“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.
About the Author
Linda Himelstein began her career in the Washington bureau of The Wall Street Journal before working at The San Francisco Recorder and Legal Times. In 1993 she joined BusinessWeek as legal affairs editor, writing about a wide array of topics, including the tobacco industry and Wall Street. One of her cover stories helped BusinessWeek win the National Magazine Award. Later, as the magazine's Silicon Valley bureau chief, she wrote about the infancies of eBay, Yahoo!, and other companies. She lives with her family in Northern California.
Table of Contents
The Cast ii
Author's Note xiii
Prologue: Good-bye xv
Chapter 1 Hello 1
Chapter 2 Moscow 17
Chapter 3 The Land of Darkness 35
Chapter 4 The Vodka Maker 53
Chapter 5 "Demand Smirnov Vodka" 67
Chapter 6 To Vienna and Back 81
Chapter 7 Mariya 95
Chapter 8 Vodka Wars 113
Chapter 9 The Vodka King 129
Chapter 10 From Pursuit to Preservation 137
Chapter 11 Monopoly Capitalism 153
Chapter 12 The Tsar and 3,000 Flashing Bottles 171
Chapter 13 Twilight 179
Chapter 14 Two Dead Bodies 195
Chapter 15 A New Century, a New Reality 203
Chapter 16 Monopoly Madness 213
Chapter 17 From Bad to Bizarre 225
Chapter 18 A War, Uprisings, and Then There Was One 235
Chapter 19 Life and Death and Love and Death 247
Chapter 20 Sudden Chaos 261
Chapter 21 Revolution 275
Chapter 22 Escape 287
Chapter 23 Smirnov with an "F" 303
Chapter 24 The End is a Beginning 317
Selected Bibliography 371
What People are Saying About This
“The story of the Smirnov family is an operatic tour-de-force, and Linda Himelstein tells it with grace and passion.”
“Linda Himelstein has pulled off a remarkable storytelling feat.”
“To follow the lives of members of the Smirnov family in this vivid account is to experience the flow of Russian history from the 1830s until the present. ”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Linda Himelstein did an amazing job of telling the history of one family and capturing the history of an entire nation. The rise and fall of the Smirnov family is a compelling story in and of itself but Ms. Himelstein also shows how it mirrored events in Russia from the early 1800's into the 1930's. This was one heck of a read. Anyone with an interest in Russian history---or anyone who just really wants to read a well written story---should definitely check it out.
With great conviction and aplomb, author Linda Himelstein offers readers The King of Vodka, a business history, biography, and captivating tale rolled into one. A former reporter and bureau chief for Business Week magazine, Himelstein sweeps the reader into nineteenth-century Russia and the world and life of Pyotr Smirnov. Born into serfdom in 1831, Smirnov rose to business and social glory through his own smarts and resourcefulness ultimately to build and lord over the heavyweight of all vodkas. Himelstein's narrative captures the reader from the start. Here's a sampling: In her prologue about the scene at Smirnov's 1898 funeral, she writes, "As December 1898 arrived, a chill snuck up on Moscow like an invading army. Snow began to fall before daybreak and continued without interruption. Soon, a thick coat of white buried the city. Sledges, large wooden carriages that glided around town on metal runners, took the place of clumsier wheeled vehicles. Within a day, temperatures dropped another fifteen degrees, leaving Russia's then second-largest city in its more typical seasonal state: gray and frigid. ... The heavy wooden doors parted and the archdeacon from St. John the Baptist Church emerged, softly reciting prayers. A group carrying a coffin cover decorated with a wreath made of natural flowers fell into line after him. A choir came out then, singing the Holy God prayer, followed by a dozen workers... At last, a coffin emerged, draped in a sumptuous fabric made of golden brocade and raspberry velvet." Throughout the book Himelstein offers up colorful evidence of Smirnov's enterprising marketing tactics. He rounded up job hunters, took them to his house, fed them vodka and food, and presented his instructions: "Now I want you to go back to your neighborhoods, order meat soups, and demand Smirnov vodka everywhere you go." Refuse all substitutions, Smirnov told these early viral marketers and social networkers, and leave the pub in a huff. Highly compelling is Himelstein's placing Smirnov in historical and cultural context. Himelstein describes in vivid