BOOK REVIEW / A water and tonic please: that's the spirit: 'A History of Vodka' - William Pokhlebkin, Tr. Renfrey Clarke: Verso, 17.95 pounds

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THE COMMODITY historian, someone recently wrote, now walks tall. Erudite biographies of wood, salt, oil, coal, bananas and potatoes have opened up an engaging new path for scholars. The emphasis on one product allows them to blend sturdy economic truths with delicious anecdotes. It releases them from the usual pageant of kings, wars and political rivalries, and urges them towards an egalitarian interest in everyday life.

In this context, a history of vodka seems both natural and superb. It's a beautiful subject: an essence made from water, and forged by fire. What could better symbolise the life of the Russian peoples than the career of this colourless but vibrant spirit? Beloved of Tsars and serfs alike, vodka seems easily capable of representing what amounts to a distillation of the Russian soul. There is even something unmistakably geopolitical in the way the timid West feels obliged to dilute the stuff with various tonics, while the manly Russians knock it back in strong, uncompromising bolts.

William Pokhlebkin's previous subject was tea, so he is a serious and committed drinker. And his book is filled, as it is almost bound to be, with intriguing revelations. Not many people know, perhaps, that vodka means 'water'. The Russian for water is voda, and -ka is the diminutive, so really it means something like 'waterette'. This all seems pleasingly ironic until we are reminded that many other strong spirits are similarly named. France's eau de vie and Scandinavia's akvavit both derive from the Latin aqua vitae (water of life) - and even whisky comes, via the Gaelic uisge beatha, from the same provident spring.

At any rate, vodka has played a strong part in the life of Russia. A decree of 1721 entitled soldiers to an allowance of two mugs a day: one and a half litres. The military enthusiasm for vodka inspired the tragic defeat of two armies at the Pyana river in 1377: all the soldiers were drunk. The river was named after the dismal scene - the Russian word for smashed is piany.

Pokhlebkin also provides an almost neat summary of the origins of distillation, which began with the manufacture of pitch. Pine logs were heated in cauldrons until the resin emerged as vapour and was condensed. The idea of boiling up water with certain flavourings - grain, potatoes, herbs - and collecting the distilled spirit was only a step away. The great days of the pitch industry in Russia were in the 13th and 14th centuries, which encourages the author to assume that the production of Russian vodka has the same origins.

It sounds fair enough, and we should normally be happy enough to go along with that. But this is a very odd book indeed: far from indulging an intellectual curiosity about the genesis and subsequent career of vodka in the life of the world, Pokhlebkin is driven by an urgent and specific need to establish that Russian vodka is older than Polish vodka.

It is a matter of some commercial importance. We usually think of vodka as Russian - our own manufacturers have gone to great lengths to emphasise its imperious Slavic flavour. But this didn't stop Western companies claiming, in 1977, the exclusive right to the word 'vodka', on the grounds that they began production earlier than their Russian competitors. Then Poland started insisting that vodka was invented in the bits of Lithuania and Ukraine that were then part of the Kingdom of Poland.

Pokhlebkin is a loyalist of a comically old-fashioned sort. He refers longingly to the days of the state monopoly and snobbishly discounts the Russian reputation for drunkenness as the work of saboteurs among the 'lumpenproletariat'. Most of all, he is as anxious as the hard-drinking soldiers at Stalingrad to resist the onslaught from abroad. In the process, his book becomes a farce. He accuses the Poles of being treacherous back-stabbers, and dismisses their claim as 'a perverse joke'. The translation is less than shrewd in this area, permitting the book to regurgitate familiar chronic slogans - 'Anti-Soviet factions had long been gathering strength in Poland. They were closely linked with various reactionary circles in Europe and America.'

The really unfortunate and slightly hilarious thing is that Pokhlebkin is not able to provide much evidence. He searches for proof, but he can only find 40 per cent. He insists on the fact right, left and centre, but Russian dictionaries did not recognise vodka as a specific type of grain spirit until the 1860s. Until then, the term was a catch-all for what the translator calls 'spirituous liquor'.

This failure, which is partly attributable to the chronic unhelpfulness of documentary archives in Moscow, drives the author to some wild flights of rhetoric. He is always saying 'almost certainly' and 'can safely be assumed'; the absence of any references to the word 'vodka' in earlier times, he pleads, was due to the crushing influence of a sedate, bourgeois language that was too wet to look the word in the face.

Unwittingly, the book serves as a case study in how lazy and lofty the Russian elite can be. 'Only vodka from Russia is real Russian vodka,' he insists. 'Every government has shown concern for the quality and uniformity of the spirit. Officials who might offend against its rules are always individual, lowly placed, venal functionaries.' Always? The state is always right, the individual always wrong? It is tempting to hope that the author of this complacent dogma is somehow on the rocks, or has turned to drink.

'Anything which does not conform to these rules,' he concludes, 'should be mercilessly rejected as vulgar, uncultivated and historically unauthentic, that is, as the mark of a boor and not of a Russian gentleman.' It makes you think that the West is not so decadent, after all. For the price of this captivating but wholly frivolous book you could buy a large bottle of something cold, peppery and intoxicating. A sobering thought.