The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire
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The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire

3.37 of 5 stars 3.37  ·  rating details  ·  147 ratings  ·  39 reviews
In this sweeping history of vodka scion Pyotr Smirnov and his family, distinguished journalist Linda Himelstein plumbs a great riddle of Russian history through the story of a humble serf who rose to create one of the most celebrated business empires the world has ever known. At the center of this vivid narrative, Pyotr Smirnov comes to life as a hero of wonderful complexi...more
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published May 12th 2009 by HarperBusiness (first published January 1st 2009)
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Florence (Lefty) MacIntosh
Dec 19, 2012 Florence (Lefty) MacIntosh rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Cultural: Russia
Recommended to Florence (Lefty) by: Paul B
I enjoy both biographies and vodka martinis. A martini should be dry, a biography should not.

What I liked: It does include some really interesting background on Russian political history. It shines as a business bio, his strategies (excruciatingly) detailed and well researched, even inspirational. The guy was a marketing genius. 1st Russian to introduce branding, a self made millionaire caught between the shifting tides of the fall of the Tsars and the rise of Communism, no small feat. His mark...more
Simon Cleveland
Linda Himelstein's biographical account of Russia's top vodka producer Pyotr Smirnov is in itself exhilarating.

The premise of the book centers on the life of Smirnov and explores in the details his successful building of an empire. Smirnov in many ways reminds me of a typical follower of the American dream. Born a serf (peasant) Smirnov follows the footsteps of his uncle, first by redeeming his own freedom and next building an empire through diligent and hard work. Surprisingly Smironov was not...more
Wow, inspiring and sad story of Pyotr Smirnov, his legacy and Russian capitalism.

All I could think about while listening is that "He built that." without government help. The timing of my reading of this at this time was uncanning given what is going on in US politics today.

He built that...and that is the story. Smirnov vodka was the first branded product in Russia and many imitators followed continuously trying to dethrone the king through questionable activities. Then came the revolution. I wo...more
Holly Mitchell
Though not particularly well-written, it's an easy read and a quick brush-up on Russian history for those who want to talk about dead people at parties.
Pretty good, but at times dry. Kind if ironic for a book about alcohol.
Tyler True
Linda Himelstein’s The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov is a superbly constructed biography and an entertaining read. It combines the compelling nature of a mystery thriller; the exquisitely researched conciseness of high-quality journalism, in which good work speaks for itself; the welcome authority of an historian without an agenda; and beautiful use of the English language. Indeed, primary source research extending from before the family even had a name through the settlement of pre...more
L Lee
With great 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...more
Through the story of the Smirnov family, author Linda Himelstein gives the story of commerce, political events the social strife of 19th and early 20th century Russia. Through Pytor Smirnov who built his business under 4 tsars, we see slices of daily life in the late 1800's. I was surprised at the social mobility, particularly for serfs, and the bureaucracy one needed to navigate to get a merchants' license. In the days before consumerism and mass marketing Smirnov had great instincts on how to...more
I went to the author's reading at Kepler's because I'd heard her on the radio and she's a friend of a friend. The story sounds fascinating -- about much more than booze (not that booze isn't enough) -- runnning from Russian history before and through the revolution to thoroughly modern IP litigation. Indeed, it was the lawsuit that got the author started on the story. Who said nothing good ever comes of the law?

Update: An interesting read, but basically depressing -- a rags to riches to rags sto...more
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This book was better than I thought and better than it sounds since it's a history book. For some who like to read only facts, this is not the book for you, but if you're interested in learning something historical and factual in the context of a pretty good story, then I recommend this book. If you liked Devil in the White City or Thunderstruck, you might like this. It kept me interested, was pretty easy to read, gave me information about Russian history that I never knew, and gave meaning to t...more
This book does talk much about how vodka is made; it's more of a company history...but of an unusual company. Basically, Smirnov vodka was created by one guy, an ambitious former serf in the half century before the Russian revolution. But when vodka finally came to America, (and it was Smirnoff by then), it was just the name and maybe some of the techniques licensed to a guy in Conneticut by the founder's third son (who no longer had any legal role in the company, such as it was by then). So yea...more
Meh. This book dragged on in a lot of places. The only reason I stuck with it is because I got it for free through the Amazon vine program and I really wanted to give it a fair review.

