The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire



  • James Beard Award Finalist

  • Winner of the Saroyan International Prize for Writing

The King of Vodka is a surprising and timely tale of courage, determination, triumph, and ultimately tragedy. It is also a hopeful story, one that proves that ingenuity and a bit of luck can trump entrenched societal prejudices and economic barriers. Pyotr Smirnov was an uneducated serf who came from virtually nothing to become one of Russia's wealthiest and most prominent merchants. His rags-to-riches-to-rags journey, which sparked the ire of Chekhov, the opposition of Tolstoy, and the respect of the Tsars, is a testament to the genius of the man himself as well as to the unexpected opportunities that surfaced in the final decades of the Romanov's rule.

By following the odyssey of Smirnov and his expansive family, readers are treated to the story of Russia itself. Smirnov was born in 1831 in a small village during one of Russia's worst cholera epidemics. Vodka was his ticket out of this peasant life, a commodity that for centuries has, in many ways, defined Russia and its citizens. Settling in Moscow, Smirnov basked in a golden age of reform that began with emancipation, relying on grassroots marketing to popularize his products and establish his brand. His life became one of privilege. Smirnov's ascent would have continued uninterrupted had it not been for a series of devastating labor strikes, social uprisings, and a government-imposed vodka monopoly. Ultimately, the Smirnovs lost it all, high-profile yet typical victims of the Bolshevik revolution and the chaos it unleashed. Were it not for the bizarre escape of one of Smirnov's sons from a prison in 1919, Smirnov's legacy would have almost certainly faded into oblivion. Instead, Smirnoff vodka today is the best-selling premium spirit in the world, a drink beloved by British spy James Bond since the 1960s, and a brand worth an estimated $4.7 billion. 

The result of exhaustive and meticulous research, The King of Vodka is a captivating and memorable narrative.


The Wall Street Journal, Joseph Tartakovsky
a colorful chronicle of the rise of a business. Ms. Himelstein, a veteran journalist, keeps her narrative moving neatly along, distilling complex matters of commerce into a clear and readable form. Read the review 

USA TODAY, Steve Weinberg
Himelstein makes Russian history and even current politics come alive through an unlikely narrative thread — the creation of a fortune and the eventual demise of a vodka-producing family. Read the review

Business Week
Himelstein brings thorough research and strong writing to bear on a fascinating subject. Read the review

San Francisco Chronicle, Jordan Mackay
The book is an impressive feat of research, told swiftly and enthusiastically, and brings depth and substance to a product that is otherwise bereft. Read the review

San Jose Mercury News
The tale of Pyotr Smirnov — son of a 19th century Russian serf who rose to power and prestige as the head of a vodka empire — reads more like vivid cinematic script than meticulously researched nonfiction. Read the review

Miami Herald
an astonishing tale of upward mobility in Czarist Russia.

The Kansas City Star

He didn't have Twitter, Facebook or even television, but Pyotr Smirnov still built his vodka into the dominant brand in Russia. Linda Himelstein tells how he did it, overcoming his serf status and lack of education. His story includes plenty of colorful characters, including one Leo Tolstoy, temperance leader, and tells what life was like in 19th and early 20th century Russia.

The New York Daily News
In The King of Vodka, journalist Linda Himelstein delivers the intriguing back story of how the international swig of choice came into being.

Publishers Weekly

Journalist Himelstein recaptures Russia's golden age through the eyes of the former serf-turned vodka entrepreneur, Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov (1831-1898). While the dozens of obstacles, including the closure of the Imperial Archives and a dearth of information about Smirnov's years of serfdom, might have deterred lesser researchers, Himelstein has triumphed with a timeless book that entertains, informs and inspires any would-be entrepreneur to chase his dreams. 

Booklist, Gilbert Taylor
Had Pyotr Smirnov (1831-98) been literary-minded, he might have entitled a memoir Up from Serfdom. But he was all business, as recounted in this history of the famous vodka brand. Recalling the entrepreneurial milieu in which Smirnov distilled and marketed his way to success, Himelstein points to the Muscovite uncle in the vodka trade who provided her provincial protagonist's toehold in the world of commerce. Capping the saga with the legal survival of the Smirnov trademarks, Himelstein's storytelling success distills diligent research into something appealing to popular tastes for family and Russian history alike. 

Kirkus Reviews
A well-concocted blend of business and political history.

John Sandstrom, Library Journal
Manager of Collection Development and Acquisitions, El Paso Public Library)
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 tsarist Russia, and Pyotr Smirnov was one of the great men of his time.

Richard Auffrey,
The King of Vodka presents a biography and history of Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov and the vodka company he created, extending from the early 19th century through today. It is a fascinating story, how a serf (roughly equivalent to a slave) became a very wealthy man through sales of vodka.
It is well worth a read and I am sure you will find the story as fascinating as I did.

