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the king of vodka


The research effort required to bring about The King of Vodka was massive. Over more than four years, Ms. Himelstein and Tatiana Glezer, a researcher and translator in Moscow, culled through multiple archives in Russia and the United States. At times, the tasks were exhilarating, unearthing new and fresh details to bring the Smirnov's saga to life. In other cases, the research was frustrating or worse, fruitless. Archival documents were sometimes lost, unobtainable, or incomplete, revealing gaps in the story's narrative. Here are our top 10 most colorful and surprising highlights-both good and bad-of the odyssey that led to the creation of The King of Vodka.


snow10. THE WEATHER: On the day Smirnov was buried, newspapers reported that a cold front was sweeping through Moscow. Though it was already December, snow was falling for the first time in weeks. What we didn't know was whether temperatures were cold enough to keep the snow on the ground. This detail was important in being able to describe the scene that day. We assumed this fact would be found quickly. Instead, it took weeks of work to come up with the right answer. Weather was not recorded in the 19th century the way it is today, and Russia's contemporary weather experts could not help. Finally, the information was found in an old newspaper.

rubles9. CONVERTING 19th CENTURY RUBLES TO 21st CENTURY DOLLARS: This was one of the toughest challenges. The currencies were not based on the same standard and there is no readily available formula for translating the different currencies. Finally, with help, we developed a multi-step process that first converted rubles into sterling pounds and then into U.S. dollars.

8. THE EARLY YEARS: Tracing Smirnov's earliest years proved a daunting task. His birthplace, Kayurovo, no longer exists. His local church is gone as well. No archives or written memoirs about life in Kayurovo in the 1830s could be located. Even small details, such as whether a school existed in Smirnov's town, proved elusive. Luckily, we found a book answering some of our questions. We also relied on oral histories from local ethnographers to recreate the environment in which Smirnov likely lived.  

7. REMEMBRANCES OF VLADIMIR SMIRNOV AS RECORDED BY HIS THIRD WIFE, TATIANA MAKSHEYEVA: This invaluable resource, uncovered early on in the archives at Columbia University's Bakhmeteff Archive as well as in Russian language publications in Europe, provided one of the few personal accounts of Smirnov's life. His third son's remembrances recounted numerous details that would otherwise have been unknown, from Smirnov's parenting style to Vladimir's frightening ordeal in a Bolshevik prison.

6. THE IMPERIAL ARCHIVES: Closed since 2005, this trove of information relating to the time of the tsars was virtually inaccessible. Any research endeavor requiring these archives took many more months than expected. Obtaining Smirnov's application to become the tsar's vodka purveyor, for instance, took more than five months.

archives5. LUCKY DAYS: Thank goodness for good fortune. On more than one occasion, while researching one particular topic we stumbled on invaluable and previously unknown information. For example, while hunting for the Smirnov's old passports in the Central Historical Archives of Moscow, we were advised to investigate a different file that covered the police department. Surprisingly, we found an unrelated file about Vladimir Smirnov. It turned out to be an application for a gun permit, requested as Russia grew more and more unstable in the early 1900s.

4. PYATIGORSK: Vladimir Smirnov was sent to one of the prisons in the Pyatigorsk area when he was captured after the revolution. Only partial information about the prison at the time could be obtained as files from the central Pyatigorsk prison were burned during World War II. Lists of inmates, for instance, could not be located. Vladimir's own recollection as well as reports about the prison written years later provided most of the details necessary for the book.

This accomplished Russian researcher was a gift to the making of The King of Vodka. He had worked on the Smirnov's history and was exceedingly generous in sharing his findings. He provided us with documents as well as with solid counsel throughout the research process.

research_at_harvard2. THE SMIRNOV VODKA ARCHIVE AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Halfway through the research, we learned that Harvard had obtained hundreds of documents related to the Smirnov's story. At the time, they were not catalogued or available to the public. Nonetheless, we managed to gain access to these documents, many of which had already been translated from Russian into English. This resource included information related to the destiny of the Smirnovs and their brand, particularly in the aftermath of the revolution.

1. SMIRNOV'S DESCENDANTS: Without them this book would have never been written. Three books have been published in Russia with varying accounts of the Smirnov's history. In addition, lawsuits were filed on behalf of members of the family in several courts, including in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. These books and legal documents provided the initial seeds of the idea for The King of Vodka.


tatianaTatiana Glezer - Ms. Glezer holds degrees from the prestigious Higher School of Economics in Moscow and from the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, an affiliate of Manchester University in England. She began her career in journalism, writing an online column for a popular internet site in Russia. Ms. Glezer then moved into the business arena, working as project manager at a leading market research firm. She joined The King of Vodka project in 2005 after meeting Ms. Himelstein in Russia during a research trip. As an investigator and translator, Ms. Glezer became adept at combing through Russia's massive archive labyrinth, pulling together key pieces of the Smirnov's amazing narrative. She lives in Moscow with her family.