Russia (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
RUSSIA. Russian food is typically hearty in taste, with mustard, horseradish, and dill among the predominant flavorings. The cuisine is distinguished by the many fermented and preserved foods that are necessitated by the short growing season of the Russian North. Cabbage (sauerkraut) and cucumbers (pickles) are enjoyed greatly, as are a wide range of salted fish, vegetables, and meats. Fish and produce are also frequently dried or brined for lengthy storage. Foraged foods, especially mushrooms, are important to both Russian diet and culture. Although the Russians have never excelled at making hard cheeses, they prepare an expert array of fresh dairy products, such as creamy curd cheese (tvorog) and various cultured yogurt-like preparations (riazhenka, prostokvasha), in addition to excellent sour cream (smetana). Honey is the traditional Russian sweetener and is used as the basis for drinks, fruit preserves, and desserts. Early condiments (known as vzvar, from the word "to boil") consisted of onions or beets cooked slowly in honey until rich and sweet.
Russian cuisine is known for its extensive repertoire of soups. The national soup (shchi) is made from cabbage, either salted (sauerkraut) or fresh, in which case it is known as "lazy" shchi. The beet soup (borshch) commonly associated with Russian cuisine is actually native to Ukraine, to the south of Russia; it became popular abroad following Jewish emigration from that region. Soup is traditionally served at the midday meal and is accompanied by an assortment of small pies, croutons, or dumplings. The Russian diet tends to be high in carbohydrates, with a vast array of breads, notably dark sour rye, and grains, especially buckwheat (grechnevaya kasha).
The national cuisine is further distinguished by wonderful pies filled with myriad combinations of meat, fish, or vegetables. Prepared in all shapes and sizes, pies are both festive and a practical way to use up leftovers. The most elegant pie is, perhaps, the kulebyaka, a multilayered fish pie with thin pancakes (blinchiki), kasha, and salmon (including the spinal marrow or viziga) that was adopted into French cuisine as coulibiac.
Diet of the Early Slavs
Early Slavic agriculture was largely grain based. Hearty crops like rye, oats, barley, buckwheat, spelt, and millet provided the mainstay of the diet, most often in the form of gruel or baked into cakes made of meal sweetened with honey and flavored with berry juice. Although wheat was cultivated in the South, it remained of secondary importance. From the Scythians, a Eurasian tribe that roamed the steppes of southern Russian from the eighth to the fourth centuries B.C.E., the early Slavs learned how to make leavened breads, using primarily sourdough. Grains were supplemented by legumes (gorokh), an important source of protein. Freshwater fish and wildfowl, both of which were abundant, provided additional sources of protein. Vegetable and nut oils (especially hempseed and linseed), foraged mushrooms and berries, and orchard fruits such as cherries, pears, plums, and apples supplemented the largely carbohydrate diet. Also critical were cultivated vegetables, including turnips, beets, radishes, onions, garlic, cabbage, and cucumbers. Turnips were an important staple until the widespread (and enforced) cultivation of the potato in the nineteenth century. Given the geographical limitations on agriculture, much of the population lived in a state between hunger and starvation, and up through the twentieth century Russia experienced frequent famines.
The earliest domestic livestock included cows, pigs, sheep, and goats; chicken, ducks, geese; turkey was introduced somewhat later. Butter was traditionally prepared from cow's milk by heating sour cream, rather than by churning it from sweet cream, a method the Russians learned only in the eighteenth century from the Finns.
By the twelfth century the Russians were already boiling down salt from water from the White Sea, but salt remained an expensive commodity that only the wealthy could afford. Even those who could afford salt used it sparingly. A seventeenth-century German visitor Adam Olearius, complained that "in Moscow, they use coarse salt fish, which sometimes stinks because they are thrifty with the salt. Nevertheless, they like to eat it." In general, the affluent had a plentiful assortment of fish, meat, fruits, vegetables, and grains, a diet that contrasted greatly with the meager rations of most of the population, who subsisted on little more than oatmeal gruel (tolokno) and rye bread. Although the soil around Moscow and in the south of Russia yielded excellent produce, the growing season was short, and most people did not have access to a variety of foods.
