On Top of Everything
‘I promised him champagne, Alyosha, on top of everything else, if he brought you to me. Let’s have champagne, I’ll drink, too!’
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Photo by Francois Pistorius on Unsplash
It was 2003 and they were both young and poor and in Moscow. Russia was in a similar state after the anarchy of the 90s. Finally free from the mafiya, it too was young and poor and struggling. But on that night, they had chosen to celebrate being alive, in love, and healthy.
They stayed in the storied Metropol Hotel, ‘a spectacle of opulence even as the building itself crumbled around us with neglect and mold and roaches.’* In a few hours he would turn thirty, and though their budget was tight, they dined well on bear meat pelmeni and Saint Emilion, the whole bottle.
Then to an old, pre-Soviet mansion where, over a century ago, aristocrats toasted with champagne and caviar. Now, it was a casino. The deep forest green velvet, and the staff, had aged, their uniforms dulled, but somehow the couple only saw the light glisten off the chandeliers.
They made a modest gamble and lost and laughed it off. By almost midnight, their money and the last year of his twenties were rapidly running out. But they were healthy, alive, and in love, and soon would be making love. Before that, though, she whispered into the croupier’s ear. He snapped his fingers.
‘A moment later, an ice bucket appeared.’ And two glasses. On the house. Sweet, cheap, Soviet champagne that was served with its own Russian tradition:
When midnight struck, to the chiming Kremlin clocks, the full glass had to be drunk. Savoured, not saved for later, like the present. They toasted. He made his wish:
To him, to her, to them. To happiness, on top of everything else. They drank their glasses dry before the silence of the last bell.
According to Nobel Prize- winning economist Daniel Kahneman, there are two systems of mentation involved in measuring happiness. The first is in the experience:
‘At [that] moment, objective happiness is defined as the extent to which [a person] wants the experience he is having at that moment to continue.’
The second is in the champagne buzz that lingers; the perception of the experience. Subjective happiness is the story a person remembers and tells, years later.
Perhaps the champagne that night had actually been too sweet and not quite cold. The dumplings and wine and kisses they had shared had perhaps not been sublime. The velvet had probably even smelled moldy, the staff’s uniforms as well, but the mind chooses the reality it builds. It defines its happiness.
When Joseph Stalin signed Resolution 1366 setting up three wine trusts tasked with making Sovetskoe Shampanskoe – Soviet champagne – he was making a statement:
‘Life has become better, comrades. Life has become more cheerful.’
His words were true because the people chose to believe them and celebrate.
Sovetskoe Shampanskoe was produced in quantities that went from 300,000 bottles a year in 1936,
to twelve million in 1942.
Twelve million bottles of champagne in the middle of the Second World War. Sold and drunk, not just in fine restaurants, but ‘in ordinary stores where it could be bought by the glass from early in the morning till late at night.’
A modest lunch in those days could be had for a ruble, soda water for a few kopecks. A bottle of Sovetskoe Shampanskoe cost four rubles, seventeen kopecks. Cheap champagne whose cost was still significant. People bought it anyway, for the promise of a moment of cold, sweet, sparkling happiness.
It was the last day of 2018 and they were both still together. Still in love, a little less young and poor. They were no longer in Moscow. They were no longer only two either, but four; the two girls looked like her. That night, they looked back, forward, and at each other, on top of everything.
The little ones went to bed. At midnight, he and she toasted with full glasses of Soviet champagne. They drank them dry before the last bell.
*Thank you, S., for lending me your story and your words. I hope I did them justice.