There are reasons‘s Special December issueThis year marks the 30th anniversary the fall of the Soviet Union. This is part of an ongoing investigation into the global legacy that this evil empire left behind. We want to make sure that there are no further tragedies. Not forgetting the terrible effects of communism is not easy.
Josef Stalin’s commissar for foods, Anastas Mikolaj, was sent to America in August 1936. SS Normandie It is a holiday for working people. The long-serving party member and diplomat was a natural fit for the expedition: He’d formerly served as trade commissar, and he took great pains to publicly profess his loyalty to Stalin, who rewarded him and Mrs. Mikoyan with the opportunity to travel from coast to coast sampling all sorts of luxurious American fare—popcorn, ice cream, hamburgers, bologna, cornflakes, and corn on the cob. It was fascinating to see the capabilities of meat processing plants and how they cook hamburger patties. Mikoyan soon became enamored with tantalizing new kitchen appliances and advances in refrigeration that had recently begun to proliferate in the U.S.—all inconvenient evidence of the splendor and efficiency brought by capitalism.
Over the course of the ’30s, Stalin’s government went to great lengths attempting to create, often through Socialist Realist–style propaganda, a cohesive national identity that could bind good Soviets together in service of the party. One of their goals was to reinvent Russian home cooking using party-approved, standardised recipes.
Three years later The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food The result was the birth of Mikoyan. This book was the result of Mikoyan’s great adventure, and an effort to demonstrate how well they were doing. This thick volume was filled with vibrant, full-page images and contained an extensive collection of recipes, organized by categories. It implied that party loyalists would enjoy all the delicious delights it contained.
The recipes did not produce healthy and tasty food. And for most residents of the USSR, it was not even attainable—a great irony which did not go unnoticed. Edward Geist, a historian writes that “the foodways described here bore little resemblance with reality and promised culinary abundance in a country plagued by famine.” Cooking Bolshevik. Many people did not have the necessary ingredients to make a particular recipe.
A cookbook recipe for beef stroganoff calls for approximately 500 grams of beef. It is a hearty winter dish, served with potatoes and sour cream. Yuzhni Sauce, most likely to be purchased at a store, is described as being sweet and sour with hints of spice. Sometimes it contained tomato while other times, soy sauce was added for umami.
As lovely as this dish might seem on paper, most Soviets in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s—plagued by food rationing and unpredictable shortages—would not have been able to make it consistently, if at all. These recipes would require large amounts of beef or dairy.
This book had many recipes as well nutrition facts and helpful tips to plan and host successful dinner parties. But although it was meant as the quintessential Soviet guide to delicious food, the regular citizen wasn’t hosting dinner parties inside the home—unless you count forced group living as one giant, interminable dinner party.
It was promoted by the state for many decades. They updated editions frequently and distributed it widely. Not only party members but all citizens kept copies of the document in their homes. Some even brought it along with them to flee.
The 2013 year was Mastering Soviet Cooking: An Memoir of Food and LongingAnya von Bremzen, a daughter of Russian immigrants, describes the childhood and upbringing of her mother in Russia during the 1930s and 40s. Her own birth was in the 1960s. Then, she and her family immigrated to the United States. Mikoyan’s book contained a wealth of “fantastical photographs” that Mom gasped at, she wrote. There were tables crowded with silver crystal, platters full of beef with tomato rosettes on them, boxes filled with chocolate and slices of frilly cake, all set in elaborate tea settings. Von Bremzen juxtaposes these tales with stories of people waiting for their bread to be made with mashed peas, and memories of kolbasa. Kotleta (basically small hamburger patties, eaten without bread) or eggs for protein.
Russians were not under the impression The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food This was a true representation of the conditions under Stalin’s regime. Unfortunately, communism led to the destruction of local culinary practices and cuisines; the deterioration in communal dining by making the kitchens and dining areas a haven for spying and snitching; and the decimation of the nation’s food supply leaving many people starving. Stalin’s regime offered nothing but a propaganda fantasy about lush, delicious meals that was inspired by an ironic visit to the United States.
Bad cuisine is one aspect of communism’s worst atrocities. Another way to see the failure of communism is in its impact on food.
The Family Table Must Be Dismantled
Stalin took land in the 1920s and 1930s to force millions into communal living.
He stated that his goal was to remake Russian society. In theory everyone would have the same standard living standards, as the state would manage production. It was a disaster: Many people lost their homes and jobs. To promote total egalitarianism the state took over every aspect of Soviet life. Nothing was exempt—not even the family dining table. Once a gathering place where families could come together, it became an area for distrust under communism.
Stalin forced peasants from their homes to move in the cities. While the Marxist/Leninist agenda included the elimination of private property as a key component, it was also the government’s intention to realize a convenient side effect: peasants would live in communal apartments. kommunalkasThey would then share their kitchens and bathrooms. This allowed them to spy on each other in the perpetual service of state.
