Fermented Travel: Moscow
By Kerry Winslow
First Published in 2007. Please note as of 2013 Russia has banned street vending of Beer, raised alcohol taxes and cut advertizing for alcohol in an effort to stop alcohol related death in the general population. And of course Mr. Putin has come back as President of Russia!
Landing in Moscow at the Sheremetevo 2 airport, what a mix of emotions, fear excitement and expectations of this land, Russia. Growing up when I did, Russia was the bad nuclear enemy and a dark and tragic place that held a certain fascination and until recently was a big mystery. Once landed and the terrifying passport and customs control was cleared it was into the Moscow night and amongst some of the worst traffic I’ve scene since a Friday night on the 405 in Los Angeles!
I’m here to celebrate, a boyhood friend and now ex-pat living here, Michael Cordy is my guide, lucky for me as English is not spoken very much here and nothing is printed in Latin, so finding places is near impossible. Sitting in a taxi catching up, Michael shows me the massive building projects going on, this is a huge city that is growing at a phenomenal rate. Moscow all ready rates as one of the great cities of the world and now it is charging up that list and fast. I learned quickly that Moscow is a city whose citizens are obsessed with Politics and are some of the biggest beer drinkers in the world. Everywhere in the city people are buzzing about this cabinet minister or the new deputy prime minister, I mean for Russian’s it is deadly serious. They are freaks for it, much like the Brit’s are for the royals or like us American’s go for pop stars or pop tarts, read Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton.
In March 2008, Putin is stepping down and there will be a new leader taking office, that was the big question while I was visiting, and now it looks set to be Dmitry Medvedev, one of Putin’s most trusted deputies. He is also the youngest and seems to be the most business and markets serious and a moderate. This could be great news for us, in American and western governments politically, giving hope that relations will get back on track. Putin is not going away though and Russians are very happy about this, he is wildly popular and looking at his reign in total, his policies have brought stability and middle class growth that no one could have imagined, and this has also created maybe the biggest beer market in the world.
Even though they have only a slight history in brewing beer the Russian’s have gone crazy for beer since it became unregulated in 1991. Besides the beautiful Orthodox Church and it’s amazingly pious faithful, Russia has two new icons, Putin and Baltika (Beer). I know, yes I know “What, you must be crazy, it is vodka and caviar!” but you’d be surprised as I was.
Moscow The Russian Capital: Quick & Basic Facts
Moscow started as a small trading village in the 8th century in a turbulent rural area that was on an ancient merchant route, but really became a fortified city in around 1147 and was founded by Yuri Dolgorukion at the confluence of the Moskva and Neglinnaya rivers. Now at least 10 Million People call Moscow home, and more are coming in all the time. Moscow became the capital of the Principality of Muscovy and it started to grow into a coveted city. Moscow then become a target of raids and was pillaged few times, finally being sacked by Khan Batu of the Golden Horde (in 1237) which lead to more than two centuries of rule by the Tartars.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow was known as the “Third and Last Rome” and it took on the Byzantine double-headed eagle emblem, which is now the symbol of the Russian State. In 1584 Ivan ‘the Terrible’ dies, after making a regional power of Moscow by using supreme brutality and force upon his people. In 1613 the Romanovs come into power with Mikhail Romanov becoming the Tsar of all the Russias. The Tsars ruled without mercy and cruelly until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Moscow became one of the world’s greatest and most powerful cities though it did lose its capital status a few times under the Tsars and it burned down by fire twice, once in 1712 after which Peter ‘the Great’ named St. Petersburg the capital, then again by its own citizens to force Napoleon and his out in 1812! Between 1825 and 1905 the Tsar tried to repress the population and live beyond the dreams of Gods and Kings of which lead to many revolts, wars and even terrorist attacks, one even ended in the assassination of Alexander II.
This took its toll on the Tsars, and finally the last Tsar Nicholas II introduced a constitution and allowed an elected body to be formed as an assembly known as the Duma. Sadly Nicholas, lead Russia into the disastrous WWI, ‘a straw that broke the camels’ back moment in history. The result was the 1917 Bolshevik uprising and Vladimir Lenin was swept into power in St. Petersburg, but he knew Moscow was the place to cement his place as the supreme leader and in Nov. 1917 he proclaims Moscow the capital. In 1918 he has the Tsar and his family executed, as their presence kept some hopes alive that they would return to power and he had a civil war and foreign armies to deal with. In 1922 the Soviet Union was formed with Moscow as the capital and seat of power, but Lenin died shortly after not seeing his Marxism-communism utopian dream come true or to real fruition. That was 1924 and in the fight to fill the vacuum of power was won by Josef Stalin ‘the Butcher’ who ruled the USSR until his death in 1954.
