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King of Vodka, The Hardcover – May 12, 2009


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: HarperBus; 1 edition (May 12, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060855894
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060855895
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,870,910 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Journalist Himelstein recaptures Russia's golden age through the eyes of the former serf-turned vodka entrepreneur, Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov (1831–1898). From his early days as a small-time liquor peddler to one of Russia's richest men, Smirnov was the nemesis of teetotaling Tolstoy—who blamed the country's late 19th-century woes on his countrymen's thirst for alcohol. As the first Russian brand architect and seller of high-quality, low-cost liquor, Smirnov makes for a fascinating subject in his trajectory and outsize ambition. He applied for the title of Purveyor to the Imperial Court, but the tsar's refusal, rather than deflating Smirnov's outsized ambition, emboldened it. It aroused something deep inside the man, a creative spark that transformed Smirnov from a competent businessman into one of the most ingenious marketers of his time. While the dozens of obstacles, including the closure of the Imperial Archives and a dearth of information about Smirnov's years of serfdom, might have deterred lesser researchers, Himelstein has triumphed with a timeless book that entertains, informs and inspires any would-be entrepreneur to chase his dreams. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Had Pyotr Smirnov (1831–98) been literary-minded, he might have entitled a memoir Up from Serfdom. But he was all business, as recounted in this history of the famous vodka brand. Recalling the entrepreneurial milieu in which Smirnov distilled and marketed his way to success, Himelstein points to the Muscovite uncle in the vodka trade who provided her provincial protagonist’s toehold in the world of commerce. Smirnov’s acumen was liberated by the great reforms of Tsar Alexander II in the 1860s, two of which were fateful for Smirnov: the abolition of serfdom and a reform in the taxation of vodka. As she describes Smirnov’s innovations that induced customer loyalty, Himelstein highlights the ex-serf’s parallel striving for social respectability as, a generous philanthropist, he sought and received many tsarist honors. But alas for his capitalist fortune. What the second generation of Smirnovs didn’t squander, the Bolsheviks expropriated. Capping the saga with the legal survival of the Smirnov trademarks, Himelstein’s storytelling success distills diligent research into something appealing to popular tastes for family and Russian history alike. --Gilbert Taylor

More About the Author

Linda Himelstein is a veteran journalist. She began her career in the Washington bureau of The Wall Street Journal and has worked for several other publications, appearing on television outlets such as CNN and C-SPAN as an expert commentator on news of the day.

In 1993, Ms. Himelstein joined BusinessWeek in New York as its legal affairs editor. One of her cover stories, titled the Bankers Trust Tapes, earned national headlines and helped BusinessWeek win the National Magazine Award. As legal affairs editor, Ms. Himelstein also covered the lawsuit filed by Smirnov's descendants. They sought to return the trademarks and copyrights of the vodka empire, lost in the tumult following the Russian revolution, to the family and to Russia. The family's story captured the heart and mind of Ms. Himelstein.

In 1996, Ms. Himelstein relocated to the Bay Area, writing about finance and retail for BusinessWeek. Two years later, she became the Silicon Valley Bureau Chief just as the technology boom took off. Despite the excitement of Silicon Valley, Ms. Himelstein could not forget the Smirnovs and their compelling story. At the end of 2004, Ms. Himelstein left the magazine and focused her energy for more than four years on the research, reporting, and writing necessary to tell the fascinating--and wrenching--tale in The King of Vodka.

Customer Reviews

Ms. Himelstein is a very capable writer and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.
R. Ravid
Praising the person you're writing about is OK as long as you keep it in the introduction and conclusion, NOT in the entire text.
Kyle Slayzar
A telling story of the lives of the Smirnov family from serfdom to one of the richest families in the Russian empire.
Gene M Brosius

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Michigoon VINE VOICE on June 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I really want to give this book 5 stars. A book called "The King of Vodka" just begs to be read, after all. The book starts off very well, trying to sound more like a novel and less like a collection of facts. This works fine for the opening chapter, since you need something to draw you in, but it never really meshes and you're left with a massively-researched historical account that keeps trying to throw in guesswork for no real reason at all.

To go into detail, there are large sections where the author goes from fact to supposition. Sections will be dedicated to guessing what Smirnov thought about a situation when there's no direct evidence, or presupposing what Smirnov was doing during a certain time, often on the basis of looking at what people in similar positions were historically doing during certain eras. This would be fine if this were the biography of any average Russian, but this man was not ordinary by any means. The author does dutifully insert footnotes or references to clearly state where and how she jumped from historical record to dramatic license, but it left me feeling like the author didn't think enough of what she had on hand to have the book stand on its own history- the amount of research at hand very clearly shows that this work would have stood better as a wholly factual account.

