RUSSIAN-VODKA LAWSUIT

In the autumn of 1977 Soviet brands of vodka including Moscow Special, Stolichnaya, Limonnaya and others suddenly became a subject to discrimination in foreign markets. The reason behind it was a number of foreign firms, both European and American, which began to claim the exclusive right to use the name “vodka” for their product, with the argument that they had started producing it earlier than the Soviet firms. The possible result of that claim could be that the Soviet organisation Soyuzplodoimport would be stripped the right to advertise and sell this beverage as vodka.

Export advertising of Stolichnaya, 1983

Preoccupied with preparations for the sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution, the Ministry of Foreign Trade did not take these claims seriously at first. The foreign competitor firms based their case on the fact that production of vodka in the USSR began only in 1923, under a decree of 26 August of that year. Meanwhile, the foreign firms had begun producing it earlier, mainly in the years between 1918 and 1921. During this period many industrialists who had fled from Russia with the Whites set up production of vodka in the West.

However, from December 1917 the Soviet government had banned the production of vodka, resuming it only around the end of 1923 and the beginning 1924. In other words, the Soviet government had merely continued a ban on the production of spirituous liquors, which had been maintained by the previous Tsarist and Provisional governments in 1914; it was thus a matter of an existing temporary prohibition being reaffirmed. As the state monopoly of vodka had been inherited from the past, alongside with the right of the state to shut down, suspend or renew production, the date 26 August 1923 did not in any sense mark the beginning of vodka production in Russia. The right to the use of the name ‘vodka’ was also considered to be connected to the historical context connected with the earliest production of vodka in Russia, long before 1923.

Export advertising of Stolichnaya, 1985

As a result of the dispute, all American and Western European vodka firms Pierre Smirnoff, Eristov, Keglevich, Gorbachev and others had to drop their claims and thereafter could base their advertising only on supposed special qualities of their products.

Soon after a second claim was raised by the Polish state, who claimed that the name ‘vodka’ should belong exclusively to the Poles, because vodka had been discovered and produced earlier in Poland – that is, on the state territory of the former Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Rech Pospolita, including Greater and Lesser Poland, Masuria, Pomerelia, and the Ukraine, including the Cherkassk and Zaporozhe Sech – than in Russia.

At first Soyusplodoimport did not pay serious attention to the claim, interpreting the latter as nothing more than a perverse joke. Soviet foreign trade officials could not imagine that Russian vodka could be deprived its historic, popular, national name. Nevertheless, following the rough laws of the market, leaving no room for historical tradition or customary practice, Russia had to submit either formal documentation or other historically convincing proof to confirm their right. The logic solution was to analyse scrupulously and meticulously, step by step and in chronological order, the entire history of the development and production of spirituous liquors from the moment of their appearance in Russia, including examination of other materials and comparison with other countries.

William Pokhlebkin (1923-2000). Photo credit: novayagazeta.ru

The research was conducted by a Russian historian William Pokhlebkin, who put vodka in its social context and searched through archaeological materials, evidence from folklore, cookery books, dictionaries of various types, historical research diaries and even technical and pharmaceutical specialist literature. The historian not only answered the question when vodka first appeared, but also suggested why this occurred at a particular time rather than sooner or later. Moreover, the research also provided answers to questions concerning the first production of strong alcoholic liquors in the Ukraine, Poland, in Sweden and Germany.

Finally, in 1982 the international tribunal decided in favour of the Soviet Union, giving the county the status of the inventors of vodka and securing for them the right to advertise it on the world market under this name.

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