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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Enthusiast Wants to Show His Bottles

MTA pouch of Stolichnaya drunk in space by a Russian-U.S. crew, seen below.
An empty vodka bottle shaped into a bust of General Mikhail Skobelev, the conqueror of Central Asia and a hero of the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-78, is the crown jewel of Alexander Nikishin's collection.

Nikishin, who is an enthusiast of vodka history, said that the 0.61-liter bottle from the turn of the century could fetch as much as $80,000.

Hundreds of items from Nikishin's collection of 40,000 bottles, books about vodka and snapshots of tsarist anti-drinking posters are on display in a rented corner of Moscow's Decorative, Applied and Folk Art Museum. But he dreams of a permanent vodka museum that would teach both Muscovites and visitors about Russia's most famous drink.

At least three other tourist destinations -- St. Petersburg and the Golden Ring towns of Uglich and Myshkin -- have vodka museums, but the idea is not flying in Moscow.

"Vodka is the international symbol of Russia," Nikishin said at a recent news conference that he called to drum up support for the museum. "The entire world has recognized vodka as a great achievement of Russia. Ballet is worse, missiles are worse and tanks don't compare at all."

Nikishin said President Vladimir Putin could invite foreign leaders to take a look at the history of vodka rather than the Armory.

Nikishin has found support in Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev, who was impressed by the collection and has asked Moscow city authorities to allocate a building for a museum.

Nikishin said in an interview that he would like City Hall to provide at least 3,000 square meters of space in central Moscow. He would co-own the museum with the city.

But the city does not have commercial space of that size in the center, said Natalya Bykova, a spokeswoman for the city's property department. The department rejected the agriculture minister's request for space in March, according to a copy of the rejection letter.

Irina Tyurina, a spokeswoman for the Russian Tourism Union, said a vodka museum would not outshine such attractions as the Armory and the Tretyakov Gallery. In addition, many foreign tourists who come to Moscow also go to St. Petersburg, Uglich and Myshkin and have the opportunity to visit their vodka museums, she said. "They won't go to vodka museums everywhere," she said.

All three museums display empty vodka bottles and books about the drink. Uglich's Museum of the History of Russian Vodka is trying to collect every kind of vodka made in Russia, and it now has more than 1,000 brands from 96 distilleries, according to its web site.

The Uglich museum is owned by the city, while the one in St. Petersburg is privately owned.

The museum in Myshkin -- a town about 20 kilometers up the Volga River from Uglich -- is among several other relatively obscure vodka museums scattered across the country.

Nikishin, however, believes that his collection stands out from among the rest.

He began collecting in 1996 when he started writing a book about Pyotr Smirnov, the entrepreneur who established the Smirnov vodka brand in the 19th century. Smirnov's son fled Russia after the 1917 Revolution and produced the vodka under the brand name Smirnoff.


Igor Tabakov / MT

Old postcards, including "You are my joy, you are my happiness" at bottom.

The owners of antique shops charged Nikishin a fee to take photographs of their old vodka bottles, and he quickly realized that he could buy the bottles at about the same cost.

He said he soon learned to love the old bottles. "I wondered who drank from them and when, and whether they were alone at the time," he said. "I understood it was our history."

Items on display in the corner of the museum at 3 Delegatskaya Ulitsa include an empty plastic pouch of Stolichnaya vodka that was drunk in space by a U.S.-Russian crew, and a dark green glass bottle with an inscription that reads: "Drink, drink and you will see devils."

Nikishin conceded that vodka could be dangerous to one's health, calling it a "beast." "If one doesn't tame it, one can die," he said.

Alcoholism is cited as a leading cause of Russia's demographic crisis.

Like other vodka historians, Nikishin reveres William Pokhlyobkin, the late historian who was the first to research vodka, and he named his museum exhibition after him.

Moscow monks began distilling vodka, which was first intended as medicine, around the middle of the 15th century, according to Pokhlyobkin. Tsar Ivan III introduced a short-lived monopoly on vodka production in 1475, Pokhlyobkin wrote in a book published in 1993.

Another luminary for vodka historians is Dmitry Mendeleyev, the developer of the periodic table of the elements. He determined in a 1887 research paper that vodka is best when it is 40 percent alcohol, or 80 proof.

After his museum display closes on Jan. 13, Nikishin plans either to sell the exhibits to a Las Vegas restaurant owned by a Russian-born entrepreneur or, if he is lucky, open the vodka museum. He has some hope: the Moscow distillery Cristall approached him for talks about the museum last week.

Earlier talks with distilleries failed because some wanted him to advertise their brands, while others were put off by the anti-drinking posters that he wanted to display.


Igor Tabakov / MT

A vodka bottle in the shape of the bust of famous poet Alexander Pushkin.

Museums showcasing alcohol in other countries tend to be run with the support of alcohol producers. The Scotch Whisky Heritage Center in Edinburgh, Scotland, for instance, receives support from 18 Scotch whiskey distilleries, said Alastair McIntosh, the center's managing director and founder.

He said the center opened in 1987 after he put together "a very comprehensive business plan" and convinced the distilleries to join in.

"It's really a window on the world for them," he said by telephone. "Their brands are exposed to worldwide audiences."

Another benefit they get is the opportunity to sell their whiskey at the center's shop, which stocks 300 brands, he said.

Visitors can learn about whiskey by tasting it, watching films and riding in a motorized barrel in an attraction about how whiskey is made.

The center, which occupies 1,500 square meters, turned a profit of ?400,000 ($705,000) last year, McIntosh said.

In Nikishin's search for a sponsor, he has made a point of not writing to Putin, a judo enthusiast. Nikishin, however, spoke warmly of former President Boris Yeltsin, whose fondness for the drink has been blamed for embarrassing incidents such as an attempt to conduct a German orchestra.

"Putin is a sportsman, and I'm afraid that writing to him would be a dead end," Nikishin said at the news conference. "We need to wait for another president like Yeltsin, who will be capable of conducting an orchestra and dancing."