Soviet Union is not that far away from our times, which is especially distinct in small towns and villages. I live in one of them – close to the ‘cultural’ capital of Russia, St Petersburg, but oh so far from being cultural. In some of such places you don’t need much search to notice the living traces of the Soviet empire period. My family and me, personally, we are still ‘struggling’ through those evergreen customs and ways that marked the everyday life of people for some 74 years. Stuffing your attics with useless things (who knows, it might happen that you will need them in 20 years!!), always keeping a certain amount of food and necessities in you pantry ‘for a black day‘ as we call it and being in a constant search of how and where to get this or that thing for you household (we still often ask ‘where you got that’ instead of ‘where you bought that’). I wouldn’t call this strong housekeeping customs or some such – it rather tells of a certain social instability and all the fears connected to it that persist in the minds of Soviet-grown people.
Mind you, I’m talking here about the city life (Moscow and Leningrad mostly), in the country it was much worse which forced people to spontaneously organize the so-called ‘sausage trains’ that carried happy owners of all sorts of inaccessible for the country goods back to their homes. You could hop on such train coming from Moscow to some small town, for example.
So, here are some Soviet staples or things that determined one’s life during that period.
#1 HUGE FAMILY. Russian for ‘family’ is ‘semya‘ which literally reads ‘seven me’. So just imagine the number of people living in a single flat – especially if this one is ‘komunalka‘ (lots of families living in a former multi room apartment with shared kitchen, bathroom etc) or ‘hruschevka‘ (cheaply and quickly constructed blocks of flats where the roofs meet your head and the kitchen is of a toilet size; these originally temporarily built tiny boxes permitted however to separate the ‘komunalka‘, giving families their own homes and of course they are still here).
Most likely you’ll get a young family with children living under the same roof with parents and even grandparents.
#2 NO FRIDGES or a very small one/one for a huge family. Much of the Soviet families even in the 70s still couldn’t dream about them but as soon as you get hold of one you could it seems have them forever (we still have one of those late 60s heavy things working at our dacha place – it’s a common practice of giving second life for those sturdy and everlasting irons, ovens and other household appliances transferring them to the country). No fridge in the house meant no short shelf-life goods could be kept for a long time. However, thanks to most probably cold weather conditions outside your window for a considerable number of days – no balcony required – you just keep your goods and home-made stuff in this box attached outside your window which is just at hand (ground-floor dwellers should keep an eye on it=).
#3 LOTS OF HOME-MADE STUFF – marinating, canning, drying, souring during the summer and autumn season is a must for a solid housewife. Consequently, a certain knowledge of how to preserve food and how to use leftovers wisely and quickly before they go off (some of these tips are coming soon!) is required and handed over from mother to daughter. Home pickled cucumbers or a canned ‘winter salad’ was not however only due to a long tradition of home-made stuff but also because of a desperate shortage which incited desperate want for something out-of-order, different from what you could grab from the poorly stocked shops. As there were no fresh or decently preserved vegetables available throughout winter, a good housewife had all her marinated mushrooms, a variety of pickles and sauer kraut prepared and stocked well in advance.
#4 YOU DON’T HAVE $. Haha, I meant roubles, of course, $$ are only for currency-criminals that will soon be traced by the KGB. I know, that’s normal, but for a working USSR citizen it meant also either
a). eating at home if you live nearby (which meant an unavoidable 4-5 litre pot of soup for the whole family, using up the leftovers from your lunch to create one’s supper etc) or
b). eating at the canteen (a post on those lovely places which are still haunting our mentality is coming soon).
If you’re a student – your best friend during your Uni-years then is a glass bottle of kefir (a sort of drinkable yoghurt) and white bread (baton). eating out is for rare occasions – for a decent ‘restaurant’ you would most likely queue for several hours outdoors and 100% sure be served according to the famous Soviet service standards (will tell you later).
#5 But, obviously, the most important, the fundamental element of an average Soviet family life is that you have the same things, you eat the same things and you live in the same conditions with your compatriots. That means you’re being prepared for the happy all-animals-are-equal life in the up-coming and much-awaited communism era right from your birth. See ‘The Irony of Fate‘ (‘Ironia soud’bi‘) film – for those of you who knows some Russian – where the whole intrigue is being constructed on the sameness of all the things. This incubator lifestyle, however, gave us lots of practical sense, habits and abilities to create something new out of the same, dull, most ordinary and not exactly nice and high-quality components. But this is also a reason, perhaps, why a Russian tourist tends to sweep out all the things he sees in the first gas-station shop after crossing the Russian border.
Gosh, I need to stop and finally get to the recipes! =)
Coming back soon,