‘Ahead of its time’ A short but instructive history of Russia’s Beer Lovers’ Party
At the beginning of 2020, new political parties made up of unexpected members, began actively registering in Russia. This includes, for example, the Direct Democracy Party — from the man behind the online role-playing game “World of Tanks,” Vyacheslav Makarov — and the party “Novye Lyudi” (New People), brought to you by perfume company founder Alexey Nechayev. Meanwhile, political projects both old and new began to recruit pop-culture personalities to their ranks. Leningrad frontman Sergey “Shnur” Shnurov joined the “Partiya Rosta” (Growth Party), while artist Vasya Lozhkin became set to head the newly formed environmental party “Zelyonaya Alternativa” (Green Alternative). Critics were quick to point out that the Putin administration is often involved in building up these spoiler parties in an apparent effort to split the opposition vote ahead of the 2021 State Duma elections. And it’s likely that they took inspiration from the 1995 parliamentary elections, which saw campaigns from 43 political parties (many with equally outlandish names and platforms), resulting in a divided opposition vote. The most striking and memorable campaign that election year was that of the Beer Lovers' Party — Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev recounts its remarkable history.
“We went out for beer again, and then went out once more”
“In the film Back to the Future there’s a scene where the main character, Marty McFly, is invited on stage to play the guitar. At first he plays simple and recognizable rock-and-roll, but then he goes on to a solo in the spirit of Van Halen. The people, who were dancing before that, look at him with bewilderment. With the Beer Lovers' Party in the 1990s, it was pretty much the same. This project was seriously ahead of its time,” says journalist Gleb Cherkasov.
During the 1995 legislative elections, he was working as a parliamentary correspondent for the newspaper Segodnya. The Beer Lovers' Party (Partiya lyubiteley piva — PLP) was one of the 43 political groups campaigning in the 1995 elections: like the majority of the other parties and associations, it tried to get into parliament, but was dissolved shortly after they announced the results of the vote. In the end, only four parties made it into the State Duma: the Communist Party (KPRF), “Nash Dom — Rossiya” (Our Home — Russia), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), and “Yabloko.” The remaining parties didn’t pass the necessary threshold of five percent of the vote.
Nevertheless, out of all of the diverse political parties that emerged in the mid-1990s, the Beer Lovers' Party is one of the few that Russians still actually remember. One of the party’s founders, political scientist and strategist Konstantin Kalachev, claims that they had no cunning plan for “conquering” the Duma — the idea of founding a party came to him and his pal Dmitry Shestakov by chance.
“I participated in the 1993 State Duma Elections on the party list for Sergey Shakhray’s PRES, and in a single-candidate constituency. I lost in the district, but I could have gone through [as part of] the list: the PRES overcame the barrier. Many of those whose names came before mine left to work in the executive branch. But Shakhray thought that I was Konstantin Zatulin’s man and would split the faction in the Duma, so I didn’t get into parliament,” Kalachev recalls.
Naturally, this upset the young and ambitious politician. So to unwind, he went to the nearest store to pick up beer. On the street, he ran into his former university classmate and fellow army serviceman, Dmitry Shestakov — he had also put his name on the ballot for the State Duma and the Moscow City Council, for the party Civic Union. By an amazing coincidence, Shestakov was also going to get beer.
“We went back to my house, drank and berated every party there was,” Kalachev recalls. “Especially the parties that nominated us. I asked [him], ‘Dima, which party would you be able to vote for with a clear conscience now?’ Shestakov replied that there was no such party, but if a Beer Lovers' Party were to be founded, he would vote for it. I had an Olivetti fax machine at home and lots of journalists as acquaintances, including at [the Russian state news agency] TASS. I wrote a message about the establishment of the PLP — I appointed Shestakov as the chairman — and sent it to the media. The get-together dragged on, we went out for beer again, and then went out once more. The television was playing in the background, Channel One was broadcasting the news, and then the announcer said that a PLP congress had taken place in Moscow and Shestakov was elected chairman.”
Interestingly, Kalachev doesn’t remember what brand of beer we were drinking on that momentous day. However, he believes that “it was something patriotic, for example Zhigulevskoe: at the time it was the only one we could afford, and we hardly could have founded a party after drinking imported beer.”
