A kerfuffle is brewing in Belarus after a Russian beer named for the nerve agent that British authorities say was used to poison a Russian ex-spy hit the shelves in Minsk.
A Russian-made craft beer called “Novichok” got a bitter reception from some in the Belarusian capital who criticized the producer for lampooning the March poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the southern English city of Salisbury.
The row has unfolded among Belarusian social-media users in recent days after a blogger on July 8 posted a photo of the beer from a Minsk bar where it’s on offer.
The photo was posted on Facebook the same day that British police announced that Dawn Sturgess, a 44-year-old mother of three, had died in the hospital after being exposed to Novichok in Amesbury, less than 20 kilometers from Salisbury.
“I know this isn’t rock-bottom for shitheads, but why is this in Minsk?” the blogger, a 40-year-old Belarusian programmer who writes under the pseudonym Radjesh Chou, wrote in the Facebook post.
Belarusian social-media users over the next two days heaped scorn on the producer of the beer, Alaska Brewery, which is based in the Russian city of Balashikha, about 20 kilometers east of Moscow, though the firm found supporters as well.
The beer is one of numerous Novichok-branded items — including T-shirts and sunflower oil — that have been launched in Russia since the poisoning of the Skripals, who ultimately survived.
The darkly ironic marketing of these goods is consistent with the often snarky tone that Russian officials adopted in their public rejection of the British accusations that Moscow is responsible for the nerve-agent poisonings.
As criticism of Alaska Brewery by social-media users in Belarus mounted, a popular independent news site in the former Soviet republic proposed a boycott. “Vote with your rubles and stay away from places where such filth is sold,” the news portal BY24.org wrote.
The article suggested that Belarusian authorities should investigate whether the beer is in compliance with laws on imported alcohol.
Alaska Brewery responded to the criticism of its “Novichok” beer in Belarus, saying in an Instagram post — which has since been removed — that the “irony” in its naming of the beverage was “appropriate.”
“We believe that Russia does not have anything to do with the ‘murders’ in Great Britain. We believe that Novichok is a fake by the Western media,” the statement said, adding that “we live in a free country and are even allowed to lampoon politics.”
The brewery released the beer in May, saying its “captivating taste will take your senses and consciousness to neuroparalytic nirvana,” adding that it was “top secret” and that “Trump won’t be able to prove anything.”
The label features a surrealist painting by the Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksinski titled Crawling Death.
Asked if the name of the beer was still appropriate after Sturgess’s death, Alaska Brewery said in a response written in English that it “didn’t mean anything wrong” and that “maybe it is just a kind of bad joke.”
“Our view on Novichok is [that the spy poisoning] is just [a] provocation from London and some kind of fake story in [the] mass media,” a representative told RFE/RL in a chat via the brewery’s official Facebook page, adding that its beer complied with Belarusian alcohol-import laws.
British police have opened a murder investigation into Sturgess’s death. They say she and her partner, Charley Rowley, were likely exposed to Novichok on June 30 after touching a contaminated item that has yet to be identified. Rowley, 45, remains in critical condition.
Police say their main line of inquiry is that the couple’s poisoning is tied to that of the Skripals, but that they have yet to confirm the link. British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said on July 9 that a Russian “attack” led to Sturgess’s death.
Is ‘Zyklon B Vodka’ Next?
Radjesh Chou, the blogger who posted the photos of the beer from the Minsk bar Cheer Bear, told RFE/RL that marketing the beer under the name Novichok was “extremely cynical.”
“It would be like naming a beer Zyklon B” — a reference to a poison used in Nazi gas chambers in which millions of Jews were killed during World War II — “and drawing a pile of bodies at Auschwitz on the label,” he said.
“I would not like to see this pinnacle of idiotism in my homeland,” he added.
A manager at Cheer Bear, where the blogger snapped the photographs, told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service that she had placed the orders for the beer herself and that she had not given a second thought to its name.
“If you’re constantly looking for some kind of nefarious subtext in brand names, that’s your problem,” said the manager, who gave only her first name, Veronika.
The Russian brewer isn’t the only firm in hot water for naming a beverage after the nerve agent, which was developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
A distillery in the southwestern English city of Bristol this week apologized to Sturgess’s family after being criticized for its launch of a limited-edition vodka named after Novichok, according to the Bristol Post.
A Facebook post by the Bristol Dry Gin Micro Distillery a day before Sturgess died states that with its 75 percent alcohol content, “this smooth drinking spirit is no laughing matter.”