Heavy drinking is a tradition in the Slavic world, of course. Few adult males chose to face life's problems without a double-measure of high-octane spirit pumping through their veins. In an attempt to minimalize the corrosive effect of state alcoholism, former Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev instituted a large-scale anti-drinking campaign in 1985: closing factory bars, outlawing the sale of firewater before 2pm, banning it at official functions. Among his predecessors there had been many legendary drinkers, including Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko, who is thought to have died from cirrhosis. Almost immediately the campaign—backed by the All-Union Voluntary Society for the Struggle for Sobriety—led to an increase in life expectancy as well as a bloom of pregnancies.
But then illicit production in a million communist kitchens undermined the prohibition campaign, leading to a massive rise in consumption. Over the next few years both mortality and childbirth in the old USSR dropped by a factor so dramatic as to be unprecedented anywhere in the world in peacetime. Transnistria is one of the places where the terrible damage can be seen.
"Light white grapes, with neutral aroma and high acidity, are best for cognac," cooed Elena Gontsa, explaining to me the process of double distillation, and the ageing in oak barrels to give aroma and color. "Our barrels, some as old as fifty years, used to be imported from France and Spain. Now they come from Nagorno-Karabakh."
To many insiders Transnistria—a Russian enclave 500 miles west of Mother Russia with its own currency, stamps, parliament and armed forces—exists specifically to facilitate illegal activities. Its secret factories are said to have supplied arms to Chechnya and electrical cable for Iran's nuclear power programme. So many trailer loads of chicken have been imported duty-free, then trafficked in secret to the Ukraine, that every Transnistrian apparently eats 60 kilos of the meat per year. Last year a kilogram of radioactive uranium-235—a type of uranium that can be used in nuclear weapons—was seized in nearby Chisinau, among its smugglers were two Transnistrians. But many residents seem to be too sozzled to care.
It's not only alcohol which has halved Transnistria's population over the last two decades. In the last twelve months alone at least one father, mother, son or daughter from 40% of families has moved abroad to find work. The state budget clocks up a 70% deficit every year. Bold vision is needed to save the country—and its citizen's livers—from ruin.
Back in Kvint's elegant degustation room though, Elena Gontsa and I sampled a last mouthful of Solnechny. The rare, amber nectar had been produced in 1967 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Great Russian Revolution ("Solnechny" means "sunny," as if to herald a sunny Soviet future). The delicious intoxicant quickly went to my head. Unexpectedly I remembered an anti-Soviet toast from Cold War days. Back then I'd seen a Polish sailor raise his glass and call out, "To the Red Fleet." After a suitably dramatic pause he'd added, "To the bottom" and drained his glass.
In jest I related the anecdote to my fair companion. In response her clear, blue eyes clouded in anger.
"It was a joke," I explained in my light-headed confusion.
"This joke is not funny," replied Elena Gontsa.
Rory MacLean is the author of nine books including the UK top ten Stalin's Nose. He has won awards from the Canada Council and the Arts Council of England as well as a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary prize. His history of Berlin will be published in February 2014. His new book Back in the USSR -- Heroic Adventures in Transnistria, with photographs by Nick Danziger, is being crowd-funded through Unbound. Watch their glorious, politically-incorrect video (and pledge for a copy of the book) at http://unbound.co.uk/books/back-in-the-ussr.
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