As it turns out, Poland also had a Beer Lovers' Party at that time, which even made it into the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish parliament). But Kalachev claims that neither he nor Dmitry Shestakov knew of its existence.
Malikov, Moiseev, and Michael Jackson
Kalachev claims that he had no serious desire to take part in party building. At the time he was working as the deputy director of a Moscow cable television studio (it belonged to Yuri Pripachkin, the future creator of the telecommunications company “Akado”) and he was quite happy with his position.
“But I took on helping Shestakov hold his first press conference. We reached an agreement with the owner of the beer restaurant ‘Gambrinus’: I promised I would bring in a lot of press, and he provided the room and free beer. I had a directory of foreign media contacts in Russia, I sent out invitations, and arrived early as an organizer, and discovered 14 television cameras, mostly foreign ones. I realized I wanted my 15 minutes of fame, too! Shestakov was running late so I declared myself general secretary and said that I was also prepared to answer questions. So the desire for fame ruined me!” Kalachev laughs.
Kalachev already had experience creating a political party: in 1993, along with Vadim Lukashevich (the current deputy chairman of the People’s Freedom Party), he registered the Progress Party, an association calling for tax-law reform and free trade. He also took part in organizing the People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS), along with Dmitry Rogozin (the current Director General of Roscosmos). Kalachev maintains that the presidential administration was not too happy about the appearance of a new player on the party field and was not eager to register the PLP. “There were different rumors. One said that the [presidential administration] head Sergey Filatov was against our registration, another [said] that [the president’s security chief], Alexander Korzhakov, put up roadblocks. I spoke to both of them and as a result we got our registration,” Kalachev recalls.
The first congress of the Beer Lovers' Party took place in the hotel “Rossiya.” That evening, Russian actor and singer Dmitry Malikov sang for the participants. The party subsequently sought actively to strengthen its friendship with musicians — mainly with representatives of the rock scene, like the bands “Bakhyt-Kompot,” “Time Out,” and “Mister Twister.” The rockers would perform at party gatherings and festivals.
Naturally, the party had its own anthem, written by Valery Shapovalov, the frontman for the country band “Lemonade Joe.” Every PLP event ended with a group performance of the anthem: “We drink beer, we love beer, we see great meaning in beer / Beer makes us think all people can live happily! / Good marksman, drop your weapons / Come on, it’s better to drink beer / You see, beer will make friends of everyone / Beer is able to reconcile!”
Every gathering, meeting, festival, and concert featured some sort of libations. “I had to drink a lot of beer, which is not very good for [one’s] health, but a non-drinker as beer party general secretary [seems] very strange,” Konstantin Kalachev says with a sigh.
As it turns out, love helped promote the party, as well as music. According to Kalachev, he really liked a woman journalist at one of the press conferences. But she asked a few questions and then disappeared. “I had to arrange a huge press conference for all of the journalists in Moscow, because I did not know who she was or where she came from. I wanted her to hear my last name and see it on the news banners, so I came up with press events. This romantic story eventually ended in a breakup, but for some time she was my most serious motivation for engaging in political activities,” he explains.
The PLP really did provide an abundance of press events: from rolling a barrel of beer into the State Duma, to giving a box of it to then-President Boris Yeltsin, stating that it would be nice if the president would switch from drinking vodka to drinking beer. Kalachev announced that Michael Jackson would speak at a party congress, and then (playing dumb) announced that the artist was unable to attend because he had broken his leg (the second part of the statement was actually true). The outrageousness of the Beer Lovers' had a lot in common with the bombastic behavior of Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
“Initially, we definitely saw the LDPR as a competitor. I think the LDPR also considered us to be possible opponents. Zhirinovsky watched how I participated in debates at the TV studios, and sort of voiced the same criticisms of me that many politicians expressed: the country needs to be saved, and here you are screwing around with beer,” Kalachev recalls. However, according to former LDPR deputy chairman and lawmaker Oleg Finko, there was no question of any competition between the PLP and the Liberal Democrats. “The LDPR electorate are not lumpens, but the middle class!” he told Meduza.
But according to Boris Nadezhdin, a former lawmaker from the Union of Right Forces (SPS), many representatives of the middle class were interested in the PLP. “There was real movement in politics then. The Beer Lovers' were conspicuous, many of my friends went there as a joke; [said] ‘Oh, great party!’ — and not only joined but actively participated in the life of the party,” Nadezhdin said in conversation with Meduza.