language the rising wave of Russian capitalism in the 1860s and 1870s and the forces that threatened the business: Tolstoy's anti-alcohol campaign, labor unrest, and, finally, the revolutionary fervor that ultimately resulted in the nationalization of the company. Himelstein's eye-popping level of research, which included traveling to Russia and tapping into hundreds of historical sources, including a newspaper that confirmed the weather on the day of Smirnov's funeral, allowed her to write this narrative with authority and passion. It's a wonderful read for anyone interested in Russian history or great entrepreneurs of the past, or anyone who yearns for a tale of human initiative and turmoil. A toast to The King of Vodka. -0-
Fascinating, thoroughly researched story of the Smirnov family beginning with the wildly improbable rise of a minimally educated serf to the heights of business and social success in 19th century Russia. The unfortunately predictable mismanagement of this vodka empire by the pampered squabbling second generation leads to the eventual decline of this business empire though historical events like the government takeover of the vodka industry and the Bolshevik revolution certainly play a role. The final chapters detail the introduction of Smirnoff vodka to America by a Russian businessman who purchases the recipes and rights from one of the family members who apparently no longer owned the business rights. To this day, hundreds of living Smirnov family members continue to wage legal battles to recover the family legacy as well as a share in the profits. Checkhov, Tolstoy, the Tsars, Rasputin, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, Faberge, Nobel, Lenin, Stalin, almost every famous Russian leader, writer and artist cross the stage of this fascinating human drama enlivening this account of 19th and 20th century Russian history.
GLEAMS OF CAPITALISM at the turn of the last century in Russia did NOT come from the individualism of the serfs who reached into the growing cities for their fortunes. Their chances grew when family member after family member pulled in fellow cousins, nephews, fathers, sons, uncles, and villagers into the new village of suppliers, workers, and purveyors of quality that appealed to the rich, charitable pillars of Moscow's community including the old Tsarist families. To start it all, they provisioned the customary cravings of their own kind: Linda Himelstein's treatment of the careful vodka flavors, the truckloads of fruits blocking thoroughfares to meet the demands of Pyotr Smirnov's burgeoning enterprise, and the inspiration of a man of high and surprisingly sober standards is palatably real. Each careful stepping stone he sought or built and crafted -- cleverly using the regime's own tastes and traits to label his brand -- lets you sense how one breath spells his next success or failure. Merchant classes were heavily tested by corrupt government requirements; his fair treatment of workers let him weather stoppages that plagued his competition; and he kept at it. Wives and children die young but those who survive and get educated beyond the dreams of their Smirnov forefathers lend their own worldly strengths over time. When prohibitionist forces and government monopolies pull down the family income to a few flavored liquors, members of Pyotr's spoiled and fatted progeny as well as old family connections rise again to reach into Europe and America for their next 'Smirnoff' franchise.one whose enormous market value today started as a glimmer in an uncle's drinking spot where a serf nephew learned to supply, mix and market their cheap yet quality vodka products. A joy and education to read, Linda's research and story of the Smirnovs is replete with the historical pressures of a Russia about to lose its Tsars to the Communists, and a family business whose quick rise and wealth boil down in the end to the same strengths of community and family relations that pulled their first generation out of serfdom in the first place.
Ms. Himelstein has written a wonderful history of the Smirnov family intertwined with a compelling narrative of a tumultuous 19th century Russia. The landscape of events takes us on twists and turns welding the evolution of the colorful Smirnov family and the impending revolution of Russia. Wonderful in depth research on Russian history a long with hard to find facts on the remarkable man Pyotr Smirnov and generations of Smirnovs. A must read!