The Dude and the KGB Abide

The other night I was in a Russian mood; perhaps it was the onset of the colder half of fall and my finishing Jonathan Haslam’s new history of Soviet intelligence. This confluence of events provided a good excuse to try out some Russian cocktails! I started with the progenitor of the famous “White Russian” known, imaginatively, as “The Russian” – this drink was beautiful, surprisingly good, and extremely strong; the cacao hits perfectly on the backend of the gin and vodka.  Powerful though, have to sip this one slowly.  The icier the better!

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Alright, on to “The White Russian,” the favorite of Jeff Bridges, who did much to revive the drink. Now, in my earlier days of cocktail experimentation, I had a bad experience with cream and alcohol, so I went into this skeptical. But the Dude was right: it’s pretty damn delicious, and the addition of coffee rounds out the heavy cream and vodka burn perfectly. FYI I used Starbucks Blonde roast.

Finally, I gave a regional interpretation of the Russian a go with the “Colorado Bulldog,” which substitutes coke for coffee. Crazy right? Again, went in with lips pursed as I half expected to gag on a mixture of coke, cream, and Russian alcohol. But boom, this was really interesting – the coke gives the drink an entirely different but pleasant character, thinning out the cream and making it a really sweet, biting, and vibrant mix. Out of the трио, or trio, I would pick the Bulldog as my surprise favorite.

Here are the recipes!

The Russian Cocktail

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White Russian (from Imbibe Magazine)

  • 2 oz. vodka
  • 1 oz. Kahlua
  • 1 oz. cream
  • 1/2 oz. fresh-brewed coffee, cooled

Colorado Bulldog

  • 1 ounce Vodka
  • 1 ounce Kahlua
  • .5 oz Half-and-half
  • .5 oz of Cola

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Now let’s get a little more high-minded and move on to my review of “Near and Distant Neighbors” a new history of Soviet intelligence written by scholar Jonathan Haslam. Haslam has a tough row to hoe here; for obvious reasons, Soviet intelligence was and remains a difficult research topic. Many of the more glamorous stories, such as the saga of Kim Philby and the overseas operation of the KGB, have been covered extensively in classics such as “The Sword the Shield” by Christopher Andrew. For those seeking radical new insights into the cornerstones of KGB lore such as the Cambridge Five and Richard Sorge, this book will mostly disappoint, only briefly covering these well-worn topics.

Where Haslam and his thin volume really shine is his study of lesser known aspects of Soviet intelligence such as its military component (GRU), its signals intelligence capabilities, the biographies of minor players who went on to shape the Soviet hierarchy, and Stalin’s use (and much more frequently) misuse of intelligence. Here, Haslam provides some new research that helps paint a fuller portrait of a subject still cloaked in official mystery. He makes effective use of Russian language memoirs and histories that have never or rarely appeared in English-language volumes. “Near and Distant Neighbors” is thoroughly researched and well-written history, and is worth picking up for aficionados and novices alike.

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