Reason's December special issue marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This story is part of our exploration of the global legacy of that evil empire, and our effort to be certain that the dire consequences of communism are not forgotten.
In August 1936, Josef Stalin sent his commissar of food, Anastas Mikoyan, to the United States on the SS Normandie for a working holiday. 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. The Soviet crew visited Midwestern dairies and slaughterhouses, fascinated by everything from meat processing plant capabilities to the griddles used to cook burger 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. Part of the aim was to reimagine Russian home cooking via standardized, party-approved recipes.
Three years later, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was born. It was the fruit of Mikoyan's grand adventure and an attempt to show comrades just how good they had it. The thick book, filled with glossy, full-page illustrations, was an exhaustive-seeming compendium of recipes organized by category. Its implicit message was that those who were loyal to the party would have access to the abundant delights depicted therein.
The food the recipes produced, however, was often neither tasty nor healthy. And for most residents of the USSR, it was not even attainable—a great irony which did not go unnoticed. "The foodways described in this text bore scant resemblance to reality, promising culinary abundance in a land stalked by famine," writes historian Edward Geist in Cooking Bolshevik. Most people didn't have access to the many ingredients needed for a recipe, let alone all of them at the same time.
For example, the cookbook's beef stroganoff, a savory winter dish served on a bed of fried potatoes, calls for 500 grams, or roughly 1 pound, of beef, plus potatoes, sour cream, "yuzhni" sauce, onions, flour, butter, and some parsley or dill for garnish. Yuzhni sauce, which would most likely be store-bought, has been described as sweet, sour, and a bit spicy; sometimes it included tomato, other times soy sauce for added umami flavor.
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. Recipes calling for such large amounts of beef and dairy would not have been realistic.
The book was replete with recipes, nutrition facts, and tips for menu planning and hosting 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.
Still, the state promoted it for decades to come, updating editions regularly and disseminating it widely. Regular people, not just party members, kept copies in their homes, some even bringing it with them when they later fled.
In 2013's Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, Anya von Bremzen describes her mother's childhood in Russia in the '30s and '40s, her own birth in the '60s, and their subsequent emigration to the United States. "Mom gasped at the trove of fantastical photos" in Mikoyan's book, she writes. "Tables crowded with silver and crystal, of platters of beef decorated with tomato rosettes, of boxes of chocolate and wedges of frilly cake posed amid elaborate tea sets." Von Bremzen contrasts this fare with tales of waiting in bread lines for bread that had been stretched through the addition of mashed peas and with memories of kolbasa or kotleta (basically small hamburger patties, eaten without bread) or eggs for protein.
No Russian was under the impression that The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was an accurate representation of what was available under Stalin's rule. The grim reality was that communism ruined local cuisine and culinary habits; corroded the communal dining experience by transforming the country's kitchens and dining rooms into havens for snitching and spying; and decimated the nation's food supply, leaving millions to starve. In place of comfort, kinship, flavor, tradition, and abundance, Stalin's regime provided only a propagandistic fantasy of lush meals inspired, ironically, by a visit to the United States.
In one sense, bad cuisine was the least of communism's atrocities. In another, the entire arc of communism's failure is visible in its effect on food.
Abolishing the Family Table
In the '20s and '30s, Stalin seized land and forced millions of people away from their agrarian lifestyles into dense communal living situations.
His stated goal was to reshape Russian society. The state would control the means of production, class would be eradicated, and everyone would, in theory, have the same standard of living. The result was catastrophic: People lost jobs, homes, and livelihoods. In the name of total egalitarianism, the state muscled into every area of Soviet life. Nothing was exempt—not even the family dining table. What once was a place for households to come together became, under communism, a forum for politicized distrust.
Under Stalin, peasants packed their belongings and flooded into urban centers from the countryside. The abolition of private property was an essential part of the Marxist-Leninist agenda, but the government realized another convenient side effect of this mass upheaval: Peasants would be housed in communal apartments, called kommunalkas, where they would share kitchens and bathrooms, allowing comrades to spy on one another in perpetual service of the state.
