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Photo: Susie Armitage for Atlas Obscura
The line for Stolovaya 57, a Soviet-style cafeteria in a Moscow mall, shows the power of nostalgia and tight household budgets.

It’s funny how one can sometimes feel nostalgic for times that really were not great. There was privation and cruel lack of freedom in the old USSR, for example, but especially if a person was young then, there are aspects of that time that are missed. In this story, Russians miss the food they once enjoyed — or imagine they enjoyed — in Soviet cafeterias.

Susie Armitage writes at Atlas Obscura, “On a recent afternoon in Moscow, a line of hungry people stretched across the third floor of GUM, a stately 19th-century shopping arcade turned modern luxury mall overlooking Red Square.

“As the crowd waited to get into Stolovaya 57, a self-service cafe modeled on a Soviet workers’ canteen, a young woman snapped photos of the faux propaganda posters in the entryway. Inside, customers loaded their trays with fruity kissel, fuschia ‘fur coat’ salad, and jellied pork. On the hot food line, a woman in a white uniform dished out mashed potatoes, Chicken Kiev, and stuffed cabbage and curtly called out, ‘Next order, please!’ Murky jars of canned vegetables sat on shelves overhead. An abacus, like the kind used by Soviet shopkeepers, stood next to one of the cash registers. …

“As I stood in line with Pavel Syutkin, a culinary historian who co-authored CCCP COOK BOOK: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine with his wife, Olga Syutkin, he told me the long wait was just another period touch.

‘When you go step by step, 20 minutes, half an hour, you really get an effect of being inside the Soviet past,’ he said, recalling the anticipation that made the food taste better when he lived in Cold War-era Russia.

“I asked Syutkin why, in 2019, a mostly Russian crowd would wait this long for a bowl of borscht served with a heavy dollop of Soviet kitsch. He explained that Stolovaya 57 is one of the cheapest places to eat near Red Square …

“Aside from the prime location, Stolovaya 57’s popularity may have something to do with its name. Whether they’re from Moscow or a remote part of Siberia, Russians have a shared understanding of the word stolovaya, which means ‘dining hall’ or ‘cafeteria.’ Due to the Soviet legacy of public canteens, it’s shorthand for an affordable, filling, and predictable meal. …

“According to Anya Von Bremzen, author of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, while a handful of these early canteens had genteel touches such as fresh flowers and live music, many were plagued by rats and served awful food. The cafeteria in the Kremlin was so bad that Lenin ordered multiple investigations. As it turned out, in addition to struggling with food shortages, the nascent Soviet state had replaced many professional chefs with ideologically pure but untrained ones. …

“While the dishes in any Soviet cafeteria were supposed to be identical, in practice the quality varied widely. A large stolovaya in Moscow or Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) typically served far better food than the canteens in smaller towns. …

“Lackluster food wasn’t necessarily the fault of individual chefs, who had to make do with whatever ingredients the state provided. The Soviet food supply system routed the best stuff to high-level officials and larger state enterprises. ‘Access to good products was a symbol of your place in the social hierarchy,’ Syutkin said. …

“In 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev signed a resolution to make the system of public food service ‘more massive, comfortable, and favorable.’ … A publication called The Female Worker documented cafeterias with great interest, lauding a particular dining hall in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (now Belarus) for its ingenuity in using kitchen scraps to raise its own pigs. …

“However, nostalgia isn’t the only thing motivating people to wait half an hour for plates of pickled herring. My 31-year-old friend Victor [points out] that many of his peers are on tight budgets. Russia’s economy has been sluggish in recent years, and paychecks still don’t go as far as they used to.” More here.

Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Women factory workers eating in a Soviet Union lunchroom in 1928.

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Photo: Daryl Mersom
A piece of a sgraffito by the Kazakhstan graphic artist Eugeny Sidorkin (1930-1982) was discovered behind a wall at a cinema in the former Kazakhstan capital. 

Modern art was considered degenerate in the former Soviet Union. It was dangerous to make it, dangerous to own it. Much was destroyed.

But as I wrote in this 2011 post about the wily collector of the “Desert of Forbidden Art” documentary, it could be hidden away in Central Asia without Moscow noticing.

More recently, approved Soviet art, no longer popular, was revealed behind a cinema wall in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. Nothing is ever completely lost.

Daryl Mersom wrote at the Guardian, “When Jama Nurkalieva and a small group of colleagues conducted a site survey of a disused Soviet-era panoramic cinema in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, they had no idea what lay behind the internal plasterboard wall that faces out towards the street – until someone spotted a narrow gap.

“As the caretaker shined a light into the darkness behind, the group caught a glimpse of a man’s head. Out came the toolbox and the rest of the artwork was slowly revealed: a Soviet-era sgraffito by the graphic artist Eugeny Sidorkin that had been lost and forgotten for decades.

“From the Italian graffiare, to scratch, sgraffito is a technique that involves placing one layer of plaster or cement over another, and then scratching through the superficial layer to reveal contours or patterns beneath.

“Built to a standardised design in 1964, the cinema was one of the largest in the USSR. It was fronted entirely by large panels of glass that offered an unobstructed view of the sgraffito to passersby. …

“While there is little incentive now to cover or remove Soviet-era artworks depicting folklore and natural landscapes, they were sometimes controversial in their day due to supposed hidden meanings.

