Igor Volodin believes vodka is no more harmful than chocolate. He is proud to be the first Russian to produce the spirit in a special women's version, designed to be sipped with salad after a workout in the gym.
Touted as a glamour product for upwardly mobile women in booming Russia, Damskaya or "Ladies" vodka worries doctors, who fear a fresh wave of female alcoholics in a country already suffering one of the world's worst drink problems.
The Moscow Serbsky Institute for Social and Forensic Psychiatry says Russia has 2.5 million registered alcoholics, but adds the real figure is seven times higher -- more than 10 percent of Russia's population of 142 million. Yuri Sorokin, a psychologist running a Moscow rehabilitation centre for drug addicts and alcoholics, said 60 percent of those he treats for alcoholism are women, including the wives of Russian millionaires. "I believe that female alcoholism is a huge problem in Russia. I believe it is as huge and hidden as the underwater part of an iceberg," he said.
Adverts for the new "Ladies" vodka show the elegant, violet-tinted bottle wearing a pleated white skirt which is blown upwards to reveal the label. The images confront commuters on Moscow's metro, grab the eye on the street and leap from the pages of women's magazines. "Between us, girls ..." runs the slogan on the adverts, which tout the product as an ideal tipple for hearty hen parties. "Women need a drink of their own," said Volodin, sitting next to an array of his "Ladies" vodkas, which comes in lime, vanilla and almond flavors, or just straight for cocktails. "In Moscow, there are pink taxis for ladies, there are light cigarettes," he said. "But there was no vodka, and we asked ourselves: 'Why?' ... More people suffer from diabetes in Russia than from alcoholism, but no one bans chocolate advertisements."
Sales on Russia's vodka market are estimated to be worth around $15 billion a year, with a total annual volume of some 2.2 billion liters, Volodin said. Annual market growth in value is seen at 15 percent, he said, thanks to rising incomes and higher sales of premium vodkas like "Ladies".
Volodin heads the Deyros company, which has been selling strong spirits on the Russian market for more than 10 years. "Ladies", launched in December, is produced at a distillery in Russia's second city of St Petersburg and retails at around 300 roubles ($12.5) in upmarket shops in big cities. Volodin is targeting successful, well-educated, married women with money. "Of course, $12 per bottle is too expensive for a village woman," Volodin said, forecasting March sales of "Ladies" at 115,000 bottles and putting the 2008 full-year figure at over 2 million. "But we can't make bad vodka for women." Volodin says his vodka is pure and free of by-products, like fusel oils, which can cause a heavy hangover. He says because of its mellow taste, it can be taken with salads and other light meals, even by those regularly working out in gyms.
Russia, buoyed by windfall revenues for oil, gas and metals exports, has enjoyed its biggest economic boom in a generation. Wages in the cash-laden economy have rocketed. But high salaries and growing consumption of expensive alcohol have not led to moderation in drinking, said psychologist Sorokin. The joblessness and despair of Russia's wild capitalism of the 1990s have now been replaced by the psychological vacuum of the newly-rich, he said.
Olga, a woman in her 20s, was buying a bottle of "Ladies" in an expensive supermarket in Moscow for a party with her friends. "I saw the ad in the metro and decided to taste it," she said. "I just loved the design." Sorokin said he expected an influx of new patients in about six months. "When such strong marketing experts are involved, I will never be jobless," he sighed.
Vladimir Putin is certainly correct to express outrage that any in the West would dare to think of Russia as being "a little bit savage." The Times of London has more on the feminism front in enlightened, sophisticated Russia:
Blondes famously have more fun, but a jealous world has long joked about their intellectual limitations. Now blondes in Russia are fighting the bimbo image by forming their own political party. Organisers insist that the Party of Blondes will establish itself as Russia's newest political force by recruiting 50,000 members within weeks. The blonde ambition, they say, is to challenge Dmitri Medvedev for the presidency of Russia at the next election in 2012. “The Party of Blondes is for blondes, those who love blondes, and those who are blonde inside,” general-secretary Marina Voloshinova told The Times. Confusingly, she is a brunette.
“I dyed my hair blonde once but it was so awful that I decided never to do it again. I just have to stay blonde inside,” she said. “Blonde is not just a hair colour, it's in your brain and your heart. Blondes accept life in a more lively way, they really have more fun.”
The idea started as an internet community, the Club of Blonde Lovers, that evolved from a forum for jokes into a discussion about the many problems facing Russian women. “We decided to make it more serious and to form a political party. Blondes are very attractive and the Party of Blondes is a way to gain attention for issues facing all women,” said Ms Voloshinova, a 39-year-old economist. “We want to make it easier for women to start small businesses because that is where they can develop themselves, and children's education is a major question. It is free on paper but everybody knows that you have to pay under the table to get your child into a good school.” She added: “We will try to have beautiful blondes as party representatives. Unfortunately, a lot of our beauties have left Russia and we have to work hard to make life more convenient for women so that they will stay and be beautiful here. Men will vote for a beautiful woman, but we have to convince them that she is not only beautiful but also clever and a good leader.”
The party launched three weeks ago and claims 5,000 members. It needs 50,000 plus branches in half of Russia's regions to gain official registration. “We will be ready by May 31, which is the Day of Blondes,” Ms Voloshinova said. The party is seeking support from famous blonde Russians, such as Valentina Matviyenko, the governor of St Pertersburg, Maria Sharapova, the tennis star, and Ksenia Sobchak, the “It” girl. “They don't have to become members, just sympathise with our ideas. To be a real political force we need to develop our own leaders, and there are a lot of talented women in the regions.” Non-blondes, including men, are also welcome. Indeed, the current leader of the nascent women's party is a man, Sergei Kushnerov. “He founded the Blonder Lovers' Club so he became our leader, but that may change when we are more organised. Anyway, he has dyed his hair blond,” said Ms Voloshinova. She insists that the Party of Blondes is not a joke and that it is serious about capturing the Kremlin in a country where ultra-nationalists and Communists ran in this month's presidential election. Mr Medvedev may even have a fifth columnist in his camp - his wife Svetlana is blonde. “No other party in Russia represents women's rights. We want to teach women to love themselves and to believe that they can be all that they want to be,” she said.
“We will have a blonde president and if we find a great woman leader who is not blonde, we will make her dye her hair. To become the President of Russia, every woman is willing to dye her hair.”