Apart from the methods used for preserving food, boiling and baking were the most common ways of preparing foods (frying and grilling were also practiced). By 1600 rich and poor alike were cooking food in the Russian
Food could be prepared in many different ways on the stoveoiled, baked, steamed, roasted, and braised. Many of Russia's most typical dishes reflected the specific properties of the stove, which blazed and was very hot after firing and then gradually diminished in the intensity of its heat. Breads and pies were baked when the oven was still very hot, either right in the fire's ashes or immediately after they had been scraped out. Once the temperature began to fall, grain dishes could cook in the diminishing heat, which ensured that porridges were crusty on top and creamy within. As the oven's heat continued to subside, the stove was ideal for the braised vegetables and slow-cooked stews that represent the best of Russian cooking. Dairy products were cultured in any residual oven heat.
Whether the medieval Russian diet was varied or sparse, the cooking methods for rich and poor were nearly analogous. Although Tsar Peter the Great introduced the cooktop (plita) from Holland in the eighteenth century, and metal stoves became common in urban dwellings in the nineteenth century, the Russian stove remained in use in the countryside well into the twentieth century.
Influence of the Russian Orthodox Church
In 988 Grand Prince Vladimir of Kievan Russia adopted Christianity for his people. Many of the existing pagan celebrations, such as those marking the seasonal solstices, were transformed into religious holidays like Christmas and Easter. The Orthodox Church had a profound influence on the Russian diet, dividing the year into feast days (skoromnyi) and fast days (postnyi). The latter accounted for approximately 180 days of the year. The fast periods largely coincided with times in the agricultural year when food supplies were running low. Most Russians took fasting seriously, strictly following the proscriptions against meat and dairy products. In addition to meatless Wednesdays and Fridays, the Russians also observed extended fasts, the most important of which were the Great Lenten Fast (forty days, plus one week, Passion Week, which precedes Easter), the Christmas or Filippov Fast (the six weeks preceding Christmas), the Fast of Saints Peter and Paul (beginning in late May or June and lasting from one to six weeks, depending on when Easter fell); and the Fast of the Dormition (two weeks in August). On the most stringent fast days (Lent and the Dormition Fast), even fish and vegetable oil were forbidden. Generally, the poorer the household, the more devoutly it fasted, since meat and dairy products were at best scarce even on nonast days. For the wealthy, fasting did not necessarily mean deprivation. A mid-seventeenth-century state dinner given on a fast day for the English ambassador Carlisle offered no fewer than five hundred dishes, not one of which was made with meat products. Throughout the nineteenth century, cookbooks offered suggestions for both feast day and fast day meals. In addition to recipes for fish and vegetarian dishes, the cookbooks provided information on substituting nut oils and almond milk for dairy products in cooking and baking.
Holidays and Ritual Foods
Numerous feast days compensated for the stringent fasts. Feasts were held in celebration of weddings, funerals, and the name days of saints, which the Russians observed instead of birthdays. Many religious holidays were also considered feast days. Just before the rigorous Lenten fast came Butter Week (Maslenitsa), similar to Mardi Gras, except that it lasted a full week. Although no meat was allowed, the Russians consumed excessive amounts of dairy products, most often in the form of blinies. These traditional yeast-raised pancakes, made with buckwheat or wheat flour, are porous enough to soak up plenty of melted butter. Topped with caviar, smoked fish, pickled herring, or sometimes jam, the bliny can be traced back to pagan times, when the early Slavs baked round pancakes in the image of the sun to welcome its return at winter's end.
Easter is the most important holiday in the Russian Orthodox year. Throughout Easter week a table is kept laden with food. The two most traditional foods are kulich, a tall loaf of bread enriched with eggs, butter, sugar, and candied fruits, glazed with confectioners' sugar, and often topped with a rose; and paskha, fresh farmer's cheese mixed with cream and butter and molded into a pyramid shape. Raisins or nuts are used to decorate it with the letters XB for "Christ is Risen."