“Ekaterina Golovatyuk, curator of an exhibition on Soviet modernist architecture at the Tselinny, recounts an anecdote in which an architect and an artist worked together to create a mosaic for a cafe. It was a straightforward depiction of a lake with a tiger on one side and goats on the other. ‘The [local communist] party was asking them, “What’s the meaning of this?” They were saying, “Nothing, it’s just a natural landscape” – but they couldn’t convince them that there was no hidden political message.’

“Golovatyuk believes Almaty has as many surviving mosaics as it does because Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, changed the country’s capital from Almaty to Astana in 1997.

“With much of the country’s subsequent investment and development directed at this new ‘city of the steppes,’ Almaty escaped relatively unchanged.”

More at the Guardian, here. It’s interesting that although “degenerate” art is now accepted, actual Soviet art is forbidden in former Soviet republics relieved to be free of the yoke of communism. If you want to see the Lenin mosaic in Almaty, hidden behind a curtain, you have to make an appointment.

As the 16th century poet says, “Times Go By Turns.”

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The world’s oldest working actor has died at age 101. And good for him to have worked at something he loved for so long!

Shaun Walker wrote recently at the Guardian, “Vladimir Zeldin, believed to have been the world’s oldest working actor, has died aged 101, after appearing for 71 years at the same Moscow theatre.

“The Russian actor appeared on stage as recently as [September], using a walking stick due to a broken hip, to appear in the play The Dance Teacher by the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega.

“He had appeared in the play more than 1,000 times, Tass reported. The theatre had planned for him to appear again next February, to mark his 102nd birthday. …

“Zeldin was born in 1915, when Tsar Nicholas II was on the Russian throne. He shot to fame when he appeared in the film They Met in Moscow, on which shooting began shortly before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. …

“When the war finished, Zeldin joined Moscow’s Red Army Theatre, where he was part of the troupe from 1945 until his death. The theatre is now known as the Russian Army Theatre. Fellow actors at the theatre described him as full of energy until the very last.” More.

I think the actress who played 104-year-old Great-Great-Grandmaw in All the Way Home (the stage version of James Agee’s A Death in the Family) must have been nearly as old as Zeldin. I remember her voice came out as kind of a croak. But that may have been because she was acting.

Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/AP  
Vladimir Zeldin on stage in Moscow.

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Sam Borden at the NY Times had a cool story yesterday about a jack-of-all-trades performer who never got much attention — until his ability to mimic the sounds of nature turned him into an overnight sensation.

According to Borden, Gennady Tkachenko-Papizh, 52, finally got attention in March.

“That was when, while sitting at a cafe [in Berlin] checking his smartphone, he saw that Miss Arab U.S.A. — who is a 22-year-old Brooklyn-born Syrian named Fabiola al-Ibrahim — had, for some reason, posted to her Facebook page a video of Mr. Tkachenko-Papizh competing on a talent show in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. ‘This will take you to another world!’ she promised of the link, which leads to about three minutes of Mr. Tkachenko-Papizh vocalizing the sounds of crickets, bird wings rustling, water dripping and hyper-dramatized operatic chanting.

“The show, ‘Georgia’s Got Talent,’ is about what you might expect from spectacles like this anywhere … Yet Mr. Tkachenko-Papizh’s performance, which he began by solemnly intoning, ‘Let us try to feel what the Mother Earth wants to tell us,’ resonated more deeply. …

“The video on Miss Arab U.S.A.’s page has logged more than 70 million views and inspired more than 102,000 comments — mostly unbridled encomiums.”

Despite the change in Tkachenko-Papizh’s life, says Borden, he is not becoming a prima donna. “He lives here with his wife, Larissa Porkhimovich, who is a financial auditor, and their two young children (he also has an older son from a previous relationship), and he said that he is most interested in simply harnessing ‘this gift I have, which has a magical effect.’

“It has taken some adjustment for his wife. ‘I think he really likes testing, trying things,’ she said. ‘It can be a little strange — sometimes I am in the house and I will just hear sounds, like a bird flying, but it is inside. But that is who he is.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Gordon Welters for The New York Times
Gennady Tkachenko-Papizh said he hopes to travel to London soon to work on recording an album. 

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You may recall that six grandmothers from the former Soviet Union competed in Eurovision. We blogged about them here. Loreen from Sweden won first prize, but the babushki came in second.

In a follow-up story in the NY Times, Andrew Kramer writes that the grandmas’ fame is bringing a modicum of prosperity to their forgotten village. In particular, it is rebuilding the church that Stalin destroyed and that they loved in secret. They chose to spend their winnings on the church.

“For years, Buranovo was a dying village, one of many in the Russian countryside left behind by an oil-driven boom that revitalized drab Soviet cities and drew the young away from the farms that had sustained their parents. …

“Now, the women’s good fortune is transforming not only their lives, but also Buranovo. In appreciation of the group’s near victory, the local government is building a water pipeline, installing streetlights and high-speed Internet for the village’s sole school and laying new gravel on the main roads. …

“It all began with a miracle, said Olga N. Tuktareva, the leader of the singing group …. Ms. Tuktareva recalled strolling about the village with a friend in 2008 and lamenting a sad episode in local history: the destruction of the Church of the Trinity, taken down like countless other churches in Stalin’s Russia. …

“During that walk, Ms. Tuktareva recalled, her cellphone rang. It was a music producer in Moscow who had heard of the singing babushki …”

Read more.

Photograph: Oleg Nikishin

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