The History and Culture of Food and Drink: Russia

K David Patterson. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Dietary patterns in Russia display marked continuities over most of the past millennium or so. Staple foodstuffs have remained remarkably constant, and despite the introduction of new foods and beverages in later centuries and the gradual eclipse of a few items, the diets of the vast majority of the population underwent little qualitative change until well into the nineteenth century. Russia, relatively isolated from the West until the reigns of Peter I and Catherine in the eighteenth century, was as conservative in its cuisine as it was in politics and society, and the sharp gap between rich and poor was reflected in what they ate and drank.

Russia is defined for the purposes of this study as the lands inhabited by the modern eastern Slavic peoples, the Belorussians in the west, the Ukrainians in the south, and the Russians in the north and center of “European Russia.” Brief mention is made of the Baltic, Transcaucasian, Siberian, and central Asian peoples, primarily as their foods influenced the diets of their Slavic rulers in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Imperial Russia also controlled Finland and much of Poland during the nineteenth century, but these areas are not considered here.

Peoples ancestral to the modern eastern Slavs apparently began spreading out from their homeland in the territory near the modern borders of Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine around the seventh century. They moved into the forests of central and northern Russia at the expense of scattered Finnic peoples, most of whom were eventually absorbed or displaced. Expansion into the grasslands of the Ukraine and beyond was much slower because the steppes were dominated by pastoral peoples of Turkic and Mongol stock. The medieval Kievan state was able to hold the horsemen at bay for a while, but by the twelfth century the Slavs began to retreat northward under nomad pressure. Not until the sixteenth century was the new Muscovite state strong enough to begin the reconquest of the Ukraine and extend Russian power down the Volga. Traditional Russian cuisine developed in the forest zone but was profoundly influenced by expansion into the grasslands and along trade routes.

Early Russian Diets

Archaeological evidence indicates that the early Slavic inhabitants of the forest, like their Finnic neighbors, were farmers who used slash-and-burn techniques to make clearings for their villages and farms. Their primary grain was rye; oats, buckwheat, and barley played secondary roles, and wheat was always uncommon in the north. Grain was consumed primarily as bread, including the famous Russian black rye bread, but gruels (kasha) and porridges were common as well. Noodles were borrowed from the Tatars in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Grain was also converted into beverages ranging from the virtually nonalcoholic kvas to light beer (braga) and beer.

A variety of fruits and vegetables were also grown. Turnips, hardy enough to thrive in the harsh northern climate, were an important root crop; carrots, beets, and radishes were also significant. Garlic and onions were common seasonings. Cabbages and cucumbers were important in diets, both fresh or preserved by pickling or in salt. Such preparations provided the main supply of vegetables during the long winter and were essential as antiscorbutics. Cabbage soup (shchi) was and remains a dietary staple. There was at least limited cultivation of apple and cherry orchards from very early times.

The long winters created severe forage problems that precluded large-scale stock raising, but limited numbers of cows, horses, pigs, chickens, and ducks were kept. Possession of livestock was a measure of family wealth. Slaughtering was usually done in the fall. Milk, meat, and eggs were scarce and expensive and generally appeared in meals on feast days and festivals. Hard cheeses were not important, but cottage cheese was fairly common.

The forests also supplied many foods. Game animals provided welcome meat, especially in areas with sparse populations. Ducks, geese, and other birds were widely hunted and traded. Fish, fresh from local streams and ponds, or traded in salted or dried form, were the major source of animal protein. Wild nuts and berries provided seasonal variety, and mushroom gathering was and remains a popular activity. The forest was also a habitat for bees, whose hives were raided for wax and honey. The latter was a prized sweetener and was often fermented into mead. Bee-keeping eventually became a lucrative sideline for some farmers.

Salt, crucial for preserving fish, meat, and vegetables, was mined in rock form in a few places and was later obtained from the sea in the Crimea and salt lakes near Astrakhan at the mouth of the Volga. The major sources of salt, however, were well north of Moscow. Boiling seawater to crystalline salt was being done on the White Sea by the twelfth century, and salt production developed into an important industry in this remote region. By the fourteenth century wells were being drilled to tap underground brine pools at many sites between Moscow and the White Sea. Salt was an essential commodity and its production and trade were lucrative and heavily taxed enterprises.

In the tundra zone of the far north, from the Lapps (Saami) of the Kola Peninsula to the Chuckchi in extreme northeastern Siberia, Russian fur traders and pioneers encountered peoples who survived by hunting land and sea mammals, fishing, and herding reindeer. Further south, in the Siberian taiga forest, aboriginal peoples like the Yakuts supplemented hunting and fishing with stock raising. Russians venturing into such environments had, of course, to adapt to local conditions, but they traded with their countrymen for grain and introduced bread and other grain products, including fermented and distilled beverages, to their northern neighbors.

