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

3.53  ·  Rating Details  ·  208 Ratings  ·  47 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 it was ok  ·  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
Jun 18, 2015 Grumpus rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, audiobook
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
Simon_Cleveland_Ph.D. Simon_Cleveland_Ph.D.
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
Paul Pessolano
Nov 26, 2014 Paul Pessolano rated it really liked it
“The King of Vodka” by Linda Himelstein, published by Harper.

Category – Biography Publication Date – November 30, 2010

This is the story of Pyotr Smirnov (known more commonly as Smirnoff). It traces his life, his family’s lives, and a condensed history of Russia. All of this is based around the drink “VODKA”.

Pyotr was born into a family of serfs (a Russian name for slave) and his father was determined to better himself and his family. His father broke the bonds of serfdom but Pyotr took up the fi
Dec 26, 2014 Holly rated it it was ok
Shelves: food
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.
Jul 28, 2011 Chris rated it liked it
Pretty good, but at times dry. Kind if ironic for a book about alcohol.
Tyler True
Aug 05, 2012 Tyler True rated it really liked it
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
Mar 30, 2015 Aaron rated it really liked it
Awesome read. Wonderful research back to the parents of Pyotr, the rise of Pytor, and the success of his company. Interspersed throughout the thoughtful full, and delicious arc of Russian history, covering nearly a century.

The book even has an informative Epilogue, with additional back-story, and some tantalizing tidbits for further exploration, if the reader is interested.

My only negatives were, some repetition of previous references, especially around the crown labeling. Also, there seemed to
L Lee
Jan 19, 2010 L Lee rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 23, 2012 Louise rated it really liked it
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
Daniel Kukwa
Jan 27, 2016 Daniel Kukwa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
A fascinating & tragic look at the history of a family & company, running in tandem with the fascinating & tragic history that is the story of Russia. Knowing what is to come, there is a great sense of loss that permeates the story of the Smirnov' that makes the reader glad the family patriarch didn't live to see the madness & chaos that destroyed his family, and then his company. An addictive read.
Carlos Farias
Feb 07, 2015 Carlos Farias rated it liked it
Ainda que apresente muitas suposições sobre a realidade dos 20 primeiros anos de Piotr Smirnov e sem detalhe algum sobre seus concorrentes hoje bastante famosos, o livro agrada por bem caracterizar o periodo áureo do "rei da vodca" e o contexto politico-social da Russia de seu tempo. Indispensável para quem aprecia vodca, importante para quem busca entender a Russia pré-socialista.
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
Feb 16, 2016 Janelle rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, nonfiction
A well-told and well-researched book that not only covers the life of Pyotr Smirnof and his family, but the turbulent background of Russia at that time. The author does a wonderful job of letting the reader know when there are gaps in the information and making the story an enjoyable and informative read.
Jun 12, 2009 Mike rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Nov 30, 2011 Toby rated it liked it
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
Apr 05, 2013 Cate rated it liked it
Shelves: secret-histories
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
Jun 23, 2009 Kylie rated it liked it
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
Jan 08, 2016 Jason rated it it was ok
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
Feb 16, 2012 Susan rated it liked it
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
Aug 25, 2015 Steve rated it really liked it
Fascinating story. A lot of detail and I know it took a long time as it couldn't have been easy to find it. Yes, some stories are told without all the facts. But they are believable. An interesting story not only on vodka but also Russian history.
Feb 18, 2016 Brendon rated it it was amazing
Great book!
If you like history and especially Russian history, you very well might like this book. I would have liked to have gotten more into the personalities of the family and there was too much speculation about what they might have said or been thinking, but I do understand that 150 years later those things are lost. Interesting at times and at other times it dragged a bit. 3 stars.
Aug 30, 2011 Ellen rated it really liked it
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.
Aug 24, 2012 Barbara rated it really liked it
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.
Sep 16, 2013 Tom rated it liked it
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.
Aug 25, 2012 Richard rated it really liked it
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.
Dec 22, 2014 Pedro rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012, physical-shelf
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.
Jul 29, 2015 Peter rated it it was amazing
An enjoyable slice of Russian history and the incredible story of a serf who became the most successful Russian capitalist of all time.
Kristine Stevens
Apr 14, 2015 Kristine Stevens rated it it was amazing
Shelves: people
It was everything I hoped it would be and more - well written story-telling style; a twisted, unpredictable family history; tons of historical facts; and politics and business artfully woven into the tale. I was both entertained and educated. Bravo!
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