Vodka Wars: Poland vs. Russia. The story behind the ‘famous’ court process in 1978

Have you ever seen the movie ‘Wag the Dogs’? If not – highly recommend it. The plot is quite interesting (not to mention the brilliant performance of Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and all the other great actors).

In a nutshell, shortly before the election in the US, the president is caught in a sex scandal and it seems that it will seriously decrease his chance of being re-elected. In order to distract the attention it was decided to focus it to another direction. And thus it was fabricated a … fictional war. It was fully documented by media as a totally real event and the masses believed it. Almost nobody even called in question if it really happened. Covered by the veil of patriotically emotions, they all left to be easily manipulated.

I recall this movie when suddenly stumbled on information about a lawsuit filed by Poland against Russia (former USSR) claiming the origin of vodka. It is not a secret that there is such a long-standing contention, but, hey,… a lawsuit? Between two fellow countries in the era of the Iron Wall? A member of the Warsaw Pact would dare to bring the Big Brother, the Soviet Union, to a court? And not whatever court, but an international one! Socialist states entrusted their internal problems to be resolved by capitalist judges? It couldn’t be possible.

I was sure that was a joke. I have never heard about it and I have graduated law in one of those states. And yet, the lawsuit was everywhere in the web underlining the loss of Poland and the big victory of Russia. Almost to convince me that I should have to ask my law school for my money back, when fortunately I found the fabulous book ‘Vodka Politics’ by Mark Schrad. It revealed me the truth that it was just a hoax, created by one person, the Russian Vilyam Pokhlebkin, but embraced by his compatriots as an actual breakthrough in their history and turned it to a highly acclaimed event.

The story started in 1991 when was published Pokhlebkin‘s research ‘History of vodka’. The original was written in 1978 and according to the author’s words was entrusted by the government. The reason? A lawsuit filed by Poland against the Soviet Union for the exclusive commercial rights to the word ‘vodka’, claiming that it originated in Poland, not in Russia. Very inconsiderate move. As Mr. Schrad noted with humour:

          “Perhaps the Poles had not read the single-paragraph entry on “vodka” in their standard issue Big Soviet Encyclopedia, which clearly states that vodka “was first produced in Russia in the late 14th century.” What more debate could there be?

           For the Russians, this was a stab in the back—their socialist allies in the Warsaw Pact were not only threatening the Soviets’ lucrative international trade; they were also inflicting an emasculating blow to Russia’s cultural heritage”.

The USSR government authorities were in panic. They couldn’t find a document in their archive to prove the Russian origins of vodka, so they turned for help to Pokhlebkin – unquestioned local authority on food and drinks as the only man who could establish the Soviet Union’s legal rights and defend the national pride.

And like magic within a few months Pokhlebkin all alone succeeded to ‘collect’ an entire system of evidences which ultimately were presented to the court and were recognized by the legal experts and voila!… In 1982 Russia won the case.

Since the research of Pokhlebkin saved from a betraying foreign invasion such a national symbol, his achievement definitely was worth to be celebrated, but it would take 9 years before to be published in 1991 as a book with the title ‘History of vodka’ (Istoriya vodki)

           “Over the past twenty years dozens of popular books and hundreds of articles and webpages—in Russian, English, and other world languages—have recounted his research and findings, his stories and anecdotes from the pages of Istoriya vodki, almost verbatim.”

So far nothing disturbing though in the era of globalization and easy access to information no one ever bothered to verify Pokhlebkin’s affirmations and compare them with other sources.

Mr. Schrad however had a lot of doubts about the statements in the book and investigated the matter. And what he found out would be quite funny if were just an innocent joke.

Neither of the international courts (the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) knew anything about the case, nor the Russian or the Polish authorities have ever heard about any legal dispute between them on this subject. There was absolutely nothing mentioned in any media – global, Russian or Polish. Moreover, no one ever commissioned Pokhlebkin to undertake such research as he had claimed.

It turned out that it was just a fabricated fact.

As I said it would be funny, if so many wouldn’t believe in the words of Pokhlebkin. And why not? After all he had gained a status of a “cultural icon in Russia”. He was a controversial person but admittedly was recognized by the Russians as an expert. A prolific writer, he wrote through his entire life (1923-2000) numerous books – about the history of international relations, Scandinavian studies, culinary, history, heraldry and etc. Why then he needed to create this tale about a non-existing lawsuit?

Nobody could say; only guesses…His academic carrier took the down road in the 70s. It is supposed that the stepping-stone was his enormous culinary work – a collection of thousands of global recipes. The authorities judged that because the mentioned ingredients were widely unavailable in the Russian market, the recipes would throw a shade upon the Soviet system itself.

           “Branded a dissident, he was effectively unemployed (and unemployable) in a country that boasted a job for everyone.”

Probably searching for a way to get back his previous position he created the delusion about the discussed research on the origins of vodka and bearing in mind the notorious dispute with Poland about it, he included also the story of the lawsuit to lift up the national pride.

           “… Whatever reasons Pokhlebkin had for constructing and executing such an audacious deception, he certainly took them to the grave…. Most remarkable about Pokhlebkin’s fabrications is how they have been elevated to the status of legend: standing above serious scrutiny for two decades.”

According to the book, there was only one alcohol historian, Mr. David Christian, who then in the 90s, questioned the authenticity of Pokhlebkin’s allegations.

           “If you read this book keep a bottle of strong vodka by your side to stun the more thoughtful parts of your brain. The parts that are left should enjoy this eccentric collection of curious facts, crackpot hypotheses, phony statistics, anticapitalist polemics and stalinist snobberies without worrying if it all fits together.. Most frustrating of all, Pokhlebkin often does not bother to offer evidence for his sometimes fascinating claims. How can we know if he is writing fiction or fact?”

The last few years, more and more professionals put in question the story of Pokhlebkin. But even if they all finally conclude that this was “a grandiose mystification” (“Grand Deception: Truth and Lies about Russian Vodka” by Boris Rodionov, published 2011), it would take much more time to change the beliefs of Russians that all this was a big fraud.

This doesn’t mean that the dispute about the origins of vodka has been ceased. Currently Poland is a step ahead with a written proof, but who knows what Russians might dig tomorrow. I am neither Pole, nor Russian, and maybe not able to understand their national concerns but I am consumer, and honestly, since they both produce exceptional quality vodka is it really matters who first invented it?

And thankfully to researchers like Mr. Schrad it is a nice feeling that you are not fooled anymore.

‘Vodka Politics’ by Mark Schrad

For more about the story, you could read the whole chapter here.