bread · on USSR / Russia

Ochered and Buterbrod, Two Essentials of Soviet Life

This post is a continuation to my random USSR series on the Soviet lifestyle as I know it – and obviously as I recall it now. Two things have thus been united in this recollection – ochered (=queue, pronounced Ochered’) and buterbrod (=open sandwich, pronounced bootirbrOt). Two musts of those times, two things you still find in our everyday life. Lines were created because of the miserly food and goods provision and sandwiches can be regarded a symbol of a Soviet creativity – make something out of nothing. Remember the lines from the communist/etc hymn, L’Internationale? Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout, We are nothing, let us be all (Kto byl nichem, tot stanet vsem).

The last time I went to the Russian Museum I got struck by this picture called Ochered (Queue) by Alexey Sundukov (1986). I didn’t see any buterbrod-related artworks on display there so let’s start with this ochered thing first.

Ochered 1986 Alexey Sundukov

In the Soviet era lots of things fell under ‘deficit‘ category, one of the key words of the time and a result of State-regulated planned economy. So in the USSR you were queuing for everything: from a bag of potatoes to a car. That’s actually how my grandparents got their flat right before the USSR collapsed – we were in the line for the improvement of the living conditions, as they called it. And we did get to the ‘aim’ of the line, the flat. Sometimes in order to get into a line you had to know the right person (cause lines might as well be not physical), to be in the right place at the right moment, finally, to be always on guard and ready to act : ) During the war people were sending out children to arrive first in the line when food was distributed or would even pay to get a better position and both things were also common during the peaceful times.

You can see that most of the people in the queue are holding fast to their multi-purpose bags – also known in Russia as avoska. Oh-oh, here we’ve come to a word which is really difficult to translate cause this is not your common word, this is a true lifestyle principle / concept (such as khalyava, for example). Let’s see what a dictionary says: avos (авось) = perhaps, probably, hit or miss, maybe, on the off chance; just in case; blind trust in divine providence, blind faith / trust in sheer luck, counting on a miracle; usually unjustified dependence on success by chance or luck; mayhap. So a typical use for this word would be: I’d rather go to the shops now – avos I find there good fresh tomatoes! (=perhaps, let’s hope). or I didn’t study for the exams so I just ponadeyalsya na avos and went straight into the room (put all the trust in my luck). or Take this book too, avos you’ll need it too (=just in case). Or you can just use avos as a short exclamation – Avos! meaning all sorts of things you’re hoping for.

The same dictionary translates avoska as ‘just-in-case bag’ (taken from some BBC documentary on USSR), and that’s true – this light bag (usually a string bag) was carried around in men’s pockets and women’s handbags just in case there will be something deficit on sale. And how would you know that? Easy! There’ll be a queue! So an avoska, an avos! state of mind and a queue always go together .)


Probably not that organized and people stopped using avoska that much but still an ochered! (with some pretty ugly 1960s block of flats and the inevitable electricity wires across the sky). So the line-standing is just in our blood… How about this website entirely dedicated to queues? It’s called Queue Encyclopedia and beside photos / pictures and articles of queues all around the world, it gives you advice on how to avoid queues or – if you do get into one – what to do not to waist time while queuing.

I’ve also recently read Vladimir Sorokin‘s 1983 story Ochered (The Queue) which is actually a sort of a dialogue where you don’t necessary always  know who the speaker is, as the story seems to be moving back and forth along the line of queuing people. Well, I can tell you there were moments when I was laughing but most of the time I was somewhat depressed reading this (especially the end, which is – I’m sure – supposed to be quite Kafka-esque). The people in the line seem to be not very well sure what they’re queuing for, not all of them will get to the desired purchase (the line is there for several days non-stop). Anyway, if you know Russian and want to get an idea of the state of the country massively involved in either queuing or creating queues, read it.


Enough for the ochered, let’s have some food! Cause even with the deficit times when you do have money but do not paradoxically have goods to buy for this money, you still can get some bread and whatever else you have to create a buterbrod!

So what is a buterbrod? The word comes from the German Butterbrot but the Russian sandwich goes far beyond the simple ‘bread and butter’! The variety of buterbrod in Russia can spread from the usual morning bread + butter + cheese, through buterbrod s kilkoy / shprotami (with sprat / anchovies) and indispensable pickled cucumbers to go with vodka, to a much craved-for party meal, ‘buterbrod s ikroy‘, or caviar buterbrod. Some people prefer their buterbrod with wheat bread, some prefer it with rye. Some conventional buterbrod combinations: white bread + butter + caviar; rye bread + sausage + pickled cucumbers. Other common ingredients include: boiled eggs, mayonnaise, herbs, tomatoes, anything pickled, mustard, horseradish, etc.

And yes, sourdough rye bread with jam is superb! My Granny’s best childhood treats also were made of two types of a buterbrod: white bread + butter + sugar or rye bread + sunflower oil + salt.


A buterbrod with sea buckthorn jam

Why buterbrod? Easy to make. The perfect zakuska (appetizer, usually accompanies vodka), the perfect breakfast, the perfect buffet dish, also belonging to the list of things one can make when your guests are at the door (hence the popularity of canapé for the party table). The perfect all-time meal for students / unmarried men and actually everybody at any point of the day. Everybody can make their own buterbrod with no culinary diploma required and everybody has the ingredients at home. And if you’re lucky and have some zamorskye (from beyond the seas) ingredients like olives or some hard-to-get fish, you’ll get a very special buterbrod which will still be a buterbrod but will also be YOUR very special buterbrod =) Perfect food by Soviet standarts!   


The bread used for this buterbrod photo-session was baked according to these sourdough bread recipes:

  • Rye bread buterbrod – the famous Russian Darnitsky Bread, my personal favourite for all sorts of buterbrod. I’ve used this recipe so many times already, it never fails me! The dark colour is achieved by adding rye malt mixed with hot water.
  • Wheat bread jam buterbrod Oat Bread Dinner Rolls from, reminded me of the bread we adored at the free student canteen in Thessaloniki, so dense, very chewy, loaded with bran! It’s made with rye starter and then no rye is added but I fed the starter with rye flour to increase its content in the bread. I also added wheat bran and flaxseed meal instead of oat flour. I decreased the raising time but I’m sure my rolls did not suffer from that (although they were quite heavy for their size!).


By the way, the deficit thing had its quite questionable advantage – the things did not come the easy way to you, you had to GET them. Hence a very strong vitality of the Soviet people – they do know things never fall down on you from the sky and if they do fall out of the blue, then you should seize the opportunity!


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