It may become impossible to purchase and enjoy beer on any given street corner in Russia. This sad news stirred blurry memories of days and nights spent wandering Saint Petersburg’s streets with a Baltika beer in hand. How unfortunate it will be if other international students cannot experience the freedom and pleasure I once did.
Russia’s Duma, or lower house of legislature, is considering a proposal to limit where beer can be consumed so as to curtail the country’s rampant alcoholism, considered a “national tragedy” by President Dmitry Medvedev. The proposal would equate beer to vodka, or any other spirit. This legal reclassification of beer from foodstuff to alcoholic beverage runs contrary to Russian drinking culture, as Russians do not compare beer with spirits: “beer, which is usually less than 5 percent alcohol, does not rank in the public imagination with ‘real’ alcohol, such as vodka, at 40 percent.”
This cultural perception – as well as beer’s current legal status as an ordinary food product – produces a very different drinking experience. Namely, you can drink beer anywhere you want in Russia, just as you would a bottle of water or soda. Beer is so common that it’s sold out of vending machines in two liter plastic bottles. And a variety of pint bottles can always be found at those ubiquitous street kiosks. Along with a number of different beers these small shacks ordinarily sell dried meats, hard cheeses, a couple of different kinds of bread, and if you’re lucky, chocolates; everything you need for a quick snack or lunch on the go.
Relaxing with a tall stein in a beer garden is great fun, but drinking beer where ever you like is an absolutely liberating experience. I have enjoyed a bottle or two of tasty Russian beer while riding the metro, walking down the street, sitting in a park, or even on an amusement ride.
In the unlikely event the Duma’s proposal passes, beer could only be drunk in bars, restaurants, and in one’s home – just like here in the U.S. How lucky am I to have experienced the freedom of Russia’s law and passé culture attitude towards beer. Because I’ll always remember the night where, stuck in downtown Saint Petersburg after the drawbridges were raised, I enjoyed a lukewarm Baltika under a tree in Primorsky park and gazed out into summer’s White Nights.