Encounter with Rooskie vodka: When two Russians panic

An excerpt from Parikshat Sahni’s ‘Strange Encounters: Adventures of a Curious Life’, in which the actor recalls the violent altercation between two burly Russians, Jena and Petya, at the hostel of the Moscow Film Institute in the spring 1961

A Vodka Museum in Russia, located in Verkhniye Mandrogi, Leningrad Oblast. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

They say “whiskey makes you frisky” and “brandy makes you horny”; gin, as far as I know, has the opposite effect on a man’s libido, and judging by the fact that Indian jawans are regularly fed it, rum probably makes you fearless. But what about vodka?

Well, it’s the staple drink of Russians and as far as I know from personal experience, it drives a man crazy. I – never having learned moderation in anything – drank vodka in abundance during my years in Russia. The Rooskies drank it down in the blink of an eye. They drink because of the cold, and when they feel frustrated, and when they are happy; they drink it when they are sad. Russians drank vodka “as much in pain as in pleasure, profit or loss, victory or defeat,” to paraphrase a phrase from the Bhagavad Gita. For them, every occasion was the right occasion for vodka. It gave them a tremendous boost and solved most of their mental, spiritual and emotional problems. I followed their example with enthusiasm.

Bloody Marys and Screwdrivers are aberrations of the decadent West; after a few shots of Rooskie vodka, a man sees red and is ready for anything, for better or for worse. What the Germans feared most during World War II was the “madness” of their Russian counterparts. A German officer wrote: “I have never seen such tough dogs as the Russians. Another found “something diabolical” about them. Not only males, but also “female soldiers were generally seen as more determined and less willing to surrender, notably more aggressive in hand-to-hand combat, but also particularly heartless, cruel, and unlikely to take prisoners”.

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Although Russian soldiers often ran out of rations, they never ran out of vodka. After a few drinks, the German soldiers didn’t know what hit them. It was not uncommon for Russian soldiers, male and female, to carry heavy explosives and throw themselves under oncoming Nazi tanks and blast themselves and the tanks to smithereens.

Stalingrad was the Nazis’ worst nightmare. The battle of Stalingrad was called the “battle of the rats” and both sides had to fight from building to building and from room to room. In the end, the Nazis surrendered but they never got rid of their fear of the “evil” Russian. Well, the “madness” they feared so much, I think, comes from the power of Russia’s secret weapon: vodka!

In short, drinking this Rooskie-style brew is like sending an invitation to the devil himself.

I had direct demonstration of this a few weeks after moving into the Moscow Film Institute hostel in the spring of 1961. I shared a room with two burly Russians, Gena and Petya, both in their early twenties. I didn’t know Russian and I had a lot of trouble finding my way around Moscow. The rooms in our five-story hostel were small, and each floor had a shared kitchen and toilet.

Papa had equipped me well for my stay in Russia. I had brought an impressive wardrobe. MAK Hangal, who was a tailor at the time and had a small shop in Crawford Market, had made some smart suits for me. He was a Marxist and beamed as he took my measurements and said, “You’re in luck! You are going to the greatest country in the world!

Strange Encounters: Adventures of a Curious Life, By Parikshat Sahni, Simon & Schuster India

Luckily, it was her costumes that got me my first black eye in Russia. My roommates didn’t like the look of these costumes. Gena, the taller of the two Russians, put his finger to my chest after inspecting my wardrobe and said menacingly, “Capitalist! I tried in my broken Russian to explain to them that my father was, in fact, a Marxist and not a capitalist, and that I myself believed in socialism. But the guy cut me short and shouted, “KAPITALIST!

I offered to share my clothes with them (the clothes most Russians wore at the time were dingy and ill-fitting) and soon they were wearing not only my shirts and ties, but also my underwear.

Most young Russians at that time were frustrated and dissatisfied. This was partly due to the high cost of living, lack of quality goods and lack of freedom of expression. The Soviet state ruled with an iron fist. It was unforgiving, unforgiving and oppressive. He tolerated no criticism or dissent. Life was difficult. The only thing cheap and of good quality was vodka, and the Russians drank it to excess to soothe their frustration; even that could not relieve them of their inner discontent, which often boiled over. And when it happened, all hell broke loose.

One day, Gena went to a party. It was well past midnight when he returned. Petya and I were fast asleep when he pushed open the door loudly and came in, belting out a Russian war song. The man was mad with rage. This infuriated Petya and he got up with a roar and went to get Gena, all hammer and pliers. I think they had an old ax to grind and just needed an excuse to attack each other.
What followed next was a fight like I had never seen before. Both were strong men, and Petya had the physique of Hercules. Also of note: Petya was completely naked – nightwear was rare in those days; most Russians slept in the wild. Cursing, biting, scratching, they threw themselves against the walls and the whole floor shook.

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Gena felt that the best way to subdue Petya was to crush his balls and grab them with the intention of ripping them off and emasculating the other forever. Petya roared like a wounded lion as Gena squeezed his testicles with all her might. I watched the proceedings from under the blanket and was sure that the decimation of the testicles would end the fight, but I had underestimated the Russian spirit.
Petya, instead of surrendering, picked up a dumbbell and started pounding Gena’s head with it. I was sure that the latter’s skull would crack; but I had also underestimated the thickness of the Russian skull. Bruised and bloody, Gena didn’t let go of Petya’s balls, and the two of them bellowed like bulls in heat.

Fearing castration, Petya eventually offered a truce. Gena’s face was a mask of blood. Seeing that his opponent was defeated, Gena let go of Petya’s balls and stood up, panting heavily, sure he had taught his enemy a lesson. But Petya was not easily defeated. He suddenly picked up a frying pan and smashed it violently on Gena’s head. It ruined the frying pan (it bent over) and Gena roared in pain. I thought the battle was over but Gena was furious. As Petya nursed his bruised balls, Gena’s drunken eyes noticed me curled up under the blanket. I broke down. “CAPITALIST! he shouted and, dragging me out of bed, threw me against the wardrobe. My calls for peace and the “Panchsheel” have gone unheeded.

(Courtesy of Simon & Schuster India)

Parikshat Sahni is an Indian actor who is best known for playing the lead roles in Gul Gulshan Gulfaam (Doordarshan), Gaatha (Star Plus) and Barrister Vinod. He also appeared in films by Rajkumar Hirani, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, 3 Idiots and PK. He is the son of famous actor Balraj Sahni and the nephew of Bhisham Sahni, a famous writer.

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