Various hot beverages were highly popular and widespread in Russia at all times. When prince Vladimir, who campaigned all over the world a thousand years ago, was put into a dilemma "to drink or not to drink" (sounds like Hamlet) and came to a conclusion that Russian men should deny themselves wine, like Muslims. According to his opinion, Russians merriment cannot be without drinking. Therefore, different alcoholic drinks were welcome and highly esteemed in the Rus from the earliest times.
Foreigners noted that Russians always were hearty drinkers, fond of overseas wines and home-made mash. However, a good wine, which was very expensive at the time, could be afforded by noblemen only. Commoners usually drank beer, medovukha (honey-made drink) and mash (ligh spirits).
Since the baptism of the Rus (9th century), wine was introduced as Christ's blood and played an important role in religious rituals. The Orthodox church never denounced wine, but condemned drunkards heavily. A famous Russian historian, Willam Poklebkin affirmed that Russian monks produced vodka in 1503 for the first time. So it turns 500 this year!!!
Russian vodka underwent repression and persecution of the authorities over these years. But it never bent its head down to gin, whisky, shnapps, sake, rum or even Mexican tequilla :-) Nobody can say for sure where Russian national drink comes from. Some believe, that alcohol appeared in Russia when a distiller was brought here from the East.
However, there are all reasons to believe Mr. Pokhlebkin that this outstanding drink was produced by Kremlin monks. Anyway, it has become a tradition since then. The genie, released from the Kremlin bottle, refused to return back. The old-time vodka was weaker than nowadays - some 30 degrees.
The epoch of Peter the Great was even more debauched. The emperor himself and his main advisors set the evil example for Russian folk. Peter checked the aptitude of all ambassadors before sending them abroad - the tsar made them drink a bucket of vodka. If the ambassador withstood and didn't talk nonsense, he was good for diplomatic service. However, real Russian vodka, which we drink nowadays, appeared long after the reign of Peter the Great. It is associated with a well-know Russian scientist Dmitry Mendeleev. Following his instructions, modern vodka became a mixture of ethyl alcohol (40 degrees) and water, treated with activated carbon.
You should know a Russian man! For instance, if he wants to shoe a flea, he will do it by all means (it's a fact!). But why are Russians still famed for heavy drinking? They are famed because under the tsar people lived in poverty and drank of sorrows and misery, but not of joy. They simply wanted to get dead drink to forget their damned life. He had no money to buy food, had nothing to eat and got drunk.
Now life has become better. You don't need to get too drunk when everything is going well and have a work to go to and a family to love. We still drink, gathering with our friends to share joy and love of our hearts. But not too much.
So if you meet a Russian, don't ask him about Russian drinking, we have plenty other things to talk about :-)