The King of Vodka
The story of Pyotr Smirnov and the upheavel of an empire
By Linda Himelstein
The dramatic story of the Russian family behind the well known brand of Vodka, this well written and easy read spans a tumultuous century in Russia’s history. By using devices such as assumed dialogue Linda Himelstein is able to reconstruct history in a very entertaining way. Having no prior knowledge of this topic I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy.
The story follows the rise of Pyotr Smirnov from serfdom (basically being owned by another human being) to develop his Vodka manufacturing and distribution business and the incredible wealth this brings. It suggests the success was due to a focus on product quality and good marketing techniques.
It then looks at the family who inherited this business. A tale of caution to any wealthy person. The children behave unethically in the way they execute the estate – effectively dis -enfranchising the two younger sons against the will of the father.
The children also suffer from a lack of discipline and purpose leading to very unhappy relationships and marriages. This seems to arise from the curse of untold riches.
All this changes with the rise of the Communist Party and life then becomes a fight for survival for the few remaining heirs. It is surprising how early most heirs die given their wealth and privelege and shows the improvements in medicine over the last 100 years. It is also surprising how well one of the heirs adapts – leading to the survival and comeback of the brand today.
Reading the book it is great to see a visionary build his empire, sticking to principles of quality and good organization. But one is struck by his inability to develop a culture that would lead to further growth over future generations. It seems a rule that families cannot run businesses successfully over multi generations. There are exceptions but these tend to prove the rule rather than break it.
A fine read 4 out of 5