Issue 295: 2021 09 30: Russian Champagne

30 September 2021

Russian Champagne

The sky is green.

By Neil Tidmarsh

In Len Deighton’s classic Cold War spy story The Ipcress File, the nameless hero is taken captive and imprisoned, presumably somewhere east of the Iron Curtain.  He’s given food only if he agrees with his jailer’s declaration that “Sky is green, grass is blue”, clearly the opening move in a psychological game of domination and submission designed to break his will.  Similarly, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio bullies an exhausted Katherine into agreeing with his assertion that the sun is the moon and the moon is the sun (“Then, God be blessed, it is the blessèd sun / But sun it is not, when you say it is not… / What you will have it named, even that it is…”) in order to get some rest; a blatant display of power.

The sky is green, grass is blue, the moon is the sun, the sun is the moon – and champagne doesn’t come from France.  It comes from Russia.

Two months ago, President Putin signed a decree stating that only sparkling wine from Russia could call itself ‘champagne’; sparkling wine from anywhere else could only call itself ‘sparkling wine’.  This meant that the wine producers of France’s Champagne region would only be able to export to Russia if they dropped the word ‘champagne’ in Cyrillic from their labels.  Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Lanson, Bollinger, etc, etc were outrés, indignés et en colère and their Champagne Interprofessional Committee boycotted the Russian market (which is only 0.5% of their global sales anyway); which meant that the coast was clear in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and elsewhere for the bubbly products of President Putin’s “wine-making allies” Boris Titov (whose ‘champagne’ business Abrau-Durso subsequently surged in value) and Yuri Kovalchuk (whose Novy Svet ‘champagne’ comes from the Crimea).  Last week, however, the Committee gave way, dropping its boycott and swallowing its pride, so bottles of Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Lanson, Bollinger, etc, etc, can once again be sold to Russia – as long as they don’t call themselves ‘champagne’ on their Cyrillic labels, of course, but simply ‘sparkling wine’.  Le ciel est vert, l’herbe est bleue.

It’s a remarkable volte-face for an industry so famously proud of its appellation and so infamously fierce and jealous in guarding it.  Only two weeks ago, it won a victory in the EU’s highest court against a chain of tapas bars in Barcelona, banning them from using the name ‘champanillo’.  (It’s as well to remind ourselves, as our woke age empties both barrels into The Taming of the Shrew, that Katherine is herself an unpleasant and violent bully and Petruchio is giving her a taste of her own medicine.)

But this wasn’t the only recent example of the authorities in Russia manipulating words and names and their meanings in order to dominate the opposition by forcing it to submissively accept their blatantly untrue ‘truths’.  In an election in Saint Petersburg, liberal candidate Boris Vishnevsky was stymied when two spoiler candidates changed their names to Boris Vishnevsky and even grew beards to look like him, so voters found three identical Boris Vishnevskys on the ballot paper and no way of knowing which was the authentic liberal.  It wasn’t the first time this tactic had been used, but there’s little the real candidates can do about it.  The real champagne, its own name stolen, simply has to accept the existence of the fake champagnes.

No one’s really fooled, of course.  In Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the supercilious young manservant Yasha takes just one sip of the champagne provided by the peasant-made-good businessman Lopakhin and declares “This champagne isn’t the real thing, believe me”.  Lopakhin admits that it’s local stuff (“I didn’t think to bring any from town and I could only get one bottle at the station”), and over-priced at that (“And at eight roubles a bottle!”) presumably because it didn’t have to compete with the real stuff.  And when Anton Chekhov, presented with a glass of the authentic bubbly on his death bed in Germany, came out with his famous last words “It’s a long time since I drank champagne”, he probably meant that it was a long time since he had drunk real French champagne.  And Katherine, even while agreeing with Petruchio’s untruths, knows that they are ridiculous (“And if you please to call it a rush-candle / Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me”).

But that’s the point.  The victory is all the more crushing psychologically – and all the more powerful as a warning to others – if the victim is forced to proclaim an untruth which nobody believes.  When the Pope and the Vatican forced Galileo to retract his discovery that the earth went round the sun rather than vice-versa, they weren’t simply trying to hide the truth – they were reinforcing their authority (showing that they’re so powerful they don’t have to bother with the truth) and discouraging anyone else from challenging it.

Such tactics, however, can be a double-edged sword.  Eventually, all words will lose their meaning, nothing spoken or written will be trusted and authority will show itself to be a sham.  Last week it was announced that “United Russia won the elections”, but do those words “won” and “elections” have any more meaning or truth here than the words “Champagne doesn’t come from France”?

Yasha can’t wait to get out of Russia at the end of The Cherry Orchard.  “Tomorrow we catch the express and then you won’t see us for smoke” he says.  He’s off to Paris, where words like ‘champagne’ can be trusted.  “I can hardly believe it somehow.  Vive la France!  It doesn’t suit me here, this isn’t the life for me and that’s that.  I’ve seen enough nonsense to last me a lifetime.”



Follow the Shaw Sheet on

It's FREE!

Already get the weekly email?  Please tell your friends what you like best. Just click the X at the top right and use the social media buttons found on every page.

New to our News?

Click to help keep Shaw Sheet free by signing up.Large 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list