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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Army Salutes Itself With Drink, or Two

In 1917, the Bolsheviks proved that a small minority can rally itself to great heights and seize the reins of power in one day of determined, coordinated action.


Since 1919, their example has been followed once every year on Army Day, when the determined drinking of 1 percent or 2 percent of the population -- the army -- leaves a sharp vertical spike in the sales graphs of nearly every Moscow distillery.


The Bolsheviks are gone, but in Moscow on Friday, the Red Army they created continued their great Dionysian tradition.


"We're on course to sell about 10,000 cases of beer today," said Irina Ilichina, assistant director of the Ostankansky Beer Brewery. "On an average day, we sell about 8,000. We usually see a 20 percent to 25 percent increase on Army Day."


"Are we selling more? What do you think?" laughed Timur Azayev of Intermes, a liquor distributor. "We won't go broke today, that's all I'll say."


Army Day, now officially known as Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland, was created in 1919 to commemorate the heroic resistance of the Red forces on Feb. 18 to 24 in 1918, when the German army launched a major offensive against Petrograd, Pskov and Narva.


According to a Soviet-era book "Our Holidays," it was only the help of "tens of thousands of civilians who voluntarily joined the ranks of the Red Army" which allowed the Bolsheviks to drive back the Germans in this decisive battle.


Did Sasha Bogatirev, a soldier who Friday afternoon could be found wandering with a bottle of vodka in each hand near the Belorussky Station, know the inspiring story of how Army Day was created?


"Sure," he said, nodding. "They drank. They thought it up."


In terms of sheer quantity, Army Day, in comparison with other holidays, is not usually Russia's drunkest day.


Spokesmen for Kristall, one of Moscow's largest vodka factories, said that the holiday is well down on their list of major sales occasions, trailing New Year's Eve and Women's Day, among others.


And Ilichina said this year's Army Day output won't even reach half of their all-time record for beer sales, which was 23,000 cases on Jan. 6, 1995, Orthodox Christmas Eve.


But on New Year's and Christmas, everyone drinks. On Army Day, for the most part, it's just soldiers -- and yet they still manage to consume enough to put a dent not only in the city liquor supply, but in the city itself.


"The number of accidents goes up on Army Day, I have to admit," said Viktor Priznikovsky, a spokesman for the city traffic police. "A lot of people wake up the next day with new dents."


Vladimir Zubkov, a spokesman for the police, said the number of crimes in Moscow does not increase significantly on Army Day.


But he noted that patrolmen are forced to bring a different attitude to work for the holiday.


"We exercise a little extra patience," he said. "We have a lot of those incidents where people have a little too much to drink. And where normally we might arrest someone, on the holiday we just say, please, wake up, get off that statue, etc. In short, we try to be understanding."


Zubkov said that as of early Friday afternoon, no serious incidents had been reported.


But, no doubt, the partying was underway.


All over Moscow and the Moscow region, soldiers on army bases spent the early evening at special banquets and dinners organized by their officers to celebrate the holiday.


But food is generally secondary to the evening's central activity, when the enlisted men go off, as it is called in army jargon, po interesam, or "according to their interests."


"It will get serious here," said Nikolai Kolesnikov of the CSKA army base in Balashikha, home of the city's "Pistol Unit" and its sports administration. "We will do the holiday justice."