Daily diets were strongly influenced by religious requirements and the seasons. Conversion to Christianity, traditionally dated to 988, had a profound impact on food consumption patterns. The Orthodox calendar included a large number of feast and fast days which, to the amazement of some foreign observers, were widely observed. Church fasts included Lent, the 40 days before Christmas, and the Saints Peter and Paul fast. This fast, which ended on June 28 and could last from one to six weeks, depending on when Easter fell, came at a time when stored food was running low and caloric demands for agricultural work were very high.

Meat was forbidden during all fasts; fish and all foods of animal origin were forbidden during Lent. Wealthy Russians, however, frequently enjoyed elaborate fish dishes and fine wines during fast periods. Feast days, including Christmas, Easter, weddings, harvest celebrations, and, sometimes, funerals, were the major occasions for eating meat, pastries, and other rarities and for hearty drinking bouts. Binge drinking, and to some extent, binge eating, were regular features of Russian life, reflecting both the agricultural cycle and religious observances.

Peasants ate best in the fall, when the new harvest was gathered and animals were slaughtered. Mushrooms were hunted all over Russia and the Ukraine. They were both a prized food and an excuse for convivial excursions. The autumn was a common time for weddings and associated feasts. Fresh fruits and vegetables were available during the warmer months, but stored grain, pickled cabbage, and salted cucumbers were the winter staples. Food supplies often ran low in the spring; diminished stores and religious fasts meant lean meals during plowing and planting time in the late spring.

The conquest of the entire Volga River to its mouth on the Caspian Sea, completed by 1569, placed Russia in an advantageous position to trade for spices, notably pepper, saffron, and cinnamon. Melons and fruits from central Asia became more accessible, and the empire gained new sources of salt. The Volga and its tributaries provided a rich variety of fish, including sturgeon and its caviar and the sterlets, a variety of small sturgeon that delighted both Russian and visiting foreign gourmands. Fish were sold dried or salted and even transported live in special boats for the tables of the Tsar and other notables. Frozen fish were widely distributed during the winter. Pirogi (sing. pirog), pastries filled with meat, fish, or other delicacies, and pel’meni, small Siberian dumplings, probably entered the Russian diet during the sixteenth century. They may have been borrowed from Finnic or Tatar peoples of the Volga valley.

Russia slowly and erratically expanded into the Ukraine and southern Russia during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. The conquest of these rich black-earth grasslands provided the basis for extensive wheat cultivation and a growing export of grain. Ukrainians and Russian colonists were able to raise more fruit and vegetables in these milder climes and to keep more livestock. Meat, though not milk, played a larger role in diets. Beets were a popular crop, and beet soup (borshch) held the place of cabbage soup (shchi) in the Ukrainian cuisine. Beets were also made into kvas, which was not only a beverage but a common stock for Ukrainian soups and stews. Large quantities of watermelons and eggplants were grown in some districts for local consumption and for trade.

The Eighteenth Century

The eighteenth century was a period of change in Russian diets, particularly among the elite, as many new foodstuffs were introduced. Peter the Great’s opening to the West, symbolized by his construction of a new capital on the recently conquered shores of the Baltic, and complemented by the modernizing policies of Catherine at the end of the century, exposed the growing Russian Empire to an array of new foods and drinks from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. European, especially French, chefs appeared in many noble homes, and gourmet cooking spread among courtiers and other members of the elite. The first Russian cookbook appeared in 1779; it was followed by many translations of German and French cookbooks, sometimes adapted to local ingredients and tastes.

A few Russians learned to eat salads, an innovation dismissed by others as the equivalent of eating grass. The Dutch had introduced asparagus in the 1600s; at the end of the century a French visitor was treated to “dates from Egypt” by a clergyman in the far north. Tea, coffee, sugar, and the tomato were introduced among the upper classes. Elegant finger foods for hors d’oeuvres (zakuski) provided refreshment at receptions.

Wine had always been imported in small quantities by the church for communion and had occasionally graced the tables of the elite, but in the eighteenth century wines from Europe, and later from Armenia, Georgia, and parts of the southern Ukraine, gained popularity in gentry homes. Distilled spirits, first introduced from the Baltic and Poland in the 1500s, began to displace mead and beer, even in some poor households. Tea, known as a curiosity from the seventeenth century, was brewed in ornate samovars in the homes of the rich and in new urban cafés during the 1700s, and tea drinking began to percolate down the social scale. Tea was often served with cane sugar from the West Indies. Sugar, a major import by the late 1700s, gradually replaced honey as a sweetener, first in the homes of the wealthy, and then, like tea and vodka, it spread to more humble abodes.

Two other New World cultigens reached Russia during the eighteenth century. The potato, as in Ireland and Hungary (and like cassava in western Africa), was introduced to prevent famines. Catherine issued an edict recommending its cultivation after a dearth in food production in 1765, but this directive garnered little response except in the Baltic provinces dominated by German nobles, who took more interest in the tuber and made sure that their Baltic peasants did, too. For decades, however, the potato was scorned by the Slavic peasantry, remaining only a curiosity on the tables of sophisticates. Maize, introduced into eastern Europe in the eighteenth century and a staple crop in Hungary, Serbia, and Romania by the nineteenth century, remained insignificant in Russia, except in Bessarabia (Moldova) in the far southwest.

