When reading the news today one will find different stories about Russia and Putin but I want to introduce the culinary culture of the former Soviet Union (SU, USSR). While food shortages were very common in the USSR, I was often curious to know how people survived and what foods were common during this time? I was especially curious to see if survival played a role in the changing of ingredients . Another part I wanted to know is how the recipes changed during the Soviet times. An interesting topic that I discovered while doing this research is about the communal kitchens. I found out that communal kitchens were developed for many political reasons in which I will discuss further into the blog. Later, I will look into the modern day food culture in Russia and I will end with a recipe of a common Russian dish.
At the top you see a map of Russia today and the highlighted countries were the Former USSR.
Czar Nicholas II
From the Czar to Joseph Stalin and After
During the Czarist period in Russia farmers produced an overabundance of food. This was one of the best times in history for agriculture in Russia. Farmers during the Czarist regime were successful all due to the Czar who understood the need to harvest a lot of food for the people in the cities.
A Civil War took place in Russia which later led to famine and lack of food. Later in 1928- 1932 Joseph Stalin developed a plan to industrialize Russia and part of this plan included food. This is when more processed, “foods like canned and processed soup, fish, meat and mayonnaise (Nelson D., Silva N., 2014).” When communism took over, “production expanded under the Soviet regime, but nature, impatience, and human blunders combined to prevent agriculture from developing at the rate necessary to satisfy the needs of an economy that was pursuing rapid industrialization and urbanization (Lerman Z., Kislev Y., Biton D., 2003).” It was during the certain periods in Russian history such as the Communist Revolution, the early 1930’s and after World War II that there were extreme cases of hunger.
In the 1920’s- 1940’s Joseph Stalin forced collective farming which destroyed the chances of modernizing agriculture. In place of the farmers the government distributed the land to people who worked for the state. This contributed to the food shortages of 1930’s as a result of poor harvests and the equipment being destroyed by the people who took land.
The providing of food and being self-sufficient was a central policy in the First Five Year Plan (1928) however, this was not the case and food production declined. Joseph Stalin decided in 1917 that all land in Russia belonged to the society. During this time farmers were defined under the term of Kulak which cannot be defined accurately. However, it was understood that farmers who were successful were called Kulaks resulting in the taking of their properties. During this time two forms of farming took place one was considered to be state farms (Sovkhoz) and the other type was called collective farms otherwise known as Kolkhoz .
The farmers were blamed for the lack of produce. It wasn’t until Stalin died that the government made changes in order to improve the issue of agriculture.
Not only did the First Five Year Plan focus on agriculture but it also contributed to the change in food behavior and culture in Russia. One major change that occurred during this time was the concept of communalism which involved, “moving food practices from the private sphere into the public sphere (Caldwell M., Nestle M., Dunn E.C., 2009). ” The use of a private kitchen was abolished and communal kitchens were developed and there were professional people keeping track of what people consume (ibid,2009). The use of communal kitchens helped the government spy on their citizens. The Soviet government, “ often feared that people would talk politics especially in the kitchen over meals. Because kitchen is something bourgeois. Every family, as long as they have a kitchen, they have some part of their private life and private property Nelson D., Silva N., 2014 http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/05/20/314054405/how-russias-shared-kitchens-helped-shape-soviet-politics.”
The overall purpose of these kitchens was for the benefit of the government but it had many functions for families. Communal kitchens played a huge role a family’s status in the building. Families would have to negotiate their times for cooking, storage and socializing. It is often said that kitchens became a danger zone during these times because many conflicts would breakout between families. Often times politics would be discussed during these meals, defeating the purpose. Communal kitchens provided women with a way to free their time from cooking. Even though women were no longer obligated to cook they still did.
After Stalin’s death the new government recognized its need to change food policies. As a result they experimented with a variety of crops, cultivating land that hadn’t been used as well as importing food. While, “some of the attempts succeeded, many failed, and the basic structure was not changed. Thus, food shortages continued, and the problem of agriculture remained a central national issue (Lerman Z., Kislev Y., Biton D., 2003).” It is also believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union had to do with inflated food subsides.
Communal Farms after the Collapse of the Soviet Union
Boris Yeltsin became the leader of Russia after Mikhail Gorbachev. It was during Yeltsin’s time that what was once known as collective farms became something called, “joint stock companies (Hays J., 2016).” This meant that not only people who lived on these farms but also big companies such as Gazprom could own a stock in these collectives. (Hays J., 2016).The collectives lost their government funding because their agricultural products were not wanted. Many people on the collective farms lost a lot of money. As a result these farmers ended up, “paying their workers with grain or sugar rather than money. Some workers were not paid in cash for more than six years. Alcoholism and theft were a problem (Hays J., 2016).”
I found it really interesting that, “even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, socialist ideals persisted. Farmers were supposed to be motivated by ideas like increasing production and working collectively rather than accumulating property or money (Hays J., 2016).” Even until today there are not many farmers who own their own land.
