The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire

The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire

4.3 9
by Linda Himelstein
     
 

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“A operatic tour-de-force.” —Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot

“An impressive feat of research, told swiftly and enthusiastically.” —San Francisco Chronicle

From Vanderbilt and Rockefeller to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, America’s captains of industry are paragons of entrepreneurial success, and

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Overview

“A operatic tour-de-force.” —Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot

“An impressive feat of research, told swiftly and enthusiastically.” —San Francisco Chronicle

From Vanderbilt and Rockefeller to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, America’s captains of industry are paragons of entrepreneurial success, and books about business history, from The First Tycoon to The Big Short, show exemplars of capitalistic cunning and tenacity…but just as American cocktail connoisseurs can mistake Absolut, Skyy, Grey Goose, or Ketel One for the quintessential clear spirit, so too has America’s vision of business history remained naïve to a truth long recognized in Eastern Europe: since the time of Tsar Nicholas, both vodka and commercial success have been synonymous in Russia with one name—Smirnoff. Linda Himelstein’s critically acclaimed biography of Russian vodka scion Pyotr Smirnov—a finalist for the James Beard Award, winner of the IACP and Saroyan Awards, and a BusinessWeek Best Business Book of 2009—is the sweeping story of entrepreneurship, empire, and epicurean triumph unlike anything the world has ever seen before.

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Editorial Reviews

Julia Flynn Siler
“Linda Himelstein has pulled off a remarkable storytelling feat.”
Patricia Herlihy
"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. "
Tilar J. Mazzeo
“The story of the Smirnov family is an operatic tour-de-force, and Linda Himelstein tells it with grace and passion.”
Professor Patricia Herlihy
“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. ”
San Francisco Chronicle
“The book is an impressive feat of research, told swiftly and enthusiastically.”
BusinessWeek
“Himelstein brings thorough research and strong writing to bear on a fascinating subject.”
Miami Herald
“An astonishing tale...”
USA Today
“Himelstein makes Russian history and even current politics come alive.”
Publishers Weekly

Journalist Himelstein recaptures Russia's golden age through the eyes of the former serf-turned vodka entrepreneur, Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov (1831-1898). From his early days as a "small-time liquor peddler" to one of Russia's richest men, Smirnov was the nemesis of teetotaling Tolstoy-who blamed the country's late 19th-century woes on his countrymen's thirst for alcohol. As the first Russian brand architect and seller of high-quality, low-cost liquor, Smirnov makes for a fascinating subject in his trajectory and outsize ambition. He applied for the title of Purveyor to the Imperial Court, but "the tsar's refusal, rather than deflating Smirnov's outsized ambition, emboldened it. It aroused something deep inside the man, a creative spark that transformed Smirnov from a competent businessman into one of the most ingenious marketers of his time." 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. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

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. Himelstein (former Silicon Valley bureau chief, BusinessWeek) documents Smirnov from his beginnings as a serf in mid-19th-century Russia to his rise to the pinnacle of prerevolutionary society. She also looks at the effect vodka had on that society and the effect the revolution had on the Smirnov family (the distillery was confiscated, prompting Smirnov's business to expand beyond Russia). Himelstein continues following the brand and the family up to the present, including the machinations of various branches of the Smirnov family to regain control of the Smirnov name. This is an extremely well researched book, to be expected from a journalist of Himelstein's stature. She succeeds in making the intertwined stories of the Smirnov family and of Russia both academically rigorous and accessible to general readers curious to know more about their favorite vodka's history.
—John Sandstrom

Kirkus Reviews
A heady tale of tying one on royally-and, after briefly enjoying the ride, paying the consequences. For hundreds of years, writes business journalist Himelstein, vodka has been at once Russia's curse and its fuel, the stuff whereby its soldiers brought Napoleon and Hitler to ruin but condemned themselves and their compatriots to misery as well. Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov knew that misery well. Born into serfdom in a time of cholera and appalling infant mortality rates, he had the luck of being manumitted in the mid-19th century, at a period when the royal monopoly on certain kinds of alcohol manufacture was being relaxed. All he had to do was swear to not being a Jew, among a few other qualifications, and Smirnov was able to set up shop and acquire a fortune that, in time, "topped 10 million rubles (roughly $132.7 million), making him one of the wealthiest men in all of Russia." Smirnov's good fortune-and that of his rivals the Popovs and other distillers great and small-was that the tsarist's statisticians had acquired a keen appreciation of how much revenue alcohol sales brought the state. Of course, this had negative consequences too, and some of the most interesting passages in Himelstein's well-constructed narrative concern the delicate balance that Russia's leaders have had to strike between abstemiousness and alcoholic ruin in order the keep the wheels of the state turning. Smirnov's success came at a price to his heirs, beginning with a reimposition of the state monopoly on alcohol near the time of his death and continuing with the rise of communism, when some Smirnovs disappeared into the Gulag while others escaped to the West-including one who founded subsidiary ventures that, in1934, would see the manufacture of the storied vodka in the United States. A well-concocted blend of business and political history. Author appearances in San Francisco Bay Area

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060855918
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
11/30/2010
Series:
P.S. Series
Pages:
384
Product dimensions:
8.14(w) x 11.64(h) x 1.18(d)

What People are saying about this

Tilar J. Mazzeo
“The story of the Smirnov family is an operatic tour-de-force, and Linda Himelstein tells it with grace and passion.”
Julia Flynn Siler
“Linda Himelstein has pulled off a remarkable storytelling feat.”
Patricia Herlihy
“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. ”

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