Russia may be a political and financial disaster, but when it comes to drinking, Americans have a lot to learn from their booze-swilling brethren. The first lesson: the art of drinking vodka.
Vodka drinking should not be undertaken by the faint of heart, nor by anyone with a low alcohol tolerance. It is meant to be imbibed one way, and one way only--as a straight shot. Chasers are acceptable. In fact, they are essential. But the purity of the vodka must remain uncompromised. Even the most uneducated peasant knows better than to waste superior liquor in mixed drinks. Consider yourself warned.
Which vodka you drink is a matter of individual choice, one of the better results of free-market reforms. If Absolut is your thing, so be it. A Cristall (distilled in Russia, naturally) is this expert's suggestion. At all costs, avoid flavored vodkas. Russians wouldn't condescend to give any vanilla-peach-mountain-berry vodka to their dog. If you're thinking along those lines, perhaps you should order a wine cooler instead and call it a night.
Now that you've made your vodka selection, insist that your shot be chilled. (Do not be afraid to remove your shoe and pound it on the bar to expedite service. It worked in the U.N., and it will work for you.) Make sure that all the necessary accoutrements are in place--chasers, cigarettes, and reference books (you will soon be arguing weighty issues).
As for chasers, zazuski in Russian, they are also a matter of individual choice. In a pinch, a simple crust of bread will suffice. But the more elaborate, the better. If caviar, herring, mushrooms, or pickles are within reach, by all means indulge. The question of liquid chasers--beer, mineral water, orange soda--is a more controversial one. Partake if you must, but be prepared for ridicule.
Finally, you are ready to drink. Russians are notorious for lengthy, rambling toasts, so prepare one--a maximum of five minutes, please. Or use the traditional Russian Na Zdarovya. Then:
1. Inhale deeply and hold your breath,
2. Tilt your head back and assume the expression of a tortured Dostoyevskian character, and . . .
3. Shoot it.
4. Exhale and follow with a chaser, or simply take a whiff of bread. (Don't ask, it works.)
If done properly, you'll be reciting Pushkin in no time.