Whether you want to learn some Russian history, or get the inside story of the rise of vodka, or if you've just enjoyed Smirnov's products before and saw the name on the cover, I recommend this book. Just be aware that the author's tendency to take it from a historical document into a novel very much drags it down in parts. 5 stars for the amount of research, less one star for the guesswork.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Dave Schwartz VINE VOICE on June 18, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Nineteenth-century Russia was full of both cataclysm and opportunity. As in the the United States, there were profound changes to the social and political structure. And, as in the United States, some of those who benefited from these changes became extremely wealthy.

One such man was Pyotr Smirnov. Born a serf, he took advantage of the opportunities provided by Alexander II's emancipation of the serfs and Russia's growing economy to create a vodka empire. Himelstein does a wonderful job of recreating the world that Smirnov grew up in and came to dominate, drawing on extensive research in Russian archives, memoirs, and other contemporary accounts of Smirnov and his times.

The author really immerses the reader in the culture of Russia at the time, allowing us to understand what kind of man Smirnov was. She doesn't end the book with her protagonist's death, instead following the unsuccessful reign of his sons and the eventual revival of his brand as US-based Smirnoff vodka. Her chief strengths are her comprehensive research and her faithfulness to her sources. For some, these may be weaknesses. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a novelistic telling of the story. There is very little dialogue, as most of the writing is simply a synthesis of the source material, which doesn't include any words spoken by Smirnov or any records of his thoughts.

It's an extremely informative biography, though, and one that's sure to appeal to those who enjoy reading about both Russian and business history-or those who just like vodka.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Voracious Reader on January 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover
With conviction and aplomb, author Linda Himelstein offers readers The King of Vodka, a business history, biography, and captivating tale rolled into one. A former reporter and bureau chief for Business Week magazine, Himelstein sweeps the reader into nineteenth-century Russia and the world and life of Pyotr Smirnov. Born into serfdom in 1831, Smirnov rose to business and social glory through his own smarts and resourcefulness ultimately to build and lord over the heavyweight of all vodkas.

Himelstein's narrative captures the reader from the start. Here's a sampling: In her prologue about the scene at Smirnov's 1898 funeral, she writes, "As December 1898 arrived, a chill snuck up on Moscow like an invading army. Snow began to fall before daybreak and continued without interruption. Soon, a thick coat of white buried the city. Sledges, large wooden carriages that glided around town on metal runners, took the place of clumsier wheeled vehicles. Within a day, temperatures dropped another fifteen degrees, leaving Russia's then second-largest city in its more typical seasonal state: gray and frigid. ... The heavy wooden doors parted and the archdeacon from St. John the Baptist Church emerged, softly reciting prayers. A group carrying a coffin cover decorated with a wreath made of natural flowers fell into line after him. A choir came out then, singing the Holy God prayer, followed by a dozen workers... At last, a coffin emerged, draped in a sumptuous fabric made of golden brocade and raspberry velvet."

Throughout the book Himelstein offers up colorful evidence of Smirnov's enterprising marketing tactics.
Read more ›
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Alejandra Vernon HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
With years of meticulous research and a consummate skill for weaving a story that spans from 1831, when Pyotr Arsenievitch Smirnov, born into serfdom, first drew breath, until the present day, with Smirnoff as the largest selling brand of spirits in the world, author Linda Himelstein has our undivided rapt attention. The last 100 pages especially, will require some time carved out of your life, as the book is almost impossible to put down in its final chapters. Those who appreciate biographies will love this book, as well as those intrigued by Russia's fascinating history.

The Smirnov family was large and industrious, with several members achieving their freedom from serfdom by ingenuity and hard labor, with Pyotr becoming the genius to lead the family into marketing his vodka into the coveted inner circle of the Imperial Court. Among the many changes Russia went through that the book describes, are the period of Great Reforms by Tsar Aleksander II which opened Russia up to a boom of commerce and judicial changes that eliminated the feudal system, an incredibly vivid description of Bloody Sunday (January 9, 1905), WWI, and the horrors that ensued from the Bolshevik Revolution. When humanity becomes a mob, no species on earth can equal its cruelty; hyenas are much more civilized by comparison, and Himelstein shows us the senseless brutality of that era.

Pyotr's son Vladimir, once one of the richest playboys in Russia who spent his time with his race horses and the theater, becomes the one who brings the family business to the West, in an often heart wrenching tale of fortitude and resourcefulness. "The King of Vodka" is one of the finest biographical history books I have ever read, and recommend it to everyone who like me, has an affinity for Russian culture and its people.
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