Virtually every festive occasion calls for a special bread. Pies, such as an elaborate chicken pie layered with vegetables (kurnik), are served at weddings; a sweet, pretzel-shaped loaf (krendel') is traditional for name days; and animal-shaped buns are distributed to Christmas revelers. These buns, as well as the lark-shaped breads baked to celebrate the return of the birds in spring, predate the Christian era. Other breads, such as one baked in the shape of a ladder for the holiday of the Ascension, have Christian roots. Kut'ia, which is a dish of wheat berries sweetened with honey and flavored with dried fruits or nuts, is traditionally served at funeral repasts.
The Tradition of Hospitality
The Russian word for hospitality (khlebosol'stvo) derives from the words for bread (khleb) and salt (sol'). Taken together, they mean a regalement with that which is most basic to life, and that which is a luxury. A large, round loaf milled from the finest flour (karavai) was traditionally presented as a symbol of hospitality or was offered to newlyweds as a housewarming gift. The loaf often had an indentation in the top crust to hold a small dish of salt. The act of honoring guests lies at the heart of the Russian national identity. As counseled by the Domostroi, a sixteenth-century manual that teaches household management and piety, guests are sacred; by receiving them well, you also serve God. One should offer guests are the very best food available. The Russians took this advice to heart: even the poorest households did not turn strangers away.
The sharing of bread was ritualized in the practice of "begging for crusts," which occurred whenever food shortages threatened the peasantry. Unlike simple begging, which was looked down upon, "begging for crusts" was accepted as part of the natural order: each peasant family knew that the situation could be reversed, and next time they might be the ones in need of food after a bad harvest.
In medieval Russia hospitality to foreigners was expressed through the institution of the podacha, a ritualized presentation of food. Privileged guests at the tsar's palace were given confectionery items to bring home at the end of each feast; the amount given was determined by the person's rank. Anyone unable to attend the festivities might have the podacha delivered to his residence by couriers, who would parade through the streets of Moscow in a display of the tsar's power and largesse.
Today, the hissing samovar or tea urn is the acknowledged symbol of Russian hospitality, ready to serve unexpected guests at a moment's notice. However, this tradition is relatively recent, as use of the samovar became widespread only in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The Primary Chronicle, Russia's earliest historical record, relates that Grand Prince Vladimir proclaimed "Drinking is the joy of Rus' " when he chose Christianity over Islam, which forbids the consumption of alcohol. From the earliest times the Russians enjoyed alcoholic beverages, especially mead, a fermented honey wine flavored with berries and herbs; kvas, a mildly alcoholic beverage made from fermented bread or grain; berezovitsa, lightly fermented birch juice; and beer. Distilled spirits, in the form of vodka, appeared only in the fifteenth century, introduced from Poland and the Baltic region. Vodka was originally used for medicinal purposes, but it gradually displaced the older beverages in popularity, and by the seventeenth century spirits were already causing social problems. Because the high taxes on vodka filled the state coffers, the government was not eager to curtail use of the substance (a few privileged noblemen were given the right to produce vodka, but the government basically had a monopoly on its production). In the late nineteenth century the famous chemist Dmitri Mendeleev set the optimal alcoholic content of vodka at 40 percent spirits diluted with distilled water. Commercial producers capitalized on Mendeleev's pronouncement, and Russia has been known ever since for its excellent vodka.
Tsar Ivan the Terrible established the first taverns (kabaki) in the sixteenth century by for the sole benefit of his elite guards. Since then the government has vacillated between strict and lax approaches to vodka consumption, at times encouraging it to build up the state treasury and ease public unrest, at other times curtailing access to the drink. Tsar Peter the Great was known to ply his guests with drink in order to find out what was really going on at court, and he himself engaged in drinking binges that lasted for days at a time. More recently, in the Soviet era, two Communist leaders, Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev, attempted to control access to vodka. Their ill-fated attempts caused widespread discontent, as well as severe shortages of sugar, which people purchased in bulk to produce moonshine.