Common Dishes in the Former Soviet Union
While there isn’t a lot of information about the history of recipes in Russia I found an article the explains a little bit about how the ingredients in a variety of Russian dishes changed due to the food issues. One example from the article talks about a popular cold soup called Okroshka. The original recipe called for a good quality fish or meat but due to the lack of food in the former USSR the recipe had to change. The meat that was used during the Soviet times were, “frankfurters or boiled sausage (a common meat substitute during the late Soviet era) became the primary ingredient. As food shortages peaked, a vegetarian variety appeared and occasionally the consumer was in for a further surprise as kvas was replaced with kefir (a fermented milk drink).” (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/15/cccp-cookbook-short-history-of-the-ussr-through-its-food)
While Caviar was a common item to find during the Czarist Era it later became symbolic of inequality in Russia after the communist Revolution. The only people to consume caviar during the communist era were Kremlin people. The government workers had a huge supply of caviar that lasted them for months. Another major change for the public was the use of powdered eggs. At first people were hesitant to eat powdered eggs but the government used propaganda to convince them that it was healthier than real eggs. Once eggs became available for purchase people were wary about buying them which forced the government to reverse their original message to the people. Other things like pig stuffed with buckwheat was once considered to be peasant food was only accessible to party members.
Recipe by Natasha’s Kitchen
- For the dough:
- ⅔ cup buttermilk
- 1 Tbsp sour cream
- 2 cups warm water
- 2 large eggs
- ½ Tbsp salt
- 7 cups + about 6 Tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more to dust
For the Chicken Filling:
- 1¾ lb ground chicken thigh (leave the fat on if grinding it yourself)
- ¾ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp ground black pepper
- 2 Tbsp Cooking Oil, or mild olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, pressed
- 2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Toppings and condiments
- Butter, melted
- Sour cream, vinegar, ketchup
Making the Dough:
- Using the whisk attachment on medium speed, beat together: ⅔ cup buttermilk, 1 Tbsp of sour cream, 2 cups warm water, 2 eggs and ½ Tbsp salt until well blended.
- Using the dough hook, mix in 4 cups flour. Mix on speed 2 until well blended.
- Add 3 more cups of flour one cup at a time, allowing the dough to become well blended with each cup.
- Add the rest of the flour 1 Tbsp at a time, until the dough is no longer sticking to the the bowl (I used an additional 6 Tbsp flour). Once dough is no longer sticking to the bowl, continue to mix 5 min. (Total mixing time is about 20-25 minutes from the time you first start adding flour). Your dough should be soft and elastic. Cover your dough with plastic wrap or a tea towel until ready to use.
The Chicken Filling
- Heat 1 Tbsp oil in a medium skillet over med/high heat. Add chopped onion and saute until golden and soft (4-5 min) Add garlic and saute another minute then remove from heat.
- Mix together: ground chicken, sauteed onion and garlic, ¾ tsp salt, ¼ tsp black pepper and 2 Tbsp chopped parsley. A handy tip: The KitchenAid is very useful for mixing ground meat so your fingers don’t turn into popsicles if your meat is cold.
Using a Pelmeni Mold:
- Cut off about tennis-ball-size chunks of dough, place over a smooth, lightly floured surface and roll out into a circle that is wider than your mold. .
- Lightly flour your mold and place rolled dough over the mold. Fill each pocket of the mold with ½ tsp of your filling.
- (Make your husband) Roll out another chunk of dough and place over the mold. Use a rolling pin to role over the top of the second layer of dough on your mold; working from the center – outwards until the pelmeni are well-defined.
- Turn the pelmeni maker over and push the pelmeni out onto a well-floured cutting board. If you find any rebel pelmeni with open edges, pinch them to seal or the meat may float out while cooking.
Shaping Pelmeni by hand:
- Shape a portion of the dough into a 1 to 2 -inch thick log. Cut off 1 piece at a time (about gum ball sized) and roll into disks to form a 1.5-inch circle with rolling pin. Sprinkle rolling pin and surface with flour if needed.
- Place 1 tsp pelmeni filling in the center,
- Fold the dough in half over the meat and pinch the edges tightly to seal the dough.
- You should have a half-moon shape. Pinch the two corners together to form your classic ravioli shape.
- Place pelmeni onto a well-floured cutting board. Arrange pelmeni evenly on the cutting board, sprinkle with flour and cook (see instructions below) or place in the freezer.
Harrison, M. (1996). Soviet Agriculture and Industrialisation. P. Mathias and JA Davis, Agriculture and Industrialisation, Oxford: Blackwell, 192-208.
Hays J., (2016), Agriculture After the Collapse of the Soviet Union
Lerman, Z., Kislev, Y., Biton, D., & Kriss, A. (2003). Agricultural output and productivity in the former Soviet Republics. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 51(4), 999-1018.
Nelson D., Silva N., (2014), How Russia’s Shared Kitchens Helped Shape Soviet Politics,
Theguardian.com 2015, Fried Eggs with Jam? A Short History of the USSR through its food.