Initially, the shiny new party even attracted high-profile politicians and businessmen. Konstantin Kalachev says that he gave party cards to nationalist politician Sergey Baburin (the founder and leader of the Russian All-People’s Union party) and Alexander Torshin, who was the Bank of Russia's State Secretary at the time. Nikolay Fyodorov, who was then the head of Russia’s Chuvash Republic, also appeared at party events.
“The writer Yuz Aleshkovsky drew up a declaration for us. I wanted to find it not long ago but [I couldn’t]. There were musicians around us, even Boris Moiseev headed a faction of unsatisfied women — dissatisfied with their low incomes, high prices, [and] social policy. Famous people were drawn to our events, we were mass entertainers,” Kalachev explains.
But Nikolai Fyodorov had another, entirely pragmatic interest: Chuvashia produced hops and he thought that the PLP could help promote it on Russian markets.
“Back then, if people were not personal enemies, if there was no bloody conflict between them since 1993, they hung out together freely [and] started projects. In the Duma, for example, many political opponents shook hands, hugged. After 1993, everyone understood that no one needed street fighting and [all] its consequences, so they talked. Baburin was looking for [his place], Torshin was a lobbyist, and Chuvashia was working in beer,” says journalist Gleb Cherkasov.
Defeat with elements of victory
The Beer Lovers' Party and its organizers gradually began to find sponsors. Beer factories and imported beer distributors were not so willing to hand over cash, but they donated beer for PLP events. “I quickly figured out what to do — I came up with beer ratings, we began holding beer festivals, [and] established an Association of manufacturers, suppliers, and lovers of beer. It existed outside of the party, but we attempted to [use] it to build relationships in the industry. A few companies even gave money, but for the most party sponsorship was limited to beer. We sought funding for the 1995 State Duma campaign in other places, and in the end we found [some], albeit little. Yuri Milyukov helped with this,” Konstantin Kalachev says.
At the time, Yuri Milyukov was heading one of Russia’s main trading venues, the Moscow Trade Exchange (MTB). But this did not prevent this serious entrepreneur from helping this unserious party project as much as possible — he even joined its ranks. “I led the non-beer-drinking faction. This was a turbulent time, people were seeking opportunities for creative expressions. The PLP was a promising, enchanting undertaking, it truly provoked enthusiasm,” Milyukov told Meduza.
However, serious figures did not appear on the PLP’s party list; Kalachev was leading them all. The party had a simple declaration, it stated that the PLP defended the human right to drink and not drink beer. That said, there was a more serious version of the party program, which included approximately the same liberal principles, but it did not survive.
The campaign had a budget of half a million dollars. In Kalachev’s opinion, even for those times this was not a lot of money, but party members did not scrimp on their campaign commercials. In one short video, a drunk man in a quilted jacket and rubber boots stumbles proudly through the mud on a village street, and goes to sleep on a bus stop bench (out of nowhere, a pillow appears under his head). “You can’t drink like this!” the voice-over says. In the second clip, the same man with the pillow stops a tank as it comes charging over a hill, “Oy! ***, mine!” he says, exhaling, when a tankman in a helmet emerges from the hatch. “Let’s live in peace!” the voice-over concludes.
In Moscow, the Beer Lovers' and their allies from the movement “Subtropical Russia” — its leader, political scientist Vladimir Pribylovsky, joined the PLP’s Duma list — organized spectacular performances. For example, on September 28, 1995, they held a “Yeltsnization” ceremony at the fountain near the “Rossiya” cinema, commemorating the sixth anniversary of the first Russian president falling off a bridge into the Moscow River. Two volunteers jumped in the fountain and were given gold “Yeltsin stars” for their efforts. The onlookers that gathered to watch the event enjoyed a round of beer. During the campaign, party members in the regions organized more traditional gatherings and concerts, but as a result the PLP only received 0.62 percent of the vote in the State Duma elections — or 429,000 ballots. They took 21st place among the 43 parties on the ballot. The PLP earned the most votes in the Kaliningrad region. “That’s closer to Europe, they understood our project there,” Kalachev explains. The beer lovers also polled well among army servicemen (including those fighting in Chechnya) and detainees in pre-trial detention centers.