Prior to the revolution, families could speak their minds comfortably while preparing and sharing a meal. But Stalin felt privacy created far too much space for dissent to take root and multiply. His solution was to abolish familial intimacy as much as possible. In his new kommunalkas, you would never be far from the watchful eye of a compatriot who might snitch.
These types of apartments, shared by as many as 50 people from a dozen different families, typically had a communal kitchen where the cooking and laundry were done. Eating and drinking happened mostly in one's private quarters, but all the members of a family might be crammed into a single bedroom with 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.
The kommunalkas were predictably plagued with problems. Apartments were unclean and infested with cockroaches. Sometimes there was violence. With bars and pubs largely gone, many buildings became sites of drunken revelry.
"Tenants in a communal apartment are like family in some respects and like strangers in others," write a group of Cornell ethnographers in "Communal Living in Russia," their online museum.
Naturally, food suffered during the long decades of Soviet rule. "If you think of the kitchen as the hearth or the center of the home," says Darra Goldstein, food scholar and author of the recent Russian cookbook Beyond the North Wind (Ten Speed Press), kommunalkas "totally destroyed that." With dozens of people sharing a single kitchen, cooking was logistically fraught. Mealtime was reduced to a hasty, unpleasant, politically treacherous affair.
Abolishing the Restaurant Meal
For much of the Soviet period, business ownership was verboten; restaurants were possible grounds for political subversion as well. The few restaurants that did exist were controlled by the state and reserved mostly for well-connected party members or those who could pay bribes to get a table. For commoners, eating out was reserved for special occasions, if that.
Restaurant meals were hard to afford for many people as well. As researchers Bradford P. Johnson and Evan A. Raynes put it in a November 1984 report for the City University of New York, "Surveys conducted during the 1960s revealed that as many as a quarter or a third of the urban working class lived below the poverty line."
The only regular dining that happened outside the home took place in large workplace cafeterias, called stolovayas, which were also managed by the state. "State dining facilities were to be the new hearth," von Bremzen writes, "the public cauldron replacing the household pot, in the phrase of one Central Committee economist." Vladimir Lenin himself once said that they were "invaluable 'shoots' of communism, living examples of its practice."
In practice, von Bremzen writes, the 1920s-era stolovayas were "ghastly affairs" where "workers were fed soup with rotten sauerkraut, unidentifiable meat (horse?), gluey millet, and endless vobla, the petrified dried Caspian roach fish." 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. From Leningrad to Stalingrad, your helping of borscht was meant to look and taste the same as your neighbor's.
Stolovayas or Starvation?
The citizens who got bad borscht were the lucky ones—at least they had food. Dire shortages altered the culinary culture of the Soviet Union, sometimes as a direct result of failed attempts at central planning.
Mikoyan, the Book of Tasty and Healthy 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. "To provide the necessary livestock, Soviet animal husbandry required dramatic expansion," writes Geist. So the government, with Stalin and Mikoyan at the helm, decided to collectivize it. Essentially, the state stole people's livestock.
What followed was a terrible lesson in unintended consequences: "Peasants chose to slaughter their animals rather than hand them over to collectives," Geist writes. "Soviet agriculture failed to restore per-capita meat production to pre-collectivization levels for decades." This led to the starvation of untold numbers of people; estimates vary, but all are in the millions. Mikoyan blamed the program's failures on kulaks, a class of slightly better-off peasants, and other political undesirables, who were accused of telling other poor farmers to sabotage the state's plans.
Rationing hit the Soviet Union too, in many different ways, during many different periods. Leningrad rationed bread starting in 1928, with Moscow, Kiev, and Kharkov following soon thereafter. By the '30s, sugar, tea, eggs, meat, and many other foodstuffs were rationed as well. But not everyone received ration cards: Those who were seen as unsupportive of the state, called lishentsy, were denied their rations altogether. This second-class status remained in place until 1936.
Many Soviet citizens, meanwhile, had worse problems than subpar food. State-run farming did not end up fulfilling the party's promises of abundance. 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. Later in the '40s, between 1 million and 2 million people in Ukraine and Moldova starved as a result of drought that hurt grain production, damaged infrastructure that had not been repaired after World War II, and a spike in births that created many more mouths to feed.
