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

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

Format:  Hardcover,

384 pages

Publisher: Harpercollins

Publish Date: May 2009

ISBN-13: 9780060855895

ISBN-10: 0060855894

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In this sweeping history of vodka scion Pyotr Smirnov and his family, distinguished journalist Linda Himelstein plumbs a great riddle of Russian history through the story of a humble serf who rose to create one of the most celebrated business empires the world has ever known. At the center of this vivid narrative, Pyotr Smirnov comes to life as a hero of wonderful complexity--a man of intense ambition and uncanny business sense, a patriarch of a family that would help define Russian society and suffer from the Revolution's aftermath, and a loyalist to a nation that would one day honor him as a treasure of the state.

Born in a small village in 1831, Smirnov relied on vodka--a commodity that in many ways defines Russia--to turn a life of scarcity and anonymity into one of immense wealth and international recognition. Starting from the backrooms and side streets of 19th century Moscow, Smirnov exploited a golden age of emancipation and brilliant grassroots marketing strategies to popularize his products and ensconce his brand within the thirsts and imaginations of drinkers around the world. His vodka would be gulped in the taverns of Russia and Europe, praised with accolades at World Fairs, and become a staple on the tables of Tsars. His improbable ascent--set against a sobriety crusade supported by Chekhov and Tolstoy, mounting political uprisings and labor strikes, the eventual monopolization of the vodka trade by the state--would crumble amidst the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution. Only a set of bizarre coincidences--including an incredible prison escape by one of Smirnov's sons in 1919--would prevent Smirnov's legacy from fading into oblivion.

Set against a backdrop of political and ideological currents that would determine the course of global history--from the fall of the Tsars to the rise of Communism, from vodka's popularization by none other than James Bond to Smirnoff's emergence as a multi-billion dollar brand--Smirnov's story of triumph and tragedy is a captivating historical touchstone. The King of Vodka is much more than a biography of an extraordinary man. It is a work of narrative history on an epic scale.


Publisher: Harpercollins
Publish Date: May 2009
ISBN-13: 9780060855895
ISBN-10: 0060855894
Format: Hardcover
Number of Pages: 384
Shipping Weight (in pounds): 1.3
Product in Inches (L x W x H): 6.5 x 1.38 x 9.22


Review by Library Journal (2009-03-15)

This is an excellent book about the beginning, peak, near death, and resurrection of one of the best-selling brands of premium spirits. The name Smirnov once represented the splendor of tsar ist Russia, and Pyotr Smirnov was one of the great men of his time. Himelstein (former Silicon Valley bureau chief, BusinessWeek) documents Smirnov from his beginnings as a serf in mid-19th-century Russia to his rise to the pinnacle of prerevolutionary society.

She also looks at the effect vodka had on that society and the effect the revolution had on the Smirnov family (the distillery was confiscated, prompting Smirnov's business to expand beyond Russia). Himelstein continues following the brand and the family up to the present, including the machinations of various branches of the Smirnov family to regain control of the Smirnov name. This is an extremely well researched book, to be expected from a journalist of Himelstein's stature. She succeeds in making the intertwined stories of the Smirnov family and of Russia both academically rigorous and accessible to general readers curious to know more about their favorite vodka's history.

-John Sandstrom, El Paso P.L., TX

(c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Awards and Recognitions

  • James Beard Foundation KitchenAid Book Awards, 2010 (United States)

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