Putin leans in. Will only vodka spill, instead of bloodshed?

Illustration by Otto Dettmer, The New York Times

Illustration by Otto Dettmer, The New York Times

Here at the Comics Grinder news desk, things move along at whatever pace seems right. My friend, and editorial assistant, Roy, will occasionally drop off a book or some notes for consideration. One never knows what to expect. But you can always rely upon it being something interesting.

This time around, Roy dropped off a copy of “Vodka Politics” by Mark Lawrence Schrad. It’s one of those refreshingly readable and provocative academic books that he favors.

Before Roy was off to his next adventure, I asked him if he’d gotten the news that Putin is signaling that he’s open to a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine.

“Oh, really?” said Roy.

“Yes,” I said, “really! Putin is talking to the big guy.”

“The big guy?”


“Ah, so he’s going straight to the middle!”

And that was it. He was gone like a flash. I opened the book to a particularly dog-eared page. There was frantic writing in the margin. It looked like it covered his entire notation system: A star, an exclamation point, and the pleading, “Now, really?”

As it turned out, among the various things to review or comment upon strewn across the news desk, this book grabbed my attention the most, at least for the moment. Hmm, the vodka connection. Boris Yeltsin! He truly loved the stuff. In that regard, and so many others, Putin differs from Yeltsin. There would be no crisis in Ukraine if Yeltsin were around since Yeltsin would never have invaded.

Anyway, I looked over the section that Roy thought I’d especially like. It was entitled, “A Surreal Ride,” a subheading under the chapter, “Vodka and Dissent in the Soviet Union.” Who knew but, apparently, Gonzo journalism got a head start in the U.S.S.R. of all places!

This is a colorful look back at the raucous literary journalism of 1968, “Moscow to the End of the Line,” by Venedikt Erofeyev. This came out two years before Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” It follows our alcoholic hero, Venya, on a vodka-fueled road trip from Moscow to his home town of Petushki. Along the way, Erofeyev paints a bleak picture of how the state keeps its citizens content, and under control, with alcohol:

In the morning we’d sit down and play blackjack for money. Then we’d get up and unwind a drum of cable and put the cable underground. And then we’d sit down and everyone would take his leisure in his own way. Everyone, after all, has his own dream and temperament. One of us drank vermouth, somebody else–a simpler soul–some Freshen-Up eau de cologne, and somebody else more pretentious would drink cognac…Then we’d go sleep.

First thing next morning, we’d sit around drinking vermouth. Then we’d get up and pull yesterday’s cable out of the ground and throw it away, since naturally, it had gotten all wet. And then what? Then we’d sit down to blackjack for money. And we’d go to sleep without finishing the game.

In the morning, we’d wake each other up early. “Lekha, get up. Time to play blackjack.” “Stasik, get up and let’s finish the game.” We’d get up and finish the game. And then, before light, before sunrise, before drinking Freshen-Up or vermouth, we’d grab a drum of cable and start to reel it out, so that by the next day it would get wet and become useless. And, so, then, each to each his own, for each has his own ideals. And so everything would start over again.

It’s a quote within a larger work but it all adds up to a sad look into the Russian soul. And is it not a variation on this routine that Putin relies upon?

Anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 Russian troops have amassed along the Ukrainian border. They include special forces units without any insignia similar to the forces that moved into Crimea during Russia’s recent military takeover there. Obama says enough is enough and Putin is listening. As it stands, Putin has already gained what will likely be an undisputed victory with Crimea. It certainly sounds like time to back away and break out the vodka for a toast.


Filed under Books, Commentary, politics, Russia

3 responses to “Putin leans in. Will only vodka spill, instead of bloodshed?

  1. Hi there,
    Thanks for stopping by my little corner of the blogosphere and for the follow. Your support is much appreciated, 🙂


  2. A little spilt vodka is fine by me 🙂
    Many thanks for the follow, Henry.

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