James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Nobody Does Dive Bars Like Russia Does Dive Bars

Nobody Does Dive Bars Like Russia Does Dive Bars

Vodka in St. Petersburg

For a non-Russian speaker, a frosty welcome is included along with your shot of vodka and a side of pickled cucumber at any ryumochnaya, a Russian basement bar that serves alcohol and food on the cheap. Such a patron is perhaps not unwelcome, but he is a subject of curiosity all the same, and Russian equivalent of curiosity is a steely, piercing stare.

Receding further from the hip bars of St. Petersburg in the Mayakovskaya area, building No.20 Café-bar Lighthouse is a ryumochnaya. Traditionally, these are cheap bars, and they retain their aura with suitable décor: nylon window curtains and football memorabilia. Gruff, blonde and brunette babushkas with short hair wearing black overalls and brash lipstick roam the room, clearing the crammed tables and serving alcohol behind the bar.

Official Soviet prohibitions on alcohol appeared sporadically throughout the various eras of the Russian political landscape in the 1900s, the last one as recently as 1985, when the Soviet Union’s last premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, introduced alcohol reform measures, including increased prices on spirits and restrictions on when they could be served.

Russians, however, have always found ways to get their alcohol fix. Ryumochnayas are a product of defiance against these anti-alcohol measures throughout the ages. There is no clear history behind when ryumochnayas appeared in the Russian drinking scene. Some reports claim it was in the 19th century in St. Petersburg, while some say it was after World War II, after the Bolshevik anti-alcohol campaign proved futile. Roots for the word ryumochnaya come from ryumka, Russian for vodka glass. Thanks to the modernization of Russian drinking establishments, many of these basement bars are closed, but a few of them exist today, serving a wide cross-section of clientele ranging from government officials to cash-strapped students celebrating each other’s birthdays.

Lighthouse’s bartender, a woman who looks to be in her 30s, fixes her stare on me in baleful suspicion. She hasn’t seen a non-Russian walking into her bar, let alone a non-Russian with a camera. Lucky for me, I am accompanied by my couchsurfing host Nikolai.

There’s a bias against ryumochnayas, a feeling that they are patronized by low-class people with drinking problems; Nikolai certainly feels that way. The tables are occupied by elderly men and women who seem to be from the weekday-night-alcohol-club alongside beer guzzling art-student-types. However, there is no class stigma inside the walls of a ryumochnaya, not, at least, in the progressive city of counter cultures, St. Petersburg. The bar is doing brisk business, with patrons speaking raspy Russian spilling in and out of its doors.

Perhaps ryumochnayas were once reserved for down-on-their-luck Russians having their fix of cheap booze over raucous conversation. But the few hip youngsters in square-frame glasses and expensive smart phones with a bottle of wine do not seem to fit Nikolai’s idea of the place. I point this out to him. Yeah, he agrees reluctantly—they look like they don’t belong here.

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