Stalin from his wing of the Kremlin over saw one of the most violent and murderous regimes of all time, it is said that he ordered the death of close to 20 Million people. Some died through failed attempts to create farm collectives, which led to massive relocation and famine that took about 5 million lives, or just because of paranoid whim. He thought everyone was out to take his power so he had the secret police, the CheKa (NKVD) that became the dreaded KGB, find traitors and ship them off to Gulags in Siberia or just make them disappear. Most were not traitors, in fact he was more afraid of the hero’s of the motherland and many patriots were slaughtered for no good reason. Moscow was the most feared city in the world during this time and it kept its reputation until even today. The Nazis sneak attack against Russia made strange bedfellows of the USA and the USSR. Hitler’s panzers and storm troopers got to the outskirts of Moscow, but the Red Army held out bravely and when winter came the Germans were doomed. It is said the best Russian generals were January and February, but Marshal Zhukov was the man that led the Russians to Berlin and the end of the Third Reich. Russia lost 20 Million souls during what they still call the Great Patriotic War.
After Stalin’s death the communist party took over and the Supreme Soviet elected first Nikita Khrushchev, and the Cold War started in earnest. Moscow was a scary place if you were a US citizen and we lived in nuclear fear through the line of General Secretary’s (Soviet leaders) that followed Khrushchev; Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko. By this time Russia had enough, it had no money and no will to keep it up, especially after the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan, and Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and he oversaw the end of the Soviet Union and began opening up Russia to the West. His Glasnost and Perestroika policies took hold and led to Moscow’s revival as a great world city. It was a bumpy ride and the mayor of Moscow, Boris Yeltsin, had to come to the rescue to after a communist last gasp coup attempt. This though brought Gorbachev down and Yeltsin took the helm of the new Russian Federation.
Moscow was now free, but unfortunately freedom led to chaos and crime was the real winner, and the Russian Mafia stripped any and every asset left in the city and the whole of Russia. The free market system was not making life much better in Moscow and poor Yeltsin had too many crisis to fix and turned to Vodka, though he tried to hold it all together. He sent troops into Chechnya in 1994, which they were not prepared for, so worried he’d have another Afghanistan he signed a peace accord. This saved him, and he was re-elected in 1996, but he soon started sinking into depression and alcohol again. Russia needed a strong and forceful leader to deal with crime lords, oligarchs and the Chechen terrorist, and an ex-KGB leader came in from the cold to bring Russia back in line, this was Vladimir Putin. Putin took power as an appointed Prime Minister then as the elected President in 2000. Since this time Moscow has regained its glory and is as dynamic as any city anywhere, even though it has had to deal with terrorist attacks and still suffers from that threat and even though major violent crime is down it still can be a problems. Moscow is growing by leaps and bounds and even if Putin is taking the country away from a true democracy the people of Russia are firmly behind him as their lives continue to get better and better. The population has seen a major increase in wealth under Putin, most people’s salaries have doubled in the last few years and the middle class is growing at a faster rate than in the West. There is hope here and overall it looks positive.
Oil and natural gas wealth has been diverted from big companies domestic and foreign to the Kremlin controlled companies leading many to cry foul, but it has given the government real stability and economic clout. Even with this heavy-handed approach there has been a real boom for all business and with a 13 percent flat tax on income Russia has become a great place to do business and earn good money. The market there is growing at a great rate and looks to become the second largest luxury market after the USA in the next few years. Lots of uncertainties about Putin leaving power are now the headlines, as he is supposed to step down in March 2008, when his second term as president ends. He has set in motion a movement to keep power and looks set to lead from behinds the scenes. All this intrigue makes Moscow just that much more exciting and electric!
Moscow: A City Obsessed With Politics and Beer
Most people think of Vodka when they consider Russia in a drinking way, but in Moscow beer is wildly popular and drunk everywhere. Beer is well thought of in Russia, it is a cultured beverage even though it is also more commonly found on the street than our plastic water bottles seem to be in every ones hands in major cities in the USA. In fact beer and tea are still much more popular in Russia than coffee. I saw more Carlsberg than cappuccino or mochas in people’s hands, no question. So what is going on? Beer is exploding in Russia, and especially in the capital Moscow. There was one real beer is Russia under Soviet rule, a light and boring brew that tastes more like Corona than Imperial Stout, but since 1991 the market for premium beer has grown at an unbelievable rate. Now everyone wants a piece of this lucrative market and global brands are pouring millions into advertising and promotions here.
