In Russia, toasts are pronounced. When making a toast, there is no hurry, especially if the crowd is three sheets to the wind. Skilled toastmasters wait until one or two other people have made a few toasts, allowing the competition to be sized up. Make yours when no one is expecting it, after people have had time to empty their plates since the previous toast. Get everyone’s attention by slowly standing up and banging on your glass with a fork to achieve complete silence. Remind everyone to fill up their glasses, it’s going to be a good one. Speak slowly. Make your toast upright, waving your glass around in front of you and don’t raise it until your toast is good and ready.
A joke can lead to a successful toast, provided it is funny. I can share one that has gotten the job done in Russia. First, a bit of background information. Russians habitually consume shots of vodka with pickles, analogous to drinking a shot of tequila with lemon and salt. Vodka with a pickle is a national pastime. Now, on to the joke. To determine the effects of alcohol on fully grown men from various countries, a team of scientists conduct a detailed analysis on three of them. First, the scientists connect a Texan to a computer and give him a glass of whisky. Immediately, a gorgeous woman with a large head of hair appears on the computer screen in a Cadillac with the Texan behind the wheel. Then, a Frenchman is hooked up to the same computer. He is given one, then two glasses of cognac. An image of him appears on the screen in bed with two, beautiful young women without clothing. Finally, a Russian is connected to the computer and given a glass of vodka. Nothing happens. Another glass is provided but the screen remains blank. Finally, he is given a third shot of vodka. On the screen, a small green cucumber appears. Your toast can be dedicated to Russia and pickles.
If the person you are toasting is a man older than 60, you might dedicate your toast to the third phase in life. This toast works best if the person making the toast is older than 60 as well, male and in the company of other old codgers. The older the better. I would not suggest making this toast in honor of any women. Begin by saying that among men of a certain age, there is a certain kinship that reaches across nations. This kinship can be felt at the table, drinks in hand. At this age, phase three has commenced. Phase one is childhood. Phase two is adulthood during which time we strive to fulfill our life’s dreams and finally achieve them. If the person being honored has a family, point out that his wife and children are living proof that his dreams in life have come true. In phase three in life, people say, “you are looking good” without adding, “for your age”. Looking good, compared to what? How is a guy in phase 3 supposed to look? In this phase, someone’s wife might ask, let’s go upstairs and make love to which the husband answers, take your pick, can’t do both. Phase 3 is preferable to phase 4 when people say, “doesn’t he look natural”? The toast is to phase 3, the best phase of all.
One strategy is to bring up several subjects but say that they are not what the toast is about. You can begin, for example, by talking about the wonderful meal you are having and how much you love the herring. The toast, though, is not about herring. The restaurant is perfect. You are not making a toast to the eating establishment. The vodka is extremely cold. No toast yet. Finally, make your toast about something spiritual. You might announce that such a feeling of togetherness is possible only in Russia. Or you might say that, sitting at the table and pouring booze down your gullet, you can feel what the Russian spirit is all about. Your toast is about a feeling. Russians will fall for a spiritual toast time after time. You might ask, after everyone has clinked glasses, downed their drinks and calmed down after your fabulous toast, what is the Russian soul? If there is a lull in the conversation, it will pick right up when this question is asked. Be prepared for an inconclusive yet inspirational discussion of the Russian soul.
Toasts to women are standard fare in Russia. They are usually made when the men have been at it for some time and are feeling sentimental. A sure win is to dedicate a toast to Russian women while everyone is relatively sober. Say that Russian women are superior to all other women across the globe. You noticed it as soon as your flight landed in Russia. Have all the men stand up while you are making your toast. The women remain seated and the skeptical looks on their faces are ignored. This is how they do it in Russia. Praise Russian women effusively and make your toast in honor of them all. After that, the men are required to down their drinks in one go, all together. Don’t be surprised if more toasts are made to women later on in the evening by the men, especially if the meal is business related.
Avoid jokes with a double meaning in English. If the discussion is about how someone has gained weight, it doesn’t work to say, “it can’t be helped, he has a lot on his plate”. This gag can get laughs in English (if you are lucky) but not in Russian.
Most Russians are no longer very political in public. They’ve thrown in the towel. If you are an American and announce your opposition or support for the US President, it might fall flat. Instead, a toast to all the nationalities at the table is a solid bet. If Americans and Russians are at the table, you can say that both nations come from peasant stock whose outlook on life is affected by living in large countries and these two factors have gone to their heads. An American can make a toast to the broad expanse of Russia where he feels perfectly at home, even if it is not true. If a Dutchman or Brit is present, a toast to large countries should be avoided. Instead, point out all the special attributes of the different nationalities sitting around the table getting pie eyed. Announce that everyone is just the same even though no one believes it for a minute. Then cry out, let’s drink to the internatsionAL (pronounced phonetically with emphasis on the last syllable). This toast is vaguely revolutionary and French. To a Russian, it refers to all the nationalities present, of which by now there are many at the table, even if there are only one or two.
Daniel Brooks, copyright, 15 May 2019