A Royal Read, Served Straight Up

by Ashley Newton '10 and Mary Shipp Bartlett

Linda Himelstein

In 1831, a boy named Pyotr was born to serf parents in a small Russian village. At that time, no one could have guessed he would grow up to become the creator of the greatest vodka company the world has known.

In The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire, Linda Himelstein ’84 skillfully unravels the inspiring, tragic, and powerful story of Pyotr Smirnov, creator of the vodka empire now known as Smirnoff. From his roots as a serf to his dominance of the vodka industry, and eventually to the emergence of his brand name outside Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, Smirnov’s life, and those of his family members, is riveting.

As the title suggests, Smirnov’s story is inseparable from that of Russia, and Himelstein successfully balances the two histories. Where details are scarce, Himelstein provides related information, or proposes a probable account of events, thereby forming an almost seamless history. Beginning with the elaborate funeral of Pyotr Smirnov, Himelstein subsequently recounts Smirnov’s life from birth to death, and continues to trace the Smirnov label until its emergence as Smirnoff in the West and its growth into the 21st century. Blended into this story is a wealth of information about Russia’s 19th- and early 20thcentury political, social, and, of course, vodka, history.

The book, brimming with facts and figures accumulated over more than four years of research in the United States and Russia, is a surprisingly smooth and very enjoyable read. The amount of research and dedication that went into the work is palpable. Himelstein’s insights regarding the vodka maker’s ambitions, motivations, thought processes, and public persona enable the multi-faceted Pyotr Smirnov to come alive. Its equal parts entertainment and enlightenment make The King of Vodka a highly recommended read for history, biography, and vodka lovers alike.

– Reviewed by Ashley Newton ’10

The Inside Story

Linda Himelstein doesn’t speak Russian, never studied the nation’s history, and admits she’s not much of a drinker. Still, she traveled to Moscow for a summer to research the story of a serf who became one of the richest men in Russia by making and promoting Smirnov vodka — the #1 best selling spirit in the world.

It was Pyotr Smirnov’s story that grabbed Himelstein. She was legal affairs editor for BusinessWeek, when, in 1993, she covered the lawsuit filed by Smirnov’s descendants who sought to have the trademarks and copyrights of the vodka empire, lost in the tumult following the Russian revolution, returned to the family and to Russia. Her story earned BusinessWeek’s publisher’s award. Years later, Himelstein left the magazine to spend four years researching and writing the full, fascinating story of The King of Vodka.

“He was an ingenious visionary,” she told alumnae during a reunion weekend book reading and signing in Toll Hall in May. “He realized he needed to create an image at a time when brands didn’t exist.” In the middle of 19th century Russia, vodka was a ubiquitous commodity sold and delivered unlabeled to bars and establishments. Himelstein explained how Smirnov used brilliant grass-roots marketing: he asked 15 friends — all peasants — to demand Smirnov vodka in Moscow bars, and make a scene when it wasn’t produced. Bar owners became curious about this “brand” and sought it out. He asked his friends to then go into the countryside and do the same in local bars. “The company took off like crazy,” said Himelstein. In time, Smirnov vodka would become the favorite of the Tsars and a multi-billion dollar company.

As for the Smirnov descendents, Himelstein met some of them during her research. She says they were suspicious of what she was up to because of ongoing litigation. To date, they have lost all their cases.

– Mary Shipp Bartlett


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