Russian Life 
Himelstein is in her element, recounting one of the great business stories of the past century with insight and wit. This is not just an able portrait of this gentrifying merchant family, but a richly-textured account of life, love, labor and loss before and after the Bolshevik revolution.

Tom Barlow,
Himelstein's focus on authoritative sources and an ability to weave historical facts into an interesting narrative render this book a fascinating read and a revelatory tale. Before you order that next vodka martini, you might consider giving it a read. You'll never look at your cocktail the same again.


Kepler's Books 
This is, in the best possible way, history through the bottom of a vodka glass. By telling the story of Pyotr Smirnov, the author is able to give us a unique view of Russia in the 19th and early 20th century, as we follow Smirnov from his beginning as a serf to his funeral as a vodka supplier to the Tsar. A fascinating look, not only at his life, but also the times he prospered in.

Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, Forest Park IL.
"This is a well written and entertaining history!"

Barnes and Noble,
The King of Vodka is a "meticulously researched and notably sober historical narrative , spanning centuries and continents...Like the man who is her subject, Himelstein's approach is careful, orderly and disciplined.


Tom Gjelten, author of Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba and correspondent for National Public Radio
Russia is a land of epic struggle, and vodka is the spirit of its tormented soul. Pyotr Smirnov and his extended family provide Linda Himelstein with a cast of unforgettable characters and a vivid narrative that embodies and explains Russia's 100-year journey from Tsarism to Bolshevism. I can think of no better way to bring this wrenching story to life. The King of Vodka is a triumph. 

Julia Flynn Siler, author of The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty
Linda Himelstein has pulled off a remarkable storytelling feat.
 Through the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of the Smirnoff family, she transports you to the world of 19th and early 20th century Russia, from the vodka wars that ravaged Tsarist society to the anti-alcohol movement championed by Chekhov to the revolution that toppled Imperial Russia. With stunning research from the Russian archives, she has woven together a fascinating tale of brilliance and destruction. Bravo! 

Alice Schroeder, author of Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
Through impressive research and gifted narration, Himelstein unearths and polishes the Dickensian story of Pyotr Smirnov, a strong-willed Russian entrepreneur whose wily maneuverings created the eponymous brand that remains a household name. The intriguing twists and turns of Smirnov's life will appeal even to readers who don't care for Bloody Marys. Himelstein's grasp of the intertwining of politics and business also yields a parallel story: How Russia's nineteenth-century experiment with capitalism contributed to the country's transition from an oppressive yet orderly Tsarist social order into a nation battered by chaos and revolution..

Patricia HerlihyProfessor Emeritus, History, Brown University, and author of The Alcoholic Empire
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. Pyotr Smirnov's life belies the notion that entrepreneurship, capitalism, and business acumen were unknown in tsarist Russia. Himelstein's fascinating history, based on solid scholarship, including archival sources, is infused with lively prose. Tracing the flow of vodka in Russia and abroad in Himelstein's narrative is a thrilling experience. 

Tilar Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot
The story of the Smirnov family is an operatic tour-de-force, and Linda Himelstein tells it with grace and passion. From the early rituals that turned vodka into an essential part of the Russian way of life to the invention of the martini in the 1950s as part of a brilliant Smirnov marketing campaign, this is the tale of James Bond's drink of choice and its origins in a tangled and sometime tormented nineteenth-century family history. As much a book about the vexed history of Russian entrepreneurship and vodka's role in the world of wine and spirits as the astonishing story of Pytor Smirnov, The King of Vodka a new kind of cultural biography.

Lo que estamos leyendo: El Rey del Vodka
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"Linda Himelstein combines politics, business, personal tragedies and a spirit of resilience in an enthralling epic narrative." Read the review

The National Post, Andre Ramshaw
Author Linda Himelstein is more than up to the job in The King of Vodka, a gripping sweep of entrepreneurial zeal and human suffering that is as much Dostoevsky parable as economics draft. Read the review

The Southland Times
Whether or not vodka is your favourite tipple, and whether or not you're into history, The King of Vodka: The story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire is a fascinating saga of one man who made a huge difference to a whole nation. read the review

Ironia Fina
A extraordinária história da vodca Smirnoff, criada por um empreendedor russo em meados do século 19 e que se tornou uma das marcas mais conhecidas e charmosas do mundo... read the review

Quadrant Online - Hitting the Hard Stuff
Not that I’m a booze-hound or anything, but after reviewing the life story of Madame Cliquot, the champagne tsarina (Quadrant, May 2009), I thought it would be interesting to see what the life story of a man of hard spirits had to offer... read the review