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The Vat, the Bucket and Some Glasses--a Still Life of Rural Russia

Alcohol: Despite repeated crackdowns, samogon is the common currency in hardscrabble villages.


PODLESNAYA TAVLA, Russia — Here is a desperate recipe: Take an old Russian washing machine, toss in a few ounces of yeast, a 22-pound sack of sugar, a gallon of fresh milk and 10 gallons of water, churn the brew for two hours and distill.

If this method for instant homemade vodka fails to produce the desired effect, there is an answer in every Russian village.

In Podlesnaya Tavla, 330 miles southeast of Moscow, you just call on the woman known as Auntie Masha. One step inside her cheerful, spotless kitchen and it is obvious why hers is the most knocked-on door: the raw, yeasty fumes of homemade moonshine.

In rural Russia few can afford vodka, but everyone can get samogon, or moonshine.

The recipe for samogon in three hours comes from a slim pink booklet containing 140 moonshine recipes, including alcohol made from tea, bread, rice, potatoes, beet root or other staples. Ostap Bender, a favorite rascal in Russian fiction, said you could even make samogon from a taburetka--a wooden stool.

In villages where almost nothing else pays, samogon turns a tidy profit. When demand is buoyant--on holidays and weekends, for example--Auntie Masha can sell as many as 38 pints a day of samogon, which would gobble up 44 pounds of sugar and 4.4 pounds of yeast for her recipe. That brings in $25, leaving Auntie Masha $14.50 after expenses.

Because of the risk of a fine--about $350--she declined to give her last name.

On a recent frosty morning, the sun peering wanly through her kitchen window, Auntie Masha bustled about snatching glasses, matches and a great rock of homemade bread. She poured a lick of the cold spirit onto her table and carefully ignited it, smiling proudly as a flame leaped up like a blue imp. If the liquor is less than 80 proof, it won't burn.

"You know it's good quality if your head feels clear but your feet are uncertain," said Auntie Masha, 62, a lively woman with jolly apple cheeks, plump fingers, dancing eyes and an infectious laugh. The shelves in her kitchen stand as crooked as a drunken customer.

Auntie Masha's still, a gift from a relative who made it at work, is a rustic stove-top vat connected to a fat pipe spiraling into a bucket. The fermented brew of sugar and yeast is heated to boiling; the steam passes through cold water and condenses as samogon.

To be safe, she keeps the big vat concealed behind a curtain in the bedroom. She removed the cover, calling for quiet to let the fermenting brew speak: a faint tickling sound as the bubbles rose. Strings of brownish yeast floated on the surface.

Long Line of Brewers in Auntie Masha's Family

"People have been brewing their own samogon since time immemorial: my mother and her mother and grandmother," she said.

In the Brezhnev era, from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, family members risked jail terms of several years making black market samogon. "It was really strict then. We would fill our vats, load them on a horse and cart, haul them off into the woods and hide them there," she recalled.

With his political reforms during the 1980s, former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev introduced a nationwide crackdown on alcohol, but that didn't stop people from brewing their own.

"We paid no attention. We kept on going, quietly. We can't live without alcohol, and we can't afford vodka," she explained.

Her samogon sells for about 70 cents for a half-liter, compared with about $1.25 for the cheapest commercial vodka available there.

Potatoes were used in the past by samogon makers only in desperate times because "you drink a whole bottle of potato vodka and never get drunk," said Auntie Masha. Nor does she labor over beet root samogon, which has to be repeatedly filtered through washed charcoal until "it comes out as clear as a child's tears."

For some villagers, samogon is reserved for visitors and special occasions; for others, it is the string they thread their days on.

Auntie Masha has no shortage of customers. Some locals put the number of people who drink to excess in the village as high as 50%, though Podlesnaya Tavla is considered no worse than other villages here in the republic of Mordovia, or indeed throughout rural Russia.

About three dozen men in the village do mostly seasonal work for the collective farm and get paid in samogon, grain and food. Dmitry Fedoseyev, spokesman for the Mordovia Interior Ministry, said farm workers are often paid in sugar for harvesting sugar beet.

"So they use sugar to make moonshine, and then moonshine plays the role of hard currency. For example, if a babushka wanted her neighbor to fix her well or roof, she would pay him with a bottle of moonshine," he said. "Practically everyone makes samogon."

Many vodka plants work at less than half their capacity because they can't compete with samogon, according to one local official.

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