The birthplace of vodka is a hotly contested issue. Poles and Russians have been arguing for centuries over who first created it. CherkaskaPoland, is accepted by most to be the birthplace of vodka but it was only in the later part of the Russian Empire. Today, it is right in the heart of Central Ukraine – and is now called Cherkasy. Interestingly, Slava is produced here.
POLAND vs. RUSSIA
The fight between the Poles and Russians came to an ugly climax in 1977, when the Polish government sued the USSR for the exclusive rights to use the term ‘vodka’ – much like how the French lay claim on Champagne and Cognac. This also happened when Poland and the USSR were supposedly allies – the Warsaw Pact.
Poland had very convincing anthropological and archaeological evidence that vodka was invented in a place called Cherkaska. This region was on the south-eastern fringe of the massive Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Poland was quite a power in those days and was one of the most important empires in Europe.
The Soviets countered with some dubious data of their own, even hiring a historian, VasilyPokhlebkin, to write a history of vodka,. He later published a book, which read like a Stalinist propaganda piece glorifying the Soviet Union and Mother Russia. He claimed that vodka was invented in Russia much earlier. Most historians deem it unlikely since Russia was barely getting started at the time and Moscow, a major world city today, was a mere hamlet then.
Nevertheless, Poland lost its bid for the exclusive use of the word.
UKRAINE vs. POLAND vs. RUSSIA
You will seldom hear that vodka was invented in Ukraine, except from the most strident nationalists. This is because Ukraine has been dominated by one or the other of its neighbors for the better part of a millennia, and did not even exist as a nation state for any significant period of time until 1991.
But just after the turn of the last millennium, Ukraine was a super-power in Europe – called the Kiev-Rus Empire. In fact, the Kiev-Rus empire spawned Russia itself, which is why, to this day, Russians call Kiev (Kyiv), the “Mother of all Russian cities”. It is also rather interesting to know that Kyiv (Kiev) was a city for over a thousand years before Moscow even appeared on the map.
Later, Cherkaska Poland was conquered by the Russian Empire, it lies now in the heart of Ukraine – and is called Cherkasy. It is 200km south of the capital of Kyiv (Kiev).
No one knows which flag flew over their City Hall at the time, but Cherkaska (Cherkasy) is where vodka was invented – and where Slava is produced.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Vodka, wodka and ВΟДКА all mean the same thing in Ukrainian, Polish and Russian. If you look it up, you will find that vodka means “little water”. This is an awkward, overly literal translation of the word. It has been established that the first use of the word ‘vodka’ (or wodka) – was in the Polish language. But this was relatively late – in the 17thCentury.
Well before the word vodka came along, Poles referred to this drink as gorzalka. Ukrainians call it horilka. These words mean the exact same thing – essentially “burning liquid”. This may refer more to the process than the sensation, since it involved heating and boiling a low-alcohol beverage to separate the alcohol from the water to make it stronger. It may be telling that the Russians never used this word in writing, nor even the word vodka, until much later! Vodka is a much more modern term for horilka or gorzalka.
In the Soviet days, people in the Russian SSR would look for the word horilka on the label of vodka to make sure that it came from the Ukrainian SSR. The Russians knew that the best vodkas in the USSR came from Ukraine. No big surprise, since vodka is made from grain and Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe. To this day, Russians still buy huge amounts of Ukrainian vodka. It is the #1 export market.
OK – SO WHO INVENTED VODKA?
What is for certain is that vodka originated in that area. Where was the border? Who was Ukrainian, Russian or Polish? In what year? – Are questions still open for contemplation.After all this, we are often asked… “OK, so was it the Ukrainians, Poles or Russians who invented vodka?” Our answer is – YES, definitely.
All political correctness aside, vodka did not even appear in Canada until the 1950’s and that vodka was imported from Poland. In fact, vodka is made in a very different way in Poland, Ukraine and Russia than it is anywhere else, which explains why the best vodkas come from these three countries. In fact, Russia, Ukraine and Poland are the number 1, 2 and 3 producers of vodka on earth, respectively. Consumers too. These three nations both produce – and consume – well over half of the worlds’ vodka.
Today, the Poles are still fighting for the right to bring vodka back to its place of origin and this time in the EU Parliament. But they now concede that their Slavic brothers – including the Ukrainians and Russians, can also lay claim to the beautiful drink.
One more word spans all three languages, thankfully. Na Zdorovya . This means the same thing in Ukrainian, Polish and Russian. It means “to your health” (pronounce it: Naz’-door-oh’-vee-ah).
That is one thing we can ALL agree on.