Families could communicate with one another while they cooked and shared meals before the Revolution. Stalin believed that privacy was too open for dissidents to grow and flourish. Stalin’s solution was to eliminate as much familial intimacy possible. His new kommunalkas would keep you close to a fellow citizen who may snitch.
The apartments were shared by 50 to 12 people, often from different families. They had a common kitchen that was used for cooking and washing. Although eating and drinking took place in private areas, all members of the family could be squeezed into one bedroom with very thin walls. Although there was some semblance of privacy, people lived in such close proximity to others that their comings and goings, one-on-one conversations, routines, and habits would almost certainly be noticed—either accidentally or deliberately—by their housemates.
There were problems in the Kommunalkas. The apartments were filthy and infested by cockroaches. There was sometimes violence. Numerous buildings have been converted to drunken venues since the closing of bars and pubs.
A group of Cornell ethnographers wrote that tenants in a communal apartment were like their family, but are also like friends in other respects.
Food suffered under Soviet rule for many decades. Darra, a food scholar and the author of the Russian cookbook “If you consider the kitchen the hearth/center of your home,” she says. Beyond the North Wind (Ten Speed Press), kommunalkas “totally destroyed that.” Cooking was difficult when there were many people using the same kitchen. It was difficult to prepare meals for everyone.
Eliminating the Restaurant Meal
Business ownership was banned for most of the Soviet period. Restaurants were also viewed as grounds for political subversion. Restaurants were limited and controlled by the government. These restaurants could only be opened to well-connected people or for those willing to pay bribes. Commoners ate out only on special occasions.
Many people couldn’t afford to eat out at restaurants. Researchers Evan A. Raynes and Bradford P. Johnson stated in their November 1984 City University of New York report that “surveys done during the 1960s showed that up to a quarter of urban workers lived below the poverty level.”
Only one regular meal was taken outside of the home. It took place at large cafeterias in big workplaces called TolovayasThese were managed also by the state. „State dining facilities were meant to replace the household pan,” von Bremzen writes. Vladimir Lenin said they were “invaluable shoots of communism,” living examples.
Von Bremzen says that the 1920s-era Stolovayas were “ghastly affairs,” where workers were given soup with rotten sauerkraut and unidentified meat (horse).The gluey millet and the endless vobla were all part of this recipe. There was a high degree of standardization—meals served in factory canteens, schools, and universities were all supposed to be alike—but that meant the practice of good Russian cooking was almost entirely lost. Your borscht should look and taste exactly the same from your neighbour’s, regardless of where you live.
Stolovayas or Starvation?
the citizens who got bad borscht were the lucky ones—at least they had food. The Soviet Union suffered severe food shortages, often as a result of failing central planning efforts.
Mikoyan (the Book of Tasty and Delicious Food Author, was one of the architects of the early ’30s plan to grow Soviet meat manufacturing capabilities, modeled partially on the West’s successes. Geist writes that Soviet animal husbandry needed to be expanded in order to provide sufficient livestock. With Mikoyan and Stalin at the helm of the government, they decided to collectivize the livestock. The state basically stole the livestock of people.
Geist writes that this was an awful lesson in unintended outcomes. Soviet agriculture was unable to return per-capita meat production back to levels that were comparable to those of pre-collectivization for many decades. The result was the starvation and death of many people. Although estimates differ, all numbers are around the million mark. Mikoyan attributed the failures of the program to the kulaks. These were slightly more well-off peasants and others who weren’t politically desirable. They were accused of telling poor farmers to undermine the state’s plans.
The Soviet Union was also affected by rationing, but in different ways and at different times. Leningrad began rationing bread in 1928. Soon after, Kharkov, Moscow and Kiev followed suit. Sugar, tea and other food items were also rationed by the 1930s. Not everyone got ration cards. Those considered unsupportive to the state were called lishentsyThey had to be denied all their food. This status of second class remained unchanged until 1936.
Many Soviet citizens had even worse issues than poor food. The promises of abundant food made by the state-run agriculture did not come true. In 1932–1933, between 3 million and 9 million people died in southern Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan as a result of forced collectivization, land seizure, and impossible-to-meet grain requisition quotas.
During the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad in the early ’40s, Hitler tried to starve millions of city dwellers with the aim of getting Russia to surrender; the state implemented strict rationing, and people ate all kinds of things to get by—clover, pine needles, tree bark, bread baked with sawdust in it, and cakes of linseed normally fed to livestock. Between 1 and 2 millions people died in Ukraine and Moldova in the 1940s due to drought that reduced grain production, cracked infrastructure not repaired from World War II and an increase in births which created more hungry mouths.