Gleb Cherkasov thinks that the PLP’s results were “in actual fact, not bad”: the party did not come in last place and it gained a number of votes comparable to the projects of politicians who were famous at the time. “For example, the trade unions led by Mikhail Shmakov received 1.5 percent, the ‘Common Cause’ party, which had Irina Khakamada as the first on its list, and the director Rolan Bykov second [received] 0.68 percent, the Stanislav Govorukhin Bloc received 0.99 percent,” Cherkasov recalls. However, be that as it may, the PLP lost the election.
Death by irony
Konstantin Kalachev himself names several reasons for their defeat. The main ones being a lack of clear strategy and bright personalities on their list, especially at the top. “We had a campaign concept, which an advertising agency developed. The sponsors rejected Milyukov as the [party] representative and no new [figure] appeared. Everything was in ‘happening’ mode, the campaign did not have any dominant [qualities], other than we are different, we aren’t like everyone else. This wasn’t enough. The anti-war theme could have been strengthened or [we could have] taken up a hard counter-position in relation to Yeltsin. Even our anthem had the words ‘drop your weapons.’ We could have made this stronger, declaring that we were against the war in Chechnya,” Kalachev recalls.
His party colleagues made the decision to highlight the party brand and refrain from personal positioning. “For example, [television host Leonid] Yakubovich could have been at the head of the party list, but we could never afford his wishlist. And I myself was young, handsome, well-spoken — I could have pulled it off. People don’t vote for the party brand, most often they vote for a person,” Kalachev says. That said, he doesn’t regret creating the party or participating in its campaign one bit — this was the moment Kalachev’s career as a political strategist began. Yuri Milyukov also has no regrets about investing in the PLP: “They turned into acquaintances and connections,” he says.
But Gleb Cherkasov doubts that the presence of bright personalities on the party list and an emphasis on a personal dimension would have helped the PLP get into the State Duma. “In principle, it was not clear what constituted a famous person for that time and how one could have helped in the campaign. There were a bunch of celebrities in the parties and blocs; Khakamada’s ‘Common Cause’ had Rolan Bykov. His performance was fiery, his drive would be enough for five parties today, but ‘Common Cause’ gained 0.68 percent [of the vote],” he argues. The aforementioned Leonid Yakubovich (best known as a game show host) was second on the party list for the Constructive Ecological Party “KEDR,” which gained 1.39 percent.
Konstantin Kalachev also offers another, personal reason, which in his opinion negatively affected the outcome of the campaign: at the height of the electoral race, his muse — the same lady-journalist — left him. “I lost my courage and fell into the deepest depression. Before that I divorced [my] wife, so I went into the elections with nothing. The lack of moral support had an affect. I came to broadcasts completely unprepared, and burned out sooner than was necessary. The battery lost its charge and the experience was not enough,” the PLP founder recalls.
According to Kalachev, the party made many serious mistakes. For example, the decision to send about half of its entire budget to the regions. “Local leaders said that they knew the regional specifics well, they knew who to negotiate with, what to say to the media, just give money. They happily drank the money. In Volgograd, we organized a rock concert in support of the party, but it didn’t even have beer — the local party members stole it,” Kalachev complains.
Gleb Cherkasov sees other reasons for the PLP’s defeat. “They had an light and ironic view of politics and elections at this serious time, this was probably what killed them,” he maintains. The Secretary of the Russian Communist Party (KPRF), Sergey Obukhov, says pretty much the same thing: “Society was extremely politicized, people were looking at politics from this point of view: are you for Yeltsin or against? Beer won’t do it here.” Kalachev himself agrees: “We were not in the wrong place at the wrong time. People had not yet had time to become disillusioned with serious politics, they hadn’t had their fill of it. We were not like the rest, but there were no grievances against everyone else.”
Political analyst Alexey Makarkin recalls that the depoliticization of society had already begun at that time. Many voters did not want to vote for the usual range of ideologies — liberals, communists and nationalists. “The PLP wanted to push the boundaries and unite those who did not like traditional politics, but then Zhirinovsky stole this entire electorate. Moreover, with 43 parties and associations on the list, voters’ [heads were spinning],” he argues. In his opinion, serious promotion could have given the PLP a chance at success, but they lacked the financial support of powerful backers. “Russia is a big country, projects without media promotion don’t take off here,” Makarkin says. “It’s only in a small [country like] Estonia that a Royalist Party could get into parliament on shock value.”