The tradition of keeping foreign dignitaries busy with lengthy banquets, featuring numerous rich dishes served in a seemingly endless sequence and even more numerous alcoholic toasts, reached a high stage of development during this period. Such ostentatious hospitality, already given mixed notice by sixteenth-century English and Dutch visitors, has continued until the present. The foreigners were well treated, kept in a haze during their visit, and distracted from seeing or hearing things that their hosts preferred they not know about.

The Nineteenth Century

Dietary innovations began to reach the peasantry, the vast majority of the population, only in the nineteenth century. The gradual spread of sugar beets and tomatoes in the Ukraine and southern Russia, and potatoes, especially in northern and central regions, did make something of a difference in the nutritional regimen. Still, dietary surveys and travelers’ reports indicate strong continuity in the consumption patterns of most Russians. Tastes in beverages underwent more significant change as tea and vodka became widely used at all levels of society.

Bread, generally the familiar dark rye loaf, remained the staff of life. Wheat bread became a little more common, especially in the Black Earth areas of the Ukraine and in the Volga provinces, but most wheat was produced for export. A working man commonly ate 3 to 5 pounds of bread daily. Kasha was also a frequent dish. On feast days, and sometimes more often in prosperous households, dough was used to make pirogi filled with meat, cottage cheese, cabbage, or berries; or blini, thin yeast-leavened pancakes rolled up and filled with sweets or smothered in butter and sour cream; or knyshi, pastry puffs filled with cream.

Cabbage and cucumbers were the most important vegetables, but serf and free-peasant gardens generated a variety of produce. Onions and garlic continued to be popular seasonings, and peas, melons, berries, turnips, and other garden produce were appreciated during the summer. Oils from hemp, flax, and sunflower seeds (another American introduction) were used in cooking. Mushrooms, nuts, and berries were collected in the forest and could be salted or dried for the winter. Apiaries, providing honey, were common, and many peasants kept pigs, sheep, and/or poultry. The diet was monotonous and often lacked protein, especially for the poor. A rural doctor in the 1860s blamed the bad health of peasants in Pskov Province largely on their diet, which was mostly rye bread and cabbage. However, a study of villages in Tambov Province suggested that serfs in the early nineteenth century had better diets than contemporary French or Belgian peasants. In particular, these rural Russians enjoyed more meat.

The most important addition to the diets of most nineteenth-century Russians was the potato. Except in the Baltic and Polish provinces, potato cultivation was negligible until the 1830s. The peasants saw no need for them, especially since land and labor would have to be diverted from rye, and some even opposed potatoes on religious grounds. But government interest in and encouragement of potato cultivation grew after famines in the 1830s to the extent that heavy-handed official pressure produced several potato riots. By 1843, however, a German traveler, Baron von Haxthausen, noted that potatoes were being introduced into parts of Yaroslavl Province. Some peasants were interested in the tubers, others were coerced into planting them, and potato cultivation spread slowly. Nobles sometimes used them to feed livestock. In general, the potato spread into Belorussia and the northwestern provinces during the 1840s and 1850s, and thence into most of northern and central Russia and the Ukraine. By 1900 it had become a staple in most areas, often eaten in soup.

Meat and dairy products remained too expensive for most peasants, but the growing towns provided a market for cattle and milk. Milk and butter were most extensively consumed in the Baltics and in the north; peasants in the south and in the Ukraine generally had more meat. Even in areas of the south and southeast with large cattle herds, few peasants ate beef. Cattle were destined for urban markets. Peasants were more likely to eat pork, mutton, or poultry, the frequency of such meals being directly correlated with household wealth. Fish remained an important food during the numerous fasts, especially for those living near rivers and lakes or wealthy enough to purchase dried or salted fish.

Diets of the gentry were obviously richer and more diversified than those of the peasantry, but they varied greatly according to wealth and individual preference. City dwellers, including the merchant and artisan groups, had access to more imported foods and items from distant parts of the empire than all but the most opulent country residents. Many nobles spent the summers on their estates, where fresh foods were readily available, and wintered in the city. Even the petty rural landowner tended to take afternoon tea with pastries, biscuits, cheeses, caviar, jellies, jams, and other snacks, and have a heavy evening meal.

Hospitality was generous on country estates, and guests could expect to be well fed. Picnics were popular on pleasant days. In the evening, diners enjoyed zakuski, followed by a soup course with pirogi, a fish or poultry course often served cold, and a meat course with potatoes and vegetables. Salads remained unusual. Beef was especially popular with those who could afford it. Appropriate wines and champagnes might be served with each course