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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Where Bootlegging Pays the Bills




PITKYARANTA, Northwest Russia -- You could scour the earth from Beaver Cleaver's hometown to the northern burg of Pitkyaranta, a pinprick on the vast shores of Europe's largest lake, and be hard put to find a more typical-looking housewife than Lena.


Lena has two adorable little towheaded boys. She wears a loose cotton housewife's dress, properly mid-calf. She has an innocent young mother's face set in long honey-colored tresses and framed with an almost prim pair of glasses.


But Lena is no ordinary homemaker. She is a bootlegger. She makes, bottles and sells illegal booze.


And when you sell up to 400 half-liter bottles of hooch every month, you do not have much time to keep house, not that anyone would want to visit. The living room is so redolent of eau de moonshine that you can almost get tipsy just sitting there.


But the aroma would never be mistaken for cologne. It could be mistaken for a bag of kitchen scraps you forgot to dispose of before leaving on a two-week vacation.


"It's a very simple recipe: sugar, yeast, water," Lena said as she chatted in her spectacularly cluttered living room in a clapboard apartment house on what might be called Pitkyaranta's bad side. "People come and make orders for weddings, birthday parties, funerals f we had a lot of orders for the New Year's celebration. People know what I sell, and they know it's strong."


These people do not seem to include the militsiya, which is supposed to arrest her, fine her and confiscate her should they stumble across her enterprise. "We know the stoolies who inform the police, and we just tell them 'No, we don't sell it,'" Lena explained, as if that answered all questions.


Though she told her story on condition that her last name not be used, this reporter nevertheless managed to find Lena by getting into a car, asking the driver where he could buy some hooch and sitting back contentedly as he was driven there.


The Russian word for moonshine is samogon, a piece of slang that literally translates as "run by myself," which is just how things are done.


They make a lot of samogon in Pitkyaranta. In fact, a lot is made nearby. Lena's girlfriend, who lives upstairs, is a competitor. Across the courtyard, another family sells bootleg vodka from another clapboard house.


Why is a good question, seeing there is no domestic shortage of legal alcohol. Bootlegging is a risky business, and bad samogon has been known to kill people f thousands, in fact.


One reason may be that flouting the samogon law is an entrenched habit. Stephen White, a University of Glasgow scholar and author of "Russia Goes Dry" (Cambridge University Press, 1996), suggests that the samogon craft gained ground in the mid-1980s, in Mikhail Gorbachev's furious anti-alcohol campaign.


Soviet militia made great shows of wrecking stills and hauling away bootleggers. But it eventually became clear that wiping out samogon would mean locking up much of the nation.


Indeed, the industrial-size packages of yeast Lena buys contain instructions for making samogon, under the discreet heading "A recipe for Russia's traditional national beverage."


Just before communism collapsed in 1991, distilling samogon for home use became legal, and production skyrocketed again. That selling it remained illegal made little difference: By 1994, one in every six drinks downed nationally was samogon.


Add to that the fact that the Soviet Union's demise has left millions jobless, and it is not hard to see why bootlegging still thrives.


Pitkyaranta, about 120 kilometers east of Finland on Lake Ladoga, was hit by the nation's economic woes. Until the local paper mill began cranking up to meet a growing export market a year ago, many were desperate. Lena's family was among them.


"We moved here in '95 to this barracks of a house," she said. "My husband worked on the railroad. We had our second kid, and in a year, the railroad shop shut down without any warning f not even severance pay f and my husband lost his job.


"Here I was with two kids, ages 1 and 4, and no income. My husband found a job at the paper mill, but the pay was very bad. So I tried the shuttle trade f go to Moscow; buy some goods; come back here and sell them. But then came the '98 crash, and I lost everything. We didn't have food f just a pot of fried potatoes. My oldest son would say, 'Mama, is that for me?' and I'd have to tell him, 'No, it's for the whole family.'


"And so I came to this business."