Bananas, Oranges, and Kiwis
In later decades, the Soviet Union abandoned the harshest and most deadly of Stalin's policies. Yet poverty and food shortages persisted. Data from the '70s indicate that Soviet dietary composition was miserable: "Soviet consumers obtained 46% of their daily caloric intake from bread and potatoes, and only 8% from meat and fish. The comparable figures for the United States are 22 and 20%, respectively," write Johnson and Raynes.
Life in the Soviet Union improved somewhat as the country haltingly opened its borders and extended some economic freedom to its citizens. In the late '80s, glasnost and perestroika, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's twin liberalizing initiatives, made the state less repressive and more open to free markets. In 1988, Gorbachev allowed the creation of worker-owned cooperatives, the first time in decades that businesses in certain sectors could be privately owned.
Still, even as late as the 1980s, the drop-in restaurant culture common in the West didn't exist in the USSR. 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. "When you did go out, you wouldn't ask to see a menu, necessarily," she says. "The menu might not be reflective of what they had available that day."
Food rationing for meat and sugar came back at the end of the 1980s, throwing housewives into a panic and reminding people of the hardships of the World War II era. But it all changed in 1991, when Gorbachev resigned and the USSR disintegrated. "In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union, it was just chaos," says Goldstein, the food scholar. "People were initially very excited to have the world open up to them."
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. And in the decades that followed, Russians began making a concerted effort to recover recipes that had disappeared during the Soviet era.
The Table of Plenty
In September 1989, future Russian President Boris Yeltsin was in the U.S. to tour space facilities. On the way, he made an unplanned stop at a Randall's grocery store in a southeastern suburb of Houston. He was amazed by the gleaming aisles and bright lights, by the cheese samples and the abundant produce and the selection of fresh fish. And he lingered, grinning, his arms raised in delight, before the Jell-O Pudding Pops in a freezer display.
Through an interpreter, he wondered aloud whether it was all a Potemkin grocery store, a staged experience put on just for him. When his interpreter let him know it was all real and, in fact, quite typical, Yeltsin was moved. He wrote later in his autobiography that he felt "sick with despair for the Soviet people" upon seeing the contrast between what they had access to and what everyday Americans could enjoy. He reportedly told other Russians on the trip that if Soviet citizens knew about U.S. grocery stores, "there would be a revolution."
The Randall's outside of Houston was entirely unexceptional. Similar grocery stores with similar arrays of goods could be found in most any American suburb. But for the people who lived behind the Iron Curtain, under the callous and calamitous central planning of the Soviet state, it would have seemed like a magical place. This was what food represented: wealth, choice, abundance, and good flavors for their own sake. Freedom is an entire aisle of 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. Though there were shortages, average people had "this amazing system of barter" so that "you could always find a way" to get what you wanted, she says. 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.
Perhaps this type of nostalgia is only possible now that 30 years have passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Over the course of seven decades, communist rulers, suffering from the delusion that central planning could create a truly egalitarian society in which all man's needs would be met, managed to kill anywhere from 15 million to 61 million people. Beyond this unfathomably large death toll, there are many other intangible losses. People suffered through the indignities of communal living, the erasure of parts of their ancestral cultures, the unsettling nature of life under constant surveillance. It's hard to fathom that some people are wistful for these bygone days.
Fortunately, big-city Russian dining culture now flourishes beyond a '30s-era Muscovite's wildest dreams. Modern Russia is no democratic utopia, and there is much to criticize in President Vladimir Putin's rule. But the fall of communism brought with it a vast increase in wealth and subsequently in culinary and consumer choice. Today, there's farm-to-table, highbrow fine dining, and even surprisingly good fast-casual cafeteria offerings, Brintlinger says.
A good example of Russia's culinary comeback story may be Shtolle, a popular Western-style restaurant with many locations that serves well-prepared Russian food. But better still may be the fact that cities like Moscow are now replete with Shtolle competitors, offering a variety of choices for people who, in some cases, lived for years with little awareness of the glorious world of food beyond the stolovaya. What Shtolle and its competitors actually offer is what The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food could only pretend existed—good Russian food and the table of plenty that communism always promises yet always fails to provide.