Editorial note: click on the pics to view in full, they appear not to fit in the column!
Visiting St Petersburg before drinking vodka...
Russians have a tremendous reputation, to the point that most people don't even include them when discussing comparative merits related to drinking. It's like they're on a podium of their own, disconnected from us modest Europeans in the same way that their language is abstruse and maybe even hostile to our own.
After having spent some time in the city of St Petersburg, and even having learnt a little of their idiom, I can say that their reputation is only partly deserved. The full picture needs some elucidation. I can testify that the Russians drink spirits with a fervour and a stamina no-one in Europe, or anywhere else I know, have a hope in hell of matching. The prime lubricant is, of course, vodka. The way they down it is insane, and that's the end of it. Shot after shot after shot after shot after shot. And while they do assume a certain euphoria, little if anything else in their demeanour would reveal them to be drunk. They don't stagger, they don't slur, they don't fall down, they don't lose the thread of their conversations, they don't stop doing whatever it is they're doing. They do earn a killer breath, true, and they dance like idiots, but the latter is only because they don't know how to dance - their technique is poor of its own accord, with no need for the inebriation to explicate it.
They're very strong on other liquors as well. Cognac, brandy, rum, you name it. The heavier, the better, usually that's the rule. Sweeter spirits, of the type yours truly most enjoys, are considered to be toothpaste, if that.
What really surprised me about the Russians, and what makes them not just accessible but even relatively easy to outdrink, is that they can't take beer. Other drinks of lighter kind, like cheap champagne, are also a barrier for them. I know this sounds absurd, but I've seen it happen with my own eyes, and with multiple individuals. Hell, I even drank a few of them under the table myself. On one occasion on the Nievska, we went out three of us for a pub crawl and within the third beer they were already whoozing. I couldn't understand what the fuck was going on with them as the day before I'd seen them down a bottle of whisky between the two of them and they were waltzing down the Prospect. (This is another common practice which, when going out drinking with Russians, you must at all costs AVOID: they usually buy a bottle of heavy spirits at a supermarket on the way to wherever they're going, and they down it as they walk, so that by the time they get there, it's all finished. Try drinking with them at that point, and you'll be so drunk by the time you get to your destination that you probably won't be allowed inside, never mind start a duel).
It was only later in the night that I figured that what had messed them up had been the beer. They were so unaccustomed to it, that even a couple of litres had sent them flying. Russians are the diametric opposite of the Germans: while the latter can take obscene amounts of beer, but they faint if someone opens a bottle of limoncello in the vicinities and they perceive its scent, the Russians can imbibe enough vodka (et similia) to kill an adult mule, but they flake when having to handle beer. More than that, they don't even have the culture, the understanding or the conception of what beer is. There's one video where I'm downing a litre-pint (a rather common exercise at the Oktoberfest), and it happened to be shot in Petersburg. You've got to believe that the people around me were literally gaping, even though my pace was much of an adagio. They reacted just like I did when I first saw them downing vodka, as it were.
...and strolling through St Petersburg AFTER vodka. Yeah, that's snow
When drinking with a Russian, take care not to begin with the spirits until as late as possible. Demand that no drinking should start until it is 'officially' sanctioned, that is to say, at the pub. Then buy the first and maybe the second rounds of drinks yourself, and use the auctoritas awarded to you by your generosity to make these beer or cider. Try organising a drinking game involving several glasses of beer and the downing of them (this will increase the likelihood that everyone will stick to this beverage later on, too).
Keep to these rules, and you'll see that the egregious reputation of the Russians doesn't make for such an invincible dragon after all.