Drinking vodka, like many other social rituals of people gathering to celebrate, brings with it a background of a long and rich history and numerous traditions that have come to us down through the generations. The accepted rituals of toasting with vodka are rooted in the culture, history, and traditions of Russia, although it has taken on a more international character in this global age. Vodka is still a large part of the social fabric and interpersonal interactions of Russia, and is replete with numerous conventions.
Generally, in Russia as well as in the west, drinking vodka is a group activity. Groups of people indulge in Vodka drinking when they meet to party, socialize, or hang out; when they celebrate a life event like a birth, a death, or a wedding. Copious consumption in numerous rounds is common at most such gatherings. You might see people drink vodka – straight – as shots, in traditional Russian gatherings, whereas most people mix it with something like tonic water or fresh juices.
Making a toast with vodka
In the western world, we suffer from the misconception that the appropriate toast when drinking vodka is na zdorovie. This is not really an appropriate toast in Russian. It does not really mean “to your health”, as you might have frequently heard. Instead, try something like za milyh dam, which means to lovely ladies or vashe zdorovie, which means to your health.
Vodka toasts for occasions
The nature of the occasion calls for a particular kind of toast, regardless of whether the tipple is vodka or a bottle of champagne. Weddings for example, demand toasts to love, happy endings, and many years of wedded bliss for the new couple. On the other hand, when toasting a new baby, it is more appropriate to drink to its health and long life, and the happiness it will bring into its parents’ life. When toasting a new venture, a new home, or some other live event, similarly, the occasion will give you a clue to possible and appropriate toasts. For example, at a wake, you should toast the deceased as the first toast, but the glasses should not be clinked. At birthdays, toast the birthday boy/girl first, and then their parents. Wedding toasts would be to the couple, then their parents, moving on to other subjects like love, happy life, and so on.
A sequence of vodka toasts
Over the course of an evening, hardcore vodka drinkers might progress through a series of toasts. If you are in Russia, drinking vodka with a roomful of Russians, the evening might progress through some common steps. The first toast, made by you or another guest, would be to propose a drink to the host of your party. This will generally be the first of a series of toasts, from one’s noble ancestors, to the guests/hosts children, the women in the company, and abstract concepts like honor, pride, the motherland, and so on.
Tips and warnings
Always keep basic etiquette and polite manners in mind, as well as the occasion.
It is better to seem uninformed than to appear rude or to risk insulting one’s host, or other guests.
When in doubt about what to say, it is better not to say anything, or to wait and watch and take clues from what others say and how that is received.