The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire

The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire

Linda Himelstein

Language: English

Pages: 416

ISBN: 0060855894

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


“A operatic tour-de-force.” —Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot

“An impressive feat of research, told swiftly and enthusiastically.” —San Francisco Chronicle

From Vanderbilt and Rockefeller to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, America’s captains of industry are paragons of entrepreneurial success, and books about business history, from The First Tycoon to The Big Short, show exemplars of capitalistic cunning and tenacity…but just as American cocktail connoisseurs can mistake Absolut, Skyy, Grey Goose, or Ketel One for the quintessential clear spirit, so too has America’s vision of business history remained naïve to a truth long recognized in Eastern Europe: since the time of Tsar Nicholas, both vodka and commercial success have been synonymous in Russia with one name—Smirnoff. Linda Himelstein’s critically acclaimed biography of Russian vodka scion Pyotr Smirnov—a finalist for the James Beard Award, winner of the IACP and Saroyan Awards, and a BusinessWeek Best Business Book of 2009—is the sweeping story of entrepreneurship, empire, and epicurean triumph unlike anything the world has ever seen before.

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eventually finding the Mandylion. In a panic, Vladimir pleaded with the men to leave his cherished icon alone. “The commissar in charge of the search laughed and said, “We don’t need this garbage,” after which he ordered his subordinates to take off the golden riza [cloth covering] and he threw the icon on the floor with such force that the wood broke in half. “There, have your heirloom,” he said. “As for the gold and precious stones, we’ll find a use for them.”13 It was the unleashing of

and dancing helped lure a constant stream of enthusiastic attendees, according to the memoirs of several Russian exiles. That success, though, came at a price: It piqued the interest of the Turks—at least the government’s tax collectors. Nearly two years after Vladimir and Valentina arrived in Turkey, the tax agents showed up one morning and presented them with an enormous tax bill. It requested payment of an amount far beyond the pair’s financial means.4 Not satisfying the bill would mean

Still, though, he thought of the woman who had so thoroughly captivated him. He went to Yar in search of Katya. Instead of finding her, Vladimir learned that she had married and suffered a mental breakdown after giving birth to a stillborn child. Her body was later found in a ravine. “It was never known whether she had committed suicide or fell prey to a murderer.”18 THE MONOPOLY STILL loomed for Smirnov. It was like an immense gray cloud in the distance, blackening as it made its approach. It

Smirnov. Rumors were not flying about his products being harmful or subpar. Indeed, the chemical report was solely for the state’s use and not publicly disseminated. And Smirnov would not lose his large customer base, at least not immediately. Even the Imperial Court was still a big buyer, placing an order for almost 9,000 bottles of Smirnov’s vodka in 1897.10 Vodka was a regular fixture at the tsar’s table, particularly during the lunchtime meal when it was said that Nikolay II himself drank two

the court that, if reunited, an alimony payment was unwarranted. The newspapers delighted in the bickering Smirnovs. Gossip-mongers dove into the sordid details of their relationship while other reports focused on the ridiculous nature of the legal arguments. They reported every titillating hiccup. Moreover, the news accounts noted, Mariya had good reason to reject Vladimir’s proposal that they live together again. “Mariya Gavrilovna Smirnova refused to move back in with her husband. She

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