As we gathered around the dinner table a few minutes later, Anatoli Kiselev, the head of the hunting department, welcomed us and made several vodka toasts to celebrate the occasion. This was our introduction to Russia’s national drink. (More on this ceremonial Russian custom a bit later … several times).
After a toast welcoming us to this part of Siberia, and another to our health, and a third wishing us a good hunt, an awkward silence filled the room. Kiselev looked at all of us questioningly.
Dmitri leaned over and whispered “They are waiting for one of you to make a toast. It’s Russian tradition. The host makes a toast or two, then the guest makes a toast.”
“What kind of toast should I make?,” I whispered back. “It doesn’t really matter,” Dmitri whispered. “Just make up something.”
That put me on a spot. I wished I had known they were coming, and that I could make a toast to an intern or political science student, not to the chief of the Hunting Department of Sverdlovsk. I also wished I had more time to think about it. This could be an important advance in Russian/American detente, as I saw it. We were the first Americans they had ever seen. They had heard a lot about us, probably most of it bad. I didn’t want to confirm this with and improper toast.
After thinking about it for a minute, all the time I had because the silence in the room was deafening, I stood up and gave it my best shot. “I’d like to propose a toast,” I said, mustering all the courage I could.
“We thank Mr. Kiselev for coming here to greet us tonight. This a proud and momentous occasion. We are proud to be the first Americans to visit this area. We are enjoying our stay. You have made us feel very welcome. Your hospitality is much appreciated. All the Russian people we have met have been very kind and helpful. On this trip, we have learned that Russians and Americans are really all that different. We are a lot alike, especially those of us who love the outdoors and like to hunt. We share a kindred spirit.”
Everyone stood, touched shot glasses, and chugged the poison…er, ah, vodka. Kiselev looked pleased, as did my comrades.
“Good toast, Denny,” they said. “Good toast.”
After a few more toasts, Kiselev came to each of us, shook our hand and presented us with a beautiful silver medallion with a capercaille etched on its face and an impotant-looking inscription etched on the back. Then he handed us a small, red, hard-covered passport type of document. Inside, next to a picture of Lenin, was a photo of us, and some official-looking documentation written in Russian. Ah, so that’s why Dmitri wanted the extra passport-sized photos.
“You have been made honorary members of the Communist Party,” Dmitri said to us.
“You’re kidding, right?,” I asked.
“Actually, I am kidding,” Dmitri chuckled. “He’s made all of you honorary members of the region’s Society of Hunters. It’s a prestigious honor.”
We were surprised by what was happening here in the middle of Siberia. This was, indeed, an honor!
On our last day in camp, we decided to give Boris a nice tip for all the hard work and hospitality he had shown us at his hunting lodge. Tipping is an American tradition. That evening we didn’t even recognize Boris when he showed up at the dinner table. He had scraped the scruffy whiskers from his face and was wearing a suit and tie. He grinned from ear to ear and smelled of vodka.
“What’s up with Boris?,” I asked Dmitri. “He seems really pleased. Is he glad we all are finally leaving?”
“No,” Dmitri said with a hint of disgust in his voice. “Do you guys know the tip you gave him today is almost a year’s wages? This guy makes about $200 a month, and you gave him more than $2,000 in tips. You shouldn’t have tipped him so much. Now he’s going to expect that much again if we ever come back. Look at him. He’s so drunk he can hardly walk.”
Boris was a little wobbly, alright, and he was trying to get us wobbly right along with him. He kept proposing all sorts of toasts, each of which was consummated with a shot of vodka.
We learned a lot more about Russian traditions that night. The reason vodka bottles don’t come with screw-on caps is because once you take the cap off, you’re supposed to keep drinking shots until the bottle is empty. Also, you must keep the shot glass on the table when you fill it. You are not to hold it in your hand. You can’t leave an empty vodka bottle on the table; it must be placed on the floor next to the table. The first always has to be to your health. You can’t sip the vodka shot; that would be bad manners. You are to slam it.
We all slept in late the next morning.
Our hunt in Siberia was over. Next stop…Crimea.