Soviet Champagne

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Judging by the shelves of food stores in Moscow and other Soviet cities, 1934 was a good year for the hungry and thirsty. Only a few years after the terrible famine that gripped Ukraine and southern Russia in the wake of collectivization, and only a few years before the terror and war scare sent society into a tailspin, citizens experienced a period of relative comfort and well-being. Consumer goods absent from the shelves for years reappeared; and food stuffs undreamed of returned. Perhaps most unanticipated in the proletarian paradise was the appearance of champagne, once the drink of aristocrats and later of NEPmen.

Russian champagne was a fairly recent invention, one still exotic when Revolution swept the country in 1917. Two names are intimately connected with its birth. Prince Lev Golitsyn, once wine-master to the tsar, was founder of the magnificent New World wine estate on the Crimean coast before his death in 1915. This would be the site of Soviet champagne making efforts. Anton Mikhailovich Frolov-Bagreev, an aristocrat and chemist, was hired by the estate of Abrau-Diurso in 1905 to introduce the latest scientific methods into champagne production. Although his participation in the revolution of 1905 led to Siberian exile, Frolov-Bagreev’s expertise proved so important for the fatherland that he was back in Crimea by 1906. His renown as a martyr of tsarism overrode his aristocratic birth for the Soviets, and he was returned to Abrau-Diurso in 1919 to become the chief oeneologist. He spent the next fifteen years restoring Russian champagne to its previous (short-lived) glory. This entirely commendable goal endeared him to Soviet authorities, all the more so when in 1934 he developed a production system that allowed for fermentation of the champagne in reservoirs, rather than in bottles as before. This allowed for mass production, making champagne a drink for the masses. From an initial level of 300,000 bottles per year, production rose to 12,000,000 by 1942, the depths of the war. Anastas Mikoian, People’s Commissar of the Food Industry, helped Frolov attain his dream of popularizing the drink after the war. For several years, champagne was even sold on tap in food stores next to the fruit juices!

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