Bananas, oranges, and Kiwis
Later decades saw the Soviet Union abandon the most brutal and deadly Stalinist policies. But poverty and food insecurity remained. According to data from the 1970s, Soviet diets were poor. “Soviet consumers got 46% of their daily calories from bread and potatoes and only 8% from meat or fish. Johnson and Raynes report that comparable statistics for the United States have been found at 22 and 20%.
The Soviet Union opened up its borders slowly and granted some economic liberty to its citizens, which helped improve the quality of life in that country. The late 1980s saw a significant improvement in life. glasnost and perestroika, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s twin liberalizing initiatives, made the state less repressiveAnd more open to free markets. Gorbachev approved the 1988 creation of worker-owned cooperatives. It was the first time since decades that private ownership could be allowed in certain sector industries.
Even in 1980s Russia didn’t possess the same drop-in restaurants culture as Western countries. Angela Brintlinger, who lived in Leningrad and Moscow during the late ’80s and is now the director of the Center for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies at Ohio State, recalls that there were casual pelmeni and vareniki spots; restaurants more for special occasion banqueting than for regular dining; cafeterias with lines you could cruise through with a tray; and cafés where you could sit a while over dessert or tea, sometimes with a full meal available. She says that if you were to go out you would not ask for a list of menu items. The menu may not reflect what was available at the time.
At the close of 1980s food rationing was reinstated for sugar and meat. It sparked panic among housewives, and brought back memories of the World War II-era hardships. It all ended in 1991 when Gorbachev quit and the USSR fell apart. Goldstein, a food historian, said that it was chaos in the first days after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “People initially were very excited about the possibility of seeing the whole world.”
She says Russians were excited to have access to bananas, oranges, and kiwis—foods they’d heard of but never before tasted, fruits that had been unavailable for decades prior. Over the following decades, Russians started to make concerted efforts to retrieve recipes from the Soviet era.
The Table of Plenty
Boris Yeltsin, the future Russian president was visiting America to see space facilities in September 1989. Unplannedly, he stopped by Randall’s grocery in Houston’s southeastern suburb. The brightly lit aisles, the abundance of produce and fresh fish and the glowing lights amazed him. Grinning and raising his arms in delight, he continued to linger in the aisles before he came across Jell-O Pudding Pops, which were in a freezer display.
He wondered through an interpreter if it were all just a Potemkin grocery shop, or a fake experience. Yeltsin became emotional when his interpreter informed him that the experience was true and very typical. Later, Yeltsin wrote in his autobiography how he was “sickened with despair for Soviet people” when he saw the difference between the American lifestyle and the Soviet one. He told Russians during the trip that Soviet citizens would learn about U.S. grocery store locations.
Randall’s in Houston was not exceptional. Nearly every American suburb could find grocery stores that sold similar goods and had identical assortments. For those living behind the Iron Curtain and under the calamitous central plan of the Soviet government, this would have appeared like paradise. Food was a symbol of wealth, variety, abundance and great flavors. Freedom occupies an entire aisle in Jell-O Pudding Pops.
Today, many elderly Russians have a certain wistfulness for Soviet life, Goldstein says—a sense that, though their quality of living was pretty grim, there was a security and stability within the egalitarian experiment. She says that even though there were many shortages, the average person had an “amazing system of barter” which allowed them to always get what they wanted. Now in Russia there are a bunch of retro Soviet cafés—kept much cleaner than you’d have found them in their heyday—catering to the elderly nostalgic and a new generation of customers looking for cheap eats.
This type of nostalgia may be possible because it has been 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In seven decades communist rulers who thought central planning was able to create a society that would meet all human needs, killed between 15 and 61 millions people. Other than the unimaginable death toll there were many intangible losses. The indignities that came with communal living, the loss of part of their cultural heritage and the disorienting nature of living under constant surveillance were all suffered by people. Some people yearn for the past, which is hard to comprehend.
Big-city Russian cuisine is flourishing beyond the wildest fantasies of a Muscovite from the 1930s. The modern Russia of today is not a democratic utopia. There is much to be critical about President Vladimir Putin’s reign. The fall of communism led to a huge increase in wealth, and then in consumer and culinary choice. Brintlinger says that there is now a wide variety of high-end fine dining options, including farm-to-table and gourmet cuisines. There are also surprisingly delicious fast-casual caféteria options.
Shtolle is a well-known Western-style restaurant that offers delicious Russian cuisine. Even better is the availability of Shtolle rivals in cities such as Moscow, which offers a wide range of options for those who have lived, for some time, without any knowledge of the wonderful world beyond the stolovaya. Shtolle offers more than its rivals. The Book of Tasty and Delicious Food could only pretend existed—good Russian food and the table of plenty that communism always promises yet always fails to provide.