The night Lester Pearson (and Michael Ignatieff’s dad) outdrank the Soviets
by Tristin Hopper (feat. Chris Westdal)
July 1, 2016
The first toast would have been to “zdorovye” (health). Then came a toast for “the dead.” Then several toasts for the women. A toast to President Eisenhower. A toast to Prime Minister St. Laurent. A toast to the Canadian wheat surplus.
Ounce after ounce of pepper vodka. The Canadian delegation could barely put down their glasses before their host, Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev, ordered that it be refilled.
It had all started so innocently; some food and conversation after a day of tense negotiations. But as a liquored haze overtook them, and the eyes of their Russian hosts narrowed, the four Canadians realized the gravity of their situation.
They were 8,000 kilometres from home, sharing a remote Crimean palace with their bitterest Cold War enemy. It was 1955 and a nation was counting on them to show what Canadian livers were made of.
“Khruschev … hoped and felt that there would never be conflict between Canada and the Soviet Union,” Lester Pearson, then Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, reported at the midpoint of their boozy odyssey.
“But reminded me again that next time, if there ever was one, we would certainly not be remote geographically from the conflict.”
It was two years before Pearson would win the Nobel Peace Prize, and the future prime minister was becoming the first-ever NATO foreign minister to visit the Soviet Union.
The Canadian was truly voyaging deep into the Russian Heart of Darkness. Setting out from a bomb-scarred Berlin, Pearson’s delegation had flown over swaths of Eastern Europe that, only 10 years before, had been scene to the most pronounced suffering in human history.
Once in Moscow, a bow-tied Pearson was expected to make small talk with some of the greatest criminals of the 20th century. Stalin had been dead only two years, and in mere months the Soviets would launch a brutal putdown of anti-communist forces in Hungary that would send no less than 30,000 refugees to Canada.
Most notably, Pearson met with Lazar Kaganovich, a key architect of the Holodomor, a planned Ukrainian famine now recognized as a genocide. As a close Stalin confidante, Kaganovich was almost instrumental during the Great Purge, a years-long campaign of executing military and party officials deemed to be disloyal. Together, both events killed up to 10 million people. Pearson called Kaganovich “an engaging old pirate.”
Khruschev, in turn, was famed for his boorishness. He is said to have crudely mocked one of the Canadians for his homosexuality and, as noted above, he had an unnerving penchant to casually mention nuclear holocaust.
The setting for the vodka standoff was in a remote Crimean palace not too far from Yalta, where U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. Franklin Roosevelt had unwittingly agreed to postwar terms that would result in the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.
As Pearson retraced Churchill and Roosevelt’s path on the punishing mountain roads to the palace, he mused “no wonder they were easy victims for Stalin.”
Most notably for the Soviets, the delegation of four Canadians that night included the diplomat George Ignatieff, the father of a then eight-year-old Michael, future leader of the Liberal Party.
Born in a pre-Russian Revolution St. Petersberg, Ignatieff’s father was Count Pavel Ignatiev, a Russian aristocrat who still has portraits of his illustrious Napoleon-fighting ancestors hanging in Russian museums. A close advisor to the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, Ignatiev barely fled with his life during the Russian Civil War.
To the Soviets Ignatieff was effectively the son of a traitor. Kremlin members sneeringly called him “the count,” and as the drinking session began, he was sternly told to “drink like a Russian.”
Ignatieff would later compare the visit as being akin to visiting Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden, the Nazi leader’s personal Bavarian fortress.
With Khruschev and Soviet defence minister Nikolai Bulganin keeping their eyes “fixed” on the Russian-Canadian throughout the evening, Ignatieff wrote later that he was “determined to prove that I could hold my own in this nightmarish test of competitive co-existence.”
“It sounds to me that Pearson and Ignatieff knew full well that it was their job on behalf of Canada to match these Russkies and stay on their feet,” said Chris Westdal, Canada’s ambassador to Russia between 2003 and 2006.
Now retired, Westdal had also served as ambassador to the newly independent Ukraine soon after the breakup of the U.S.S.R.
In immediate aftermath of the Soviet era, Westdal said he was struck by the sheer quantity of alcohol consumption expected of a foreign diplomat. The typical day involved roughly five meetings. At each, Westdal would be expected to down at least one shot of chilled vodka, with seconds and thirds typical.
“You were expected to keep up, and the pace is punishing,” he told the National Post.
Khruschev, ironically, had been a teetotaler as a young man. But he had learned to drink in the alcohol-soaked inner circle of Joseph Stalin.
Stalin was known to stomach superhuman quantities of liquor, and the paranoid dictator relied on booze as a tool to loosen tongues, expose potential enemies and generally put subordinates in their place.
“He found the humiliation of others very amusing,” Khruschev would later say of these ”agonizing” Stalinist drinking sessions.
Nevertheless, Khruschev also adopted heavy drinking as a way to destabilize rivals.
“How those guests responded to the challenge might well have affected Khruschev’s sense of their toughness,” said Bill Taubman, author of a 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Khruschev.
The idea was intimidation. The Soviets wanted the Canadians to chicken out, make fools of themselves or simply have their heads spinning the next day.
“Let’s face it; a foreign minister’s dignity, if not his confidence, suffers when he pukes on his shirt,” said Westdal.
Unknown to the Canadians that night, the Soviet premier may have been cheating. Khruschev had a “habit of drinking water disguised as vodka,” said Taubman.
A Vatican official or a Muslim leader might have been able to turn down the onslaught of Russian vodka without losing face. But while their liquor was generally of better quality, 1950s Canadians drank almost as much as Soviet Russians.
Pearson and Ignatieff came from an Ottawa in which civil servants routinely drank quarts of beer for lunch. Parliamentary offices contained liquor cabinets, press offices had beer vending machines and diplomats passed entire train trips and ocean voyages at the bar rail.
It was two hard-drinking Arctic neighbours squaring off in the ignominious shadow of Yalta.
And Canada won.
The final tally was 18 shots of vodka laced with hot pepper. If the Canadians had been drinking out of standard 50 ml Russian shot glasses, they would have each stomached nearly two pint glasses of hard liquor each.
Their blood alcohol content by evening’s end would have been hovering around 0.4, five times the legal limit and far higher than the alcohol levels that routinely kill inexperienced college students.
In fact, 50 per cent of the population is usually dead by the 0.4 mark.
The Canadians’ blood was so topped up with alcohol, in fact, that if somebody had consumed all five liters of blood in Lester Pearson’s body that night, they would have gotten a mild buzz.
Despite this, the Russians never saw the Canadians waver. Ignatieff did take a short bathroom break to “violently” void his stomach, but he straightened his collar and returned to the table. Pearson would hold out until the next morning, when he spattered puke along the road out.
The foreign minister would boast that the Canadians kept “heads up with fixed determination” as the Russians sunk ever deeper into their chairs. “We had earned medals that night for conviviality beyond the line of duty,” he wrote in his memoirs.
To end the night, Ignatieff said the Canadians got to their feet, slammed down two more shots “for the road,” and left with the “dubious satisfaction that we were in marginally better shape than some of the people we left behind.”