽芬兰打造的伏特加和自制的柠檬伏特加调制的烈性珀特索伏卡伏特加（pertsovka vodka）。沃德实事求是地说，“这其实是一种医用酒精，酒精度95度，然后按一比一的比例兑水，再加入柠檬。”换句话说，这就是私酿酒？“不是，如果是私酿酒，我们得有蒸馏器。”贝利斯大笑起来。“娜塔莎，你真让我失望！”
Our little company was assembled for two reasons: firstly, to have a convivial time; and secondly, to get the bottom of the Russian vodka ritual – a time-honoured tradition that has social drinkers sniffing bread in the name of propriety.
To begin, both the vodka and the glasses were retrieved from the freezer, and Bayliss outlined the essentials for drinking vodka, Russian-style. “Vodka should be cold, glass should be tiny and there must be something salty, or rye bread, to follow,” she said. “There’s no point in drinking vodka and following it with an eclair, it doesn’t work”. “Or,” added Ward, “God forbid, following it with nothing!”
The freezing temperature of the drink is a no-brainer; it sends the shot down the throat more comfortably. “It’s not something you sip and savour,” Bayliss said. So why do people drink it? Her mother laughed. “Well, the afterwards, the glow!”
The glow, in fact, is how I first encountered the Russian bread-sniffing ritual. Ward is the mother of my best friend Marsha, and as wayward teenagers, Marsha and I were more than happy to sit in on the gatherings her mother held following her work trips to Russia, the table heaving with exotic booze, salty pickles and black bread. We would watch Ward and her guests laughing, telling tall tales and – crucially – munching on snacks immediately after knocking back shots of vodka. When the guests’ appetite had been amply satisfied – but the toasting continued – they would give the bread a quick sniff after downing their vodka shot, in place of eating it. We were transfixed.
Two decades later I saw the ritual again, this time on primetime television. In an episode of Netflix series House of Cards, the Russian president dines with the US president, and he demonstrates how to drink vodka like a Russian – with sniffs and all. It’s a complicated, theatrical process on the TV show, and not necessarily accurate (“You wouldn’t do that with a posh guest!” Ward exclaimed), but the sharp inhalation is clearly there. Articles were written in response to the episode, suggesting that bread is sniffed to soak up the alcohol and offset the taste of the vodka, while the salt and acid in Russian pickles – like the ones on Ward’s table – help neutralise the alcohol.
二十年后，我又看到了这个场面，这次是在黄金时段的电视节目上。在Netflix的电视剧《纸牌屋》（House of Cards）的其中一集里，俄罗斯总统在和美国总统共进晚餐时演示了如何像俄罗斯人一样喝伏特加，包括闻面包在内的所有要素。在电视上，这是一个复杂、戏剧化的过程，而且不一定准确（沃德尖叫着说，“你不会那么对贵宾的！”），但闻面包用力吸气的动作很明显。评论此集电视剧的文章称闻面包是为了吸收酒精和抵消伏特加的味道，而俄罗斯咸菜，就像沃德餐桌上那些咸菜一样，其中的盐和酸有助于中和酒精。
But according to Ward and her friends, the ritual is not merely medicinal, it also serves a social function; by eating or sniffing bread after the shot, you’re demonstrating that you’re not just knocking back vodka to get drunk. “If you don’t have something to chase the vodka with, like a piece of salty bread or some herring, or, even better, caviar, then you do the sniffing,” Bayliss said. “It’s symbolic.”
Ward agreed: “The sniffing only happens if you’re too poor to have proper food.” Or, of course, too full. Indeed, if you only had a small amount of bread at a gathering, you’d pass it around the table so that each guest could smell the bread in turn.
And if you don’t have any bread at all? “You sniff your sleeve!”
Accordingly, we took the first shot of the party: Misha made a gracious toast, the ice-cold vodka slipped down smoothly and we followed it with a big bite of black bread and butter. Several drinks later, and quite merry, we each tore off a piece of bread and gave it a good sniff.
There are firm rules, then, regarding how one drinks vodka in Russia. But equally important is why one drinks vodka. In Russia, it’s a supremely social activity; Russian parties take place around the table, and drinking should be a group activity, never a private pleasure. The zakuski (snacks) are there to be shared, and you must help yourself, not wait to be offered. Ward even shared an apocryphal Russian story about two American spies drinking vodka; their cover was blown by the fact that they were not chomping zakuski as they drank.
Then there’s the act of toasting itself. Misha was animated and emphatic about its significance. “If you drink, you need to say something!” he said. “It’s not like [in England], where everybody sits in his corner. We are together! So there needs to be something for everybody. It helps people to feel that they’re united.”
In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, toasts are such elaborate affairs that professional toasters may be hired for special functions. Russian toasts, by contrast, are simple – at least, that’s the idea. That day, enthusiastic toasts were made for our meeting together, for the beautiful women at the table and to the health of the Queen. Misha led the toasts and everyone followed with a hearty ‘Poyekhali!’ (‘Let’s go!’), as popularised by the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin who exclaimed it when his spacecraft took off in 1961.
Clearly, Russians have a deep affection for vodka. Even the name of the drink is endearing – ‘voda’ means water, and ‘vodka’, its diminutive, translates to ‘little water’. But there is a dark side to drinking vodka in Russia, too. Historically, alcoholism has been rife in Russia, and vodka (or whatever you could get your hands on) offered an escape from the harshness of everyday life. “It could be such hell in the Soviet Union,” Ward said.
Indeed, before Bayliss married an Englishman and Misha and Anna moved to the UK to join her, Misha’s ‘classified’ job meant that he couldn’t leave the country. “We were accustomed to this way of life, but of course it wasn’t normal,” said Misha, of their life in Soviet-era Russia. “We regularly listened to the BBC, Voice of America, and we know there is a different life. But, you’re born in this, so you know you can’t go anywhere.” Anna nodded in agreement. “That was like dreaming of the impossible.”
The Ivanovs recounted stories of privation and party privilege without so much as a shred of drama or self-pity. "You had access to things, or didn’t have access," Anna said. "You need to go and pay for something? You find a party function. You go to the shop and you can’t buy any shoes, but there is a special department for party bosses and KGB bosses." But despite these memories, there was a great warmth to the Russian traditions we shared at the table that day, from the act of toasting to recounting old Russian stories and jokes.
“Somebody brought sardines to dinner,” Ward said, “and when the hostess opened them they were so old that they were no longer edible. And the person who brought them said, ‘I’m so sorry you misunderstood – those weren’t eating sardines, those were gifting sardines!’”
It was time for another toast, and Misha had now taken to standing to deliver his words – these ones to absent friends. The vodka was knocked back, chunks of bread were seized and forks were plunged into salty fish. Everyone around the table was pink-cheeked and satisfied. As the afternoon melted into evening, Misha observed, stoically, “Vodka is like a knife. It’s not good, it’s not bad. You can do anything with a knife. Cut meat, cut bread – with a special knife you can make operation. But another knife can kill a person; the knife is not to be blamed.”
He paused. “So, the same with vodka. It’s a drink, it’s not bad, it’s not good. If you know, you know. Everything is okay.”