“Free Yet Dry”: Alexander Voloshin Takes Down Prohibition

When our man Alexander Voloshin and his fellow émigrés, who had seen their share of suffering in the Old World, landed in the United States in the 1920s, they found much to celebrate — but one thing stuck in their craw. That something was prohibition and the Volstead Act, the puritanical law of the land, which wasn’t done away with until 1933. The émigrés had already had a taste of dry living. As I show in one of the first sections of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, the Tsarist ban on the sale of alcohol during the Great War led to much frustration and, with the coming of the Revolution, to mass raids on cellars and warehouses where wine and vodka were stored. It also led to clever workarounds.

In the brief third chapter of the second part of his epic, On the Tracks and at Crossroads, Voloshin reveals that those who fled the collapsing Russian Empire brought with them a few helpful recipes. A little bison grass or nutmeg and cinnamon and a visit to a drugstore (the kind Jay Gatsby owned a lot of) were all the émigrés needed to prepare some homemade Polish Żubrówka or Ukrainian Spotykach. Who cares about store-bought Shustov vodka when you can make your own? Never underestimate the entrepreneurial spirit of the spirit-loving immigrant.

Drinking is the joy of the Rus.
— from the Primary Chronicle

We had one headache: “Prohibition.”
All émigrés were grumbling, wishing
for a safe means to get a drink.
We often ended up hoodwinked
by “bootleggers,” with phony “whiskey.”
Quaffing that stuff was somewhat risky,
to say the least… Birthdays were bad —
there was no vodka to be had…
Who needs Dutch herring, when you dine
without a glass of beer or wine?
The shame of it! The country’s free
yet dry… However, presently
we found that every old drugstore
would sell us alcohol galore!
Physicians put us in the know,
explaining how to make solutions —
we’d learned all that already, though,
as sons of wars and revolutions…

Infusions were our sacrament:
with wormwood, bison grass, and mint,
as our forebears had done before,
we made liqueur upon liqueur…

These set our ladies’ eyes ablaze!
Wouldn’t you know it? Within days,
some ancient doctor made a batch
of real, authentic “Spotykach”!

With Shustov’s secrets all revealed
and breaded cutlets for our meal,
we’d down the “sixth part of an hin”
of Brooklyn’s finest rowan gin…

Руси есть веселье пити.
Из летописи

Сначала мучил «прохибишен»,
И среди русских — всюду слышен
Был недовольства мрачный гул:
Того — «бутлегер» поднадул
И продал дрянь под видом «виски»,
Тот — под горячия сосиски —
Вчера налег на местный «джин»
И отравился … Именин
Нельзя устроить, — нету водки…
К чему-ж голландские селедки,
Коль нет ни пива, ни вина?!…
Позор!… Свободная Страна,
А выпить — нечего!… Но — вскоре —
Мы приспособились: в «Дрог-Сторе»
Нашелся — спирт!… Гип-гип-ура!…
Тут помогли нам доктора,
Они рецепты нам писали,
Как разводить — мы сами знали,
Не даром были мы — войны
И революции — сыны!…

Нашлись: полынь, зубровка, мята,
И, чтя заветы дедов свято, —
Мы приготовили в момент
Весьма большой ассортимент…

Чтоб милых дам блистали взоры, —
Варить мы начали ликеры,
А некий старый русский врач,
Так даже делал — «Спотыкач»!…

Открылись Шустова секреты,
И под пожарские котлеты
Мы выпивали «по шестой» —
Рябины «бруклинской» настой!…


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