Eastern Influence on Russian Cuisine
In 945 Russia, though still not unified, initiated trade with Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire. In exchange for honey and furs, the Russians received rice, spices, and wines. In 1237 the Mongols invaded the Russian principalities, and for nearly two hundred years Russia had to pay tribute to the Golden Horde. The occupation was not without culinary benefits. The Mongols reopened the ancient trade routes between China and the West, which had become too dangerous due to frequent tribal wars. Foods introduced along these routes included noodles and cultured milk products such as koumiss, the fermented mare's milk drunk by Turkic nomads.
With Russia's conquest of the Volga region in the mid-sixteenth century, the Russians were able to trade for spices like pepper, saffron, cinnamon, and ginger, as well as rhubarb, which became an extremely lucrative export crop. Also from the Volga region came sweet watermelons from Astrakhan, at the mouth of the Volga, and increased access to sturgeon, sterlet, and caviar from the Caspian Sea.
Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible; 1530584) led a series of Eastern campaigns to subjugate the khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Tatar Bashkiria; in 1582 he also annexed Siberia. This eastward expansion introduced the Russians to pel'meni, wonton-like pockets of boiled dough filled with ground meat and onions. The Russians serve these dumplings either with vinegar and mustard or with butter and sour cream. Pel'meni are frequently made in large quantities at the beginning of winter and kept frozen outdoors in a bag, ready for boiling into a quick meal. Exotic fresh and dried fruits were also introduced from the East, and raisins and dried apricots have held a prominent place in Russian cuisine ever since.
Tea also arrived in Russia by way of Siberia. As early as 1567 emissaries from Ivan IV had spoken of this strange brew, but it wasn't until 1638 that tea found its way to the royal court. The signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689 established regular trade between Russia and China. From then on tea became a valuable commodity, although until the nineteenth century tea drinking was largely confined to Moscow's urban population.
With the expansion of the Russian Empire into the Caucasus and central Asia, beginning in the late eighteenth century and continuing under Soviet rule, dishes from Eastern cuisines entered into the Russian repertoire. From Georgia came grilled meats (shashlyki), flattened chicken cooked under a brick (tabaka), and herbed kidney beans (lobio); from Armenia came flat bread (lavash); from Azerbaijan, ground lamb kebabs (lyulya-kebab); from Tatar Crimea, fried meat pies (chebureki); from Uzbekistan, rice pilaf (plov) and dumplings (manty); and from Kyrgyzstan, lamb and noodle stew (lagman).
The Era of Muscovy
During the era of Muscovy (from the fourteenth to early eighteenth centuries) the disparity between rich and poor became firmly established, resulting in two very different cuisines. The poor ate little more than bread, gruel, and soup made from vegetables and grains. The wealthy, on the other hand, ate so lavishly that foreign visitors like the French envoy Foy de la Neuville, on a 1689 visit, declared them gluttons. Foreigners generally considered the Russians uncivilized, not only due to their prodigious appetites, but also due to the pleasure they so openly expressed from their meals via belching and other bodily sounds.
The wealthy indulged in feasts that lasted for hours. Pickled or salted beef, ham, suckling pig, elk, boar, lamb, and rabbit all appeared on the table. Swan was considered the most luxurious of birds, although the wealthy also enjoyed crane, heron, black grouse, hazel hen, partridge, lark, goose, duck, and chicken. Veal was rarely consumed, and the Russian Orthodox Church forbade eating doves, since the birds symbolized the Holy Spirit. Hot and cold soups, noodle dishes, roasts, and sauces were seasoned with onion, garlic, pepper, saffron, and sometimes savory. The combination of sweet and sour so typical of medieval foods throughout Europe was especially compatible with Russian tastes. Rich, dark swan meat was often served with vinegar or a combination of sour milk, pickles, and prunes.
The tsar's table was furnished year-round with fish from distant waters, transported whole or in pieces, fresh or salted, or brined in barrels. Sturgeon and sterlet were brought live in tanks from the Caspian Sea to Moscow; whitefish came from Lake Ladoga; and several varieties of salmon were sent overland from the Kolsk Peninsula in the far North. Pike, bream, perch, pike-perch, and many other sorts of excellent fish were caught in the rivers and ponds around Moscow.