Ms. Himelstein embellished a lot of Smirnov's life. 3 or 4 of the first chapters were devoted to "not really his life, but the typical life of a serf" and I didn't feel that this was necessary. Some background would be necessary, but not the amount of detail that she went into. It really took away from the biograph...more
Not nearly as interesting as it should have been: a young serf rising up through the feudal system of Tsarist Russia to become the most successful and renowned vodka maker of his or any time. The book is weighed down too much by details about Smirnov's business model where more details about his life might've been more interesting. Also, points are repeated and hammered home again and again too overtly. Surprisingly, there's little discussion of vodka itself. In the end, the book feels more like...more
Born a serf in a Russian village in 1831, Pyotr Smirnov became one of the richest men in Russia. Not only a vodka entrepreneur, he was a brilliant innovator in marketing strategies. However, like many wealthy men, his over-indulged children were not up to carrying on his legacy, especially in the face of the Russian Revolution. The book is a history of the rise of Smirnoff as an international brand as much as it is a biography of its founder. Although not a very thrilling story, the impressive a...more
Although I strictly drink potato vodka and not the grain variety Pyotr Smirnov produced, I thoroughly enjoyed this history of the serf who bought his way out of servitude and began a family dynasty. The travails of his children and wives before, during and after the Bolshevik Revolution were soap-opera worthy. It was a true rags to riches back to rags story.
I continue to be surprised when a topic that I had no interest in turns out to be thoroughly engrossing.
Russian history, vodka, unimaginable wealth none it my cup of tea and yet this tale read like fascinating fiction. I can only credit it to the author's skill at storytelling. Couldn't help but think this would make a compelling movie.
Interesting biography of a man who worked his way up from the very bottom of the pile.

This book also gives a fair bit of detail on the old Russia and the emerging Russia of the 20th century before the revolution took hold.

If this leaves a lesson, never leave your kids too much money as old Smirnov did.
Inspiring and tragic tale of the Smirnov Family during the course of political, economical and social upheaval in Mother Russia. From Serfdom to Poverty in a generation or so. Great read for those that are intrigued about a little history of the Smirnov vodka dynasty from beginning to the present. Prost.
Achei o livro bem escrito, com boas pesquisas da época sobre a família Smirnov, mesmo que muito ainda esteja em dúvida. A história parece bem longe, na Rússia do fim do séc. IX até o séc. XX, mas a autora da boas referências temporais para que o livre sempre seja interessante.
compelling review of russia's affair with vodka, including government monopolies and temperance/prohibition initiatives. pyotry a smirnov was an inspirational character and marketing genius. his sons were, ultimately, disappointments to his legacy.
Mike Graber
Just okay, a little more technical in spots and quick to "guess" at characters feelings at the time. But considering the lack of resources of available documentation, no doubt well researched and author's guess is as good as any.
The story is interesting, but this could have used a better editor. I find myself thinking "vary your sentence structures!" as I read. Sigh. Can't get the English teacher out of me. I'm only a few chapters into this at the moment.
Fascinating family and book. Learned so much about pre- and post-revolutionary Russia, now feel compelled to only drink Smirnoff. Only complaint: no photos; would have loved to see the family and old advertisements.
Dec 10, 2009 lita marked it as to-read
pertama kali liat waktu abis nyushi sama Roos. Waktu itu ga jadi beli karna lebih tertarik sama buku lain.

tapi karna kebayang2 terus, akhirnya balik lagi dan berhasil beli buku ini dengan diskon 40%..hehehe....
Brian Onufrychuk
Interesting look at the history of the Smirnoff family and brand. You get family history, industry history, Russian political history, and a good story all in one. Slow at times, but an interesting read.
Leigh Cox
I don't get how a biography works with flimsy history and the person of interest dies two-thirds of the way through the book. It would have been wiser to have written a historical fiction.
A good, not great, book. Lots of interesting information about both the Smirnov family, Russia and its move from the tsars to communism to glasnost. Worth reading.
Readable and informative. Interesting tidbits of economic history served up in a way that people who twitch at hints of economic discussion can digest readily.
Fascinating 19th century Russian history along with the history of the smirnov vodka business. My friend Linda from college is the author too - a bonus!
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