The beers in Moscow were all very drinkable and some rival Western brews, their most popular brands are Baltika and Arsenalnoye, according to the late beer guru Michael Jackson. Baltika brews around 12 different styles and exports to at least 38 countries and is jointly owned by Carlsberg of Denmark and Scottish & Newcastle of the UK, even though the brewery started in 1990 in Saint Petersburg. I tried most of Baltika’s line up and found the Porter and Wheat Beer excellent and fresh, though their Lager is the most found in the pubs and taps which is by no means a bad thing as it is a good glass of suds. Beer has been helped by the fact that the former Soviet Republics of Georgia & Moldova have had embargos forced on them by the Russian government, so these countries have not been sending wine into Russia. These countries produced the best and cheapest wine in Russia and now the choices are mostly Italian or French, both of which are not traditional to Russia and they are much more pricy. So beer took advantage of that, plus beer actually goes better with the Russian menu of foods. Politic Games have favored brewski in this case, you just have to love the intrigue here, and this is an exciting city.
In Moscow you will find beer gardens, well out-door cafes that really end up as beer gardens and thousands of warm pubs all over the city. You can even find rolling kiosks that serve beer from a keg on tap in the parks, in fact we had a draft at the Kremlin, right in front of the cadets in training doing exercises in uniform at the Kremlin gate. It was an experience that I would have never dreamed of as a teenager! Sitting on the grass, overlooking the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, mere feet from Red Square, sipping on a nice Baltika lager. Growing up hearing about Stalin, Brezhnev and Khrushchev and lived in fear of Russia, now I wish that I had learned about the real Russian soul and read Pushkin, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. This is an amazing City with a long history that is both tragic and heroic, but always fascinating. Walking down the “Old Arbat” gets the heart pumping with graceful buildings, uneven cobblestones, street performers, outdoors dining, lots of tourists and very beautiful women dressed to kill, and it has to be one of the great beer drinking spots in Moscow. From here you can find souvenirs, people watch and catch up with friends after a day of sightseeing or work.
Moscow: Getting Around
Forget ever thinking about driving in Moscow unless you have a death wish or love LA traffic and your homesick for a parking lot, as the city was never set up for the personal automobile. The Russian drive aggressively, but fairly. I can attest to the crazy nature of driving here, as we went through the process of renting a car and driving around town. Reading the local papers has examples horrific crashes almost everyday, these are very sobering stories and my friends here tell terrifying tales of the worst crash scenes this week! If this keeps up, well, Russia might catch up with us Americans! Besides the threat of being part of a fireball or any other gruesome image that come to mind, it is almost as scary to just fill out the paperwork at the rental car agency. I swear it lasted an hour and was a form that makes Tolstoy’s epic “War & Peace” seem a weekend read! So enjoy Moscow, take the Metro!
The Metro here is amazing and more like entering a museum than a subway. Everything is spotless and ultra clean with statues and marble everywhere. Riding the trains is fast and easy and safe, though you need to study Cyrillic and do your homework into where you need to go and which line gets there, I was lucky to be with natives and they guided me around without me venturing into Tunnels alone. All the stations are different and unique with beautiful socialistic artworks adoring the walls and ceilings. Most of the Metro system was accomplished under the brutal hand of Stalin, but you might even let that slide when you marvel at these wonderful holes in the ground. More people ride the Moscow Metro system each day than London, New York and Paris combined and there is a train every sixty seconds and no spray paint! You can study the Metro layout well in advance either online or any good travel guide, please do this before any trip to Moscow, oh yes, trust me on this one.
Moscow: Info & Reference
Beer and Hot Spots
Baltika, now owned by Carlsberg of Demark, and the biggest brand in Russia now, is available everywhere. This is a company that is exploding in popularity and brews about 13 different types of beer, all of which taste like crafted beers and of high quality.
Arsenalnoye, a Baltika brand label, that remains big in the market and has a high profile in Moscow itself.
Bavarius Beer House, a big beer house with a big selection of local and imported beer.
Kosomolskiy Prospekt 21/10
The Moscow Times
English Language Newspaper
*Daily free paper, great guide to the city with restaurant and club reviews as well as political news.
Thomas Cook Guide Travellers “Moscow & St. Petersburg” 2nd Edition
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide “Moscow”
DK Eyewitness Companions “Beer” editor-in-chief Michael Jackson
*Facts checked and researched with the following guidebooks:
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide ‘Moscow’ & Thomas Cook Travellers ‘Moscow & Saint Petersburg’ 2nd Edition