The reforms carried out by Peter I (the Great; 1672725) affected virtually every aspect of Russian life. Upper-class women, who had previously lived in seclusion, were allowed into male company and could eat at the same table as men. Peter introduced napkins from Holland (until his reign, tables had been covered with short cloths, the edges of which were used to wipe the hands and mouth while eating). Since large joints of meat were carved and served in small pieces at table, several people would generally share forks and knives among them, but Peter encouraged the use of individual twopronged forks.
In the kitchen, the most significant development for Russian cuisine was the introduction of the Dutch range, which, contrary to the traditional Russian stove, relied on a cooktop more than on oven chambers. This change necessitated more labor-intensive cooking methods as well as new utensils. Saucepans, for instance, replaced the customary earthenware pots.
Peter was eager to acquaint Russians with new foodstuffs and culinary methods that he had learned on his extensive travels. From Holland he imported not only hothouse vegetables and fruits (pineapples became a particular Russian passion), but also aged cheeses, which the Russians did not know how to make. He sought grape varietals that could thrive in southern Russia and placed the two-centuries-old Astrakhan winery under the supervision of a French vintner to increase its quality and production.
In 1712 the imperial court moved from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. The design of the commercial center (Gostinyi dvor) incorporated a canal right in the building so that boats could unload their wares on site. Petersburg's significant foreign population influenced the city's eating habits, and foods such as waffles and artichokes found welcome reception. Furthermore, the young Russian men whom Peter had sent abroad to further their education returned with new tastes. Seeking more variety in their diet, they began to import exotic foods. When Peter hired a Saxon as his private chef, the nobility soon followed suit. Thus Russia's first foreign chefs came primarily from Saxony, Bavaria, and Austria.
Because the founding of Saint Petersburg had caused trade to decline at the far northern port of Archangel on the White Sea, in 1721 Peter issued an ukaze ordering his people to eat ocean fish. Previously the Russians had used only freshwater fish from rivers and lakes, and many were suspicious of such strange species as cod, whiting, and mackerel.
French Influence on Russian Cuisine
The culinary changes wrought during Peter's thirty-six-year reign were so great that by the time his daughter Elizabeth seized the throne in 1741, lemons and oranges were no longer a luxury, and English beer was in greater vogue than traditional Russian brews. As the century progressed, more and more European influences came to bear on traditional Russian methods. The vocabulary introduced into Russian over the course of the eighteenth century reveals influences from the Dutch, German, English, and ultimately French cuisines. By the close of the eighteenth century, food in the homes of the wealthy was unabashedly French, and Russia's most affluent families employed French chefs, whose style supplanted the Germanic influences of Peter's era.
With so much foreign influence, Russian cuisine lost its simple national character and became increasingly complex. By the end of century, meat was cut into small pieces that demanded complicated handling, as opposed to the large joints of meat that had been roasted or braised in the great Russian stove, or grilled on a spit. As the nineteenth century drew near, many French dining habits were firmly entrenched in Russia, although sometimes with a Russian twist. One practice that came into vogue among the aristocracy was the open table, at which any nobleman, invited or not, was welcome to dine. The conservative prince Mikhail Shcherbatov, in his treatise On the Corruption of Morals in Russia, complained that the nobility's excessive socializing at table led to moral deterioration. He was troubled that the nobility gave so little thought to the relationship between the food served and the religious obligations underlying it. Even so, Peter the Great's reforms and the subsequent refinements to the table broadened and polished Russian cuisine. Adapting western trends to their own needs and tastes, the Russians ultimately made their table quite sophisticated.
