Nov 15 2004
How to Deal With a Russian Hangover
For one reason or another, what people know about Russia is often
linked to alcohol. Experience of Russian drinking culture is the
subject of one well known joke, when a foreigner writes in his
journal: `Monday. Drank with the Russians. Tuesday. Almost died.
Wednesday. Drank with the Russians some more. Thursday. Should have
died on Tuesday.’ So it is necessary to give homage to the way Russia
deals with the after-effects of drink, both on a national and a
personal level. The misery of a hangover has not changed for
centuries, neither has the campaign against misbehaving drunks, so
the question of post-drinking blues has a long history.
People that roam the city after their drinking escapades risk ending
up in a vytrezvitel, a ‘drunk tank’, a place that has inspired fear
in generations of Russians. It was conceived as an institution in
tsarist times, the first one opening in 1902 in Tula to save local
army men from freezing to death after their squad had a bit too much.
It was reinstated in the Soviet Union in 1931 and came under the
control of the Interior Ministry in 1940.
During the prohibitionist years, the police had a daily norm of
picked-up drunks. They drove around in a special wagon nicknamed a
kopilka (piggy bank) and singled out people that threatened public
safety: quite often the victims were chosen at random, especially on
cold nights when the patrols got tired and bored.
Even though prohibition was short-lived in Russia, putting stray
drunkards into the kopilka is still in practice; moreover, it’s
profitable for the officers. When morning comes to the vytrezvitel
and you find out that half of your money was gone overnight, the
police cheerfully tell you to be more careful next time you go out to
a bar. After all, it’s not called a piggy-bank for nothing!
If you manage to get home without event, there are a few traditional
Russian hangover cures for the morning-after that have been popular
for centuries. The most popular is the brine from either pickles or
Russian sauerkraut (called rassol in Russian) as it contains the
necessary potassium and magnesium. Another handy liquid is kvass,
which is a brown malt beverage made of fermented rye bread.
Many Russians believe that it’s better to fight fire with fire and
sip warm beer from the night before, but there is the risk of getting
carried away and continuing the previous night’s debauchery and
spiralling into the vicious circle of a zapoy, or drinking binge.
For the more ambitious, there are also Russian hangover cocktails
that juggle the classic ingredients like eggs, spices and tomato
juice. For one, known as `Sick head,’ the directions are as follows:
you have to cover a glass with a thin coat of vegetable oil, break
one egg into the glass, a pinch of salt, and red and black pepper.
Pour in two tablespoons of vodka and mix well. Close your eyes and
nose, forget what is in the glass, and gulp down the contents. After
the procedure the victim should lie down and rest with a cold towel
over the forehead.
There is also traditional hangover food. The classic greasy burger
and shake never really took off in Russia, but there is one dish that
is recognized as a guaranteed hangover remedy. It is a thick stew
called haash, which actually comes from the Caucasus and is even
served in Moscow’s Armenian restaurants on January 1st to alleviate
the morning-after misery. Haash is a pain to prepare: you have to
cook tripe and beef trotters for six hours and consume the result
with radish and a lot of garlic.
Another curing `snack’ was allegedly discovered by Tsar Nicholas II,
and is called `Nikolashka’: take a slice of lemon, put a teaspoon of
sugar and a teaspoon of coffee on top, and eat in one bite.
All of these may be helpful and tested by generations of Russians,
but when that morning comes, most people can’t find the strength to
prepare a complicated recipe. Some opt for `Alka-Seltzer and sleep’,
others put instant coffee into coca-cola, and some, like my friend
Alina, choose `rassol and a guillotine’.