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Eating the Soviet Union

13 Jan

With nostalgia for the Soviet Union peaking as fascists and speculators are once again perceived to be threatening the gates of Moscow, Anya von Bremzen’s timely memoir of the USSR, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, provides interesting food for thought about the crazed experiment that attempted to construct a communistic paradise on earth.

Von Bremzen’s epic tale of her family’s trials and travails through the Soviet Union, charted via the medium of food, takes the reader on a journey from the excesses of the period running up to the October Revolution to the post-Soviet era of oligarchs and mafiosi and their own extravagant lifestyles.

Von Bremzen spent the first 10 years of her life in the USSR before emigrating to the USA in 1974 with her mother. The book harks back to her time living in a flat near Moscow’s Arbat and her adventures cadging juicy fruit chewing gum from diplomats for trading with her schoolmates. But its her family and the profound effect that the Soviet Union had on their lives that are the real stars of this tale.

Von Bremzen and her mother’s journey through the culinary world of the land of the Soviets begins with a multi-layered kulebiaka pie and travels via the leaner times of Lenin on into the manufactured famines of the 1920s and early 1930s.

By the end of the 30s Stalin’s land of socialist plenty was being imagined with kotleti, the Soviet take on the hamburger, emerging as the food of the masses. Then came the war years with rationing and starvation just around the corner before the tide was turned.

Von Bremzen’s work draws heavily on the Book of Tasty and Healthy Food: Iconic Cookbook of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s premier guide to the art of proletarian cookery curated by the USSR Ministry of Food and by the people’s commissar Anastas Mikoyan. First published in 1939, subsequent editions set the standard for the Soviet table.

The stagnant years with Brezhnev at the helm of the Union were remembered as a time of the ubiquitous Salat Olivier, a melange of boiled carrots, potatoes, pickled cucumbers, boiled egg and whatever protein was to hand all smothered in the ever-available mayonnaise.

The chaotic Yeltsin-years of the 1990s are marked by the arrival of plov, the Central Asian rice-based dish spiked with lamb, cumin, raisins and chick peas became a firm favourite with the post-Soviet generation.

In her foodie odyssey through the Soviet Union, von Bremzen has found a darkly humorous and compelling way to bring to life the years of the Soviet Union and tell its history. One wonders how the food of Putin’s Russia will be remembered with the rouble tanking and sanctions against imports beginning to bite.

The Good Angel of Death

31 Aug

Kazaxia is back from its summer break with its first book review.

Andrey Kurkov‘s The Good Angel of Death takes the reader on a surreal romp through the crazy hinterlands of the former Soviet Union in the wild days of the late 1990s. Kolya, the book’s hero, discovers a mysterious manuscript secreted inside a copy of War and Peace and this find sets off a strange chain of events that sees him having to flee Kiev for a journey of discovery in the deserts around Aktau in Kazakhstan.

There he comes across a strange bunch of bedfellows from Kazakh nomads to Ukranian nationalists and operatives from the Ukranian secret services. The story satirises the quest for national identity that many of the states formed from the collapse of the Soviet Union embarked on in the 90s.

At times the novel almost spills over into farce, but Kurkov’s sparse prose style keeps the action moving along, albeit at a somewhat relaxed pace. He has a fine eye for the fine details of everyday life in the former Soviet Union countries in the late 90s with corruption and the Mafia at every turn.

The Good Angel of Death was originally published in Russian in 2000 as Добрый ангел смерти. The English translation first appeared in 2009. Kurkov was born near Leningrad in 1961 and moved to Kiev in the 1980s, where he is still based. Other titles to look out for by Kurkov include Death and the Penguin and its follow-up Penguin Lost.