Table Service and Meal Times
The Russian peasantry ate their meager fare from a communal bowl, with each individual wielding his or her own spoon. The wealthy, however, sat down to a vastly different table, which was also distinct from its European counterparts. By the seventeenth century society meals throughout Europe were served in the style known as service à la française, which meant that for each course, all of the foods were set out on the table, ranked according to size and symmetrically arranged. The Russians ate in a manner that came to be known as service à la russe (it eventually replaced the French style of service in Europe in the late nineteenth century). Here the table was not previously laid with the foods for each course. Instead, each dish was brought individually to the table and presented with fanfare before being removed to the kitchen or sideboard for carving. Each diner received a portioned serving, which ensured that the food was still hot and at the peak of freshness. Furthermore, diners were not limited to the foods located within reach. The drawback of service à la russe was that it entailed a large and well-trained staff.
Under Peter the Great, the multicourse banquets typical of the Muscovite era began to evolve into the sequence of four courses that is familiar today. Peter's war with Sweden and his travels in Holland resulted in the introduction of the lavish zakuska (hors d'oeuvres) table that has become the hallmark of Russian cuisine. Adapted from the Swedish smorgasbord, an array of salted and smoked foods, including caviar, salmon, sturgeon, herring, pickles, and ham, is offered before the main course. Open-faced sandwiches with meat or cheese reflect a direct borrowing from Dutch practice. After the zakuski, soup is served, then a main course, followed by dessert.
Meal times were rather flexible. The wealthy, having no immediate tasks to attend to, often slept late and did not have breakfast until mid-morning. The main meal of the day (obed) took place at around 2:00 P.M., followed by a late-afternoon collation or tea, then supper between 8:00 and 10:00 P.M. Peasant families had more structured mealtimes. Breakfast (zavtrak) was typically eaten at 5:00 or 6:00 A.M., followed by the so-called second breakfast (vtoroi zavtrak) at around 10:00 A.M., providing a break from the day's labors. Dinner was eaten any time between 12:00 and 2:00 P.M., with a midday snack (poldnik) at 4:00 or 5:00 P.M. Supper (uzhin) was generally served at 8:00 P.M., and, after tea drinking became an established custom in the late nineteenth century, tea (chai) often followed. For those who could afford a variety of foods, the Russian breakfast was a hearty affair, complete with porridge (often buckwheat or semolina), smoked or pickled fish, and eggs or pancakes. The main meal of the day was still not considered complete without a soup course before the entrée.
The indulgent lifestyle of the aristocracy and gentry came to an abrupt end with the Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent establishment of the Soviet Union. The new Bolshevik government undertook a radical transformation of social life, promoting as one of their platforms the liberation of women from kitchen drudgery. To this end, vast communal dining facilities ("factory kitchens") were set up. However, because the food was bad, and most families did not like the impersonal cafeteria style of these facilities, the experiment ultimately failed. What did take hold, however, were communal kitchens in urban houses that had been requisitioned by the government. The great influx of people into the cities following the Revolution of 1917 caused a housing shortage that led to the creation of communal apartments, with sometimes as many as a dozen families sharing a kitchen. Communal kitchens, some of which still exist, contributed to the disintegration of family life and created social tensions.
The political and economic turmoil of the Civil War (1917922), coupled with drought in the Volga region, caused a severe famine between 1921 and 1922, in which nearly half a million people died. But this loss of life is small in comparison to the many millions who perished during Joseph Stalin's enforced collectivization of agriculture, which he carried out between 1929 and 1934, especially in Ukraine. Under this policy, private farms were destroyed and agriculture organized into state-run collective farms (kolkhozy). Collectivization proved disastrous for Soviet agriculture, as it was inefficient and discouraged personal initiative. The Soviet Union was forced to import much of its grain from the United States and Canada and frequently suffered from food deficits.
The Soviet Era
The Soviet Union was never a fully egalitarian society. Most of the populace subsisted on a monotonous diet of poor-quality food, but the government and cultural elite had access to special stores and goods, so they were able to eat well. Although the government ensured that no one went hungry (all factory workers, for instance, received a free lunch at state expense), the average diet was not especially nutritious, as it was low in fresh fruits and vegetables.
