The Soviet “Food” Union
“He who does not work shall not eat”
Vladimir Ilyc Ulyanov, 1917
Whether Comrade Lenin consciously borrowed “the socialist principle” from Apostle Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians and adapted it for his 1917 work The State and Revolution is not for us to know. Yet, the quote shed a light on the role food had in the making of the Soviet Union ― Lenin did not point a finger to the "lazy" or "unproductive" workers, rather to the bourgeoisie, the evil class, in Marxist theory, who had come to own the means of production, pocketing the profits at the expense of the working class.
The 70-year long Communist experiment engineered the homo sovieticus ― a new type of human being who would not only think and behave to benefit the society at large, but would also live in communal spaces ― no private kitchens, for example ― and eat certain food.
Food not only feeds us, it portrays who we are and a glimpse into the Soviet cuisine tells the story of the USSR ― a planned economy, war, breadlines, staple shortages, communal kitchens, obshepit (public diners). And flowing streams of mayonnaise.
Inevitably the Soviet state inherited the similarly vast Russian empire’s gastronomy, yet it purposely “de-bourgeois-ed” few dishes ― take the signature Olivier salad which is to be found on any table in the former Soviet space. Invented in the 1860s by the Moscow-based Belgian chef Lucien Olivier, the salad featured an elaborate dressing made of French wine vinegar, mustard, and olive oil and ingredients included, depending on the season: capers, grouse, crayfish, and smoked duck. By the end of the 1930s the Olivier salad faintly resembled the original recipe ― boiled chicken and tinned peas took over the more “decadent” meat and veggies, while the sophisticated dressing was replaced with cheap industrial mayonnaise (a lot of it).
As the Communist party standardized every bit of people’s lives, food was no exception. Standardized menus and recipes became the state policy ― from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, from the arctic Siberia to the subtropical Black Sea, the Soviet people ate the same dishes, had the same dining experience. The public diners, общепит (obshepit), served identical pies, donuts, canned meat and fish, pickles, cereal, and soups. Political propaganda promoted healthy nutrition and a strict daily nutrition regime was set according to age, sex, employment, and physical activity, while the development of the food processing industry contributed to the standardization. “Moreover, deficiencies in the trade and distribution systems led to losses and the plummeting quality of food,” maintain Russian food historians Olga and Pavel Syutkin in their CCCP Cookbook. “It was clear that such an inflexible approach was doomed for failure.”
Pasta first made its appearance in Russia in 1883, when a factory in Moscow started producing it. Expensive at first ― a pound of pasta cost as much as a pound of meat at the turn of the XX century ― but from the mid-1920s the industry grew quickly and pasta soon appeared on every Soviet dinner table. As the urban legend has it, the recipe for pasta “po-flotski” was put together on a ship. Hence, its name ― which literally means “pasta à la navy.” Made of minced meat, onions and pepper, pasta “po-flotski” was supposedly part of the marines’ regular diet. During WWII pasta became a common staple at the battlefront and it was mixed with any available tinned ingredient, such as peas, meat and fish. It looks as if pasta “po-flotski” was first introduced on the Ganguti, a ship stationed in Murmansk, which to date harbors Russia’s Northern Fleet, where sailors staged a protest after their beloved dish was once replaced by cereal due to shortage of pasta.
Akroshka (Окрошка) is a cold summer soup, prepared with boiled meat, cucumbers, eggs, radish, potatoes, greens, sour cream, and kvass ― a fermented beverage made from rye bread, common to Russia and the Baltic states. The name probably comes from kroshit (крошить), which means “to crumble into small pieces.” The recipe is said to have been originally prepared by the burlaks on the Volga river. A common sight on the Volga during the Russian empire, burlaks were people who hauled barges upstream ― as they had bad teeth and found it difficult to eat dry hard fish, they would soften it by adding kvass to it. The recipe outlived the Tsar’s regime and was slightly modified later in the USSR, as kvass was often replaced by kefir (a fermented milk drink), vinegar, water or even beer.
The cheburek was a common dish among Crimean Tatars. These deep-fried filled turnovers remain a popular street food in the post-Soviet countries. However, cheburek origins go back to the Ottoman Empire and spread to the neighboring Balkans, where it’s called burek, the Caucasus and the Middle East. The classic cheburek is stuffed with meat and onions, but you can find chebureks with cheese and spinach, as well as a sweet version with apple jam and even chocolate.
Solianka (солянка), is a thick, spicy, and sour Russian soup, which originated in the countryside ― hence the name from the Russian word for village, selskoe (сельское). It was not a dish for aristocrats, yet some historians claim that solianka relates to the ingredients used and sometimes it was called pakhmelka, that is “a dish for a hangover.” Solianka is made with pickled cucumber, olives, capers, lemon, kvass and mushrooms. Adding tomatoes and finely cut sausage, it turns into sbornaia solianka.
Often referred to as studen in some regions, kholodets is a jellied meat dish made with the either pork or beef broth. Its name comes from the Russian word kholod, cold, but its story of origin is less clear. It is believed to have been influenced by the French cuisine, which was popular at the end of 19th century Russian Empire ― making Kholodets a Russian version of the French aspic, a gelatin made from a meat stock.
It’s nearly impossible not to come across or to avoid trying Olivier in any former Soviet country ― this salad is served at weddings, birthdays, funerals, New Year’s Eve as well as in day-to-day home meals. But Olivier’s history goes back to 1860, when it was invented by Lucian Olivier, a Belgian-French chef and owner of Hermitage, a popular restaurant at the time in downtown Moscow. The salad, made with French wine, vinegar, mustard and olive oil, was in fact the restaurant’s signature dish. But Olivier went through significant changes in the USSR, as it was stripped of all of its “bourgeois ingredients.” The original dressing made with French wine vinegar and mustard was replaced with industrial mayonnaise, capers and partridge meat ― with chicken and peas.
Kissel, a fruit-based dish or drink made from berries, was not always sweet ― it must have been sour when Ivan IV Groznii used to drink it in the 16th century, as the name comes from an ancient Slavic word meaning “sour.” This old Russian drink remained very popular in the Soviet Union ― generally made from berries, sugar, and either corn- or potato starch, it was high in calories and popular among factory workers. It can be drunk or, if thick enough, eaten hot or cold. Supermarkets sell it today in the form of instant kissel mix.
The capitalist lollipop’s Soviet friend, mamalo (a cockerel in Georgian), appeared in the 1970s in the shape of a rooster or a squirrel. This treat was beloved by Soviet children. This sugar candy points to the development of sugar industry in the USSR. Mamalo, or the Petushok in Russian, has outlived the USSR. In 2010 a monument dedicated to the lollipop was erected in Kiev, Ukraine.
Editor: Monica Ellena