The PLP founder recalls that by 1995 the media had already begun to demand payment for publications and airtime: “Yes, even serious people, including [NTV owner Vladimir Gusinsky], told us: a serious watershed is happening, the liberals are fighting with the communists, and we are getting underfoot and organizing a circus. We need to save democracy, and here you are making jokes.”
“The PLP did not have any ideological base or serious financial resources, [it had] neither goals, nor objectives. Like a flash from fireworks bought from China, they made noise and were gone. It seems to me that they themselves were laughing at the people who took them seriously,” says the former LDPR deputy head Oleg Finko.
The politics of light and dark beer
After the election campaign, the founders of the Beer Lovers' Party found themselves in debt. Konstantin Kalachev, like the leaders of many other parties, was invited to take part in a meeting of the Presidential Administration’s Political Advisory Council. He wasn’t opposed to attending, but he claims that he didn’t even have enough money in his pocket for a metro token at the time. “I had to make eyes at pretty girls near the ‘VDNKh’ metro station. I told them that just yesterday I was the leader of a party list, but now I didn’t even have money for [subway] fare,” Kalachev laughs. According to him, immediately after the parliamentary campaign the PLP understood that “this is the sunset, the project needs to shut down.” “Back then [people] believed that if a party didn’t get into the State Duma the first time, then everything within it needed to be radically changed, or completely liquidated,” Gleb Cherkasov confirms.
However, the Beer Lovers' Party still played a role during the 1996 presidential elections. Konstantin Kalachev suggested that the Kremlin help write off party debts in exchange for support for Boris Yeltsin. But officials weren’t going for it. Kalachev then suggested the reverse option: call a congress, nominate him as a presidential candidate and begin actively fighting with vodka-lover, Boris Yeltsin. He says this blackmail produced results, and they even received a little support from the Kremlin. It all ended well: the PLP officially endorsed Boris Yeltsin and was dissolved in 1998.
According to political expert Alexey Makarkin and journalist Gleb Cherkasov, the Kremlin deliberately allowed so many parties to compete in the 1995 elections in order to divide the opposition electorate. And while the Putin administration has now set itself a similar task ahead of the 2021 State Duma elections, experts and politicians are finding serous differences between the approach in 1995 and the situation now. “The new parties are a forgery. In 1995, politics were real and competitive,” says Boris Nadezhdin. “Back then, the vertical [of power] did not go beyond the Kremlin walls. This is a different era, then there were no serious ‘filters’ for establishing a party, for participating in elections, no mandatory trip to the ‘pharmacy’ for an agreement. Now there are two options: either unsuccessful independent attempts, like Alexey Navalny and Dmitry Gudkov, or alignment, like the ‘tank party’ [the Direct Democracy Party] and other pro-government projects.”
Konstantin Kalachev recalls this free-spirited era with sadness: “We were literally free to roll a barrel into the State Duma, with no [repercussions]. Now the police would have stopped us immediately, and would have given it to us with batons.” Alexey Makarkin clarifies that the new parties established with the Kremlin’s permission are “niche” — whereas the PLP claimed the entire electorate dissatisfied with traditional politicians and ideologies.
“The parties grown in a test tube can’t be like that, a lack of strategy killed us, but here the project is created as part of a strategy. We were real. Once they are in the Duma, maybe they could turn into regular suits, but we were spared,” Kalachev says, ironically. He references the fate of the Polish Beer Lovers' Party (which got into the national parliament in the 1990s) as an example: “It turned out that beer, of course, is a unifying beginning, but people have different political opinions, they scattered into different factions...The PLP also had everything from libertarians to nationalists, we simply tried to make politics lively and fun — to paint it orange, and the colors of light and dark beer.”
Finally — and not without sadness — the founder of the PLP recalls a story that took place soon after the parliamentary elections. The owners of a chain of beer restaurants called Kalachev to judge a beer drinking competition, which took the form of a drinking race. The prize was a good-quality, imported television, so the politician — who had over exerted himself during the campaign — decided to try his luck. “I had gotten good at drinking beer and really drank a liter mug faster than everyone else. And then a man came into the bar, clearly very hungover — it was obvious that he was parched. The man took a mug and drank the beer in one gulp, grabbed the television and left. That’s how real beer lovers from the streets outperformed the professionals.”
Translation by Eilish Hart