The Soviet period was marked by extraordinary hardship. Following collectivization and the political purges of the late 1930s, the Russians endured World War II, also known as the Great Patriotic War. During the Siege of Leningrad (1941944), which lasted for nearly nine hundred days, roughly one million people died of starvation. At the most critical point in the siege, the bread ration for factory workers was only 250 grams (8.8 ounces) a day, 125 grams (4.4 ounces) for all others, with no other food available. Leningraders resorted to eating whatever they could scavenge from the city or find in their apartments, including tooth powder, Vaseline, glycerine, cologne, wallpaper paste scraped from the walls, flour dust collected from cracks in the kitchen floorboards, and spattered grease that was licked from the kitchen walls.
Although life stabilized after the war, the Soviet era was generally characterized by a low standard of living. Shopping was especially difficult, with long lines even for basic foodstuffs. There was very little variety. When socalled deficit items did suddenly appear, shoppers had to stand in line for hours. The vocabulary reflected this reality: products were "obtained" (dostat') rather than "bought" (kupit'). Because of the hierarchy of food distribution, country dwellers flooded daily into Moscow, increasing the crowds and further limiting availability.
The state food stores had very little to offer, but decent foodstuffs could be purchased at the farmers' markets, where entrepreneurs from Georgia, Armenia, and central Asia sold lemons, melons, and high-quality meat and produce, often at steep prices. To survive, most Soviet citizens became adept at working the unofficial barter economy, and they knew how to take advantage of the black market. Restaurants were few; those that existed frequently offered only one item from their menu and subjected diners to surly service. Therefore most Russians ate at home. The Soviet-era kitchen table became the site of the most important social interactions, where information was exchanged, poetry recited, politics argued, friendships expressed. Despite the food shortages, the difficulty of shopping, and the cramped living space, Russians still took pride in being generous toward their guests, and the tradition of hospitality endured.
The Soviet Union was officially disbanded at the end of 1991. The following year saw the introduction of stringent market reforms, which brought economic hardship to the general population. With a safety net no longer in place, beggars appeared on the streets. The countryside, in particular, suffered from insufficient food. Russia's economic problems were exacerbated by the crash of 1998, when the ruble lost two-thirds of its value. Still, the Russians are a resourceful people, and in the early twenty-first century the economy was back on its feet.
The collapse of the Soviet state initially brought a rash of investors to Russia, and numerous fast-food chains, such as McDonald's, gained a foothold. In response to so many Western imports, a feeling of national pride gradually emerged, and domestic chains like Russkoye Bistro began to compete with the foreign establishments. Homegrown products again appeared on the market when the economic turmoil of the 1990s caused many foreign firms to leave. Once the economy stabilized, many restaurants opened that offered expensive and elegant pre-Revolutionary fare, nostalgic country-style cooking, and ethnic cuisine. After seventy years of isolation under Soviet rule, the populace was eager to experiment with new tastes.
With the appearance of self-service grocery stores, shopping was simplified, and it was no longer necessary to stand in line for food. However, one might question whether shrink-wrapped tomatoes imported from the Canary Islands represent progress when locally grown produce can be bought at the market or at curbside kiosks. The slick grocery stores with their aisles of imported goods and the expensive restaurants were status symbols for the wealthy class of New Russians who had money to spare: the majority could not afford them. These New Russians also bought food magazines (unheard of during the Soviet era) and cookbooks: both the French Cordon Bleu cooking course and the Hare Krishna Book of Vegetarian Cooking were translated into Russian. Young Russians became increasingly aware of diet and nutrition, the down side being that eating disorders began to appear.
Meanwhile, average Russians could only admire the glossy publications and the wide variety of foods, which were beyond their means. Police in a number of cities have had to put Operation Harvest into effect to protect the potato fieldshich were now private propertyrom hungry poachers. Significantly, the consumerism of the moneyed class was balanced by a return to spiritual values, as many Russians once again expressed their identity through the foods they choose either to eat or forego.
See also Asia, Central; Central Europe; Christianity: Eastern Orthodox Christianity; Food as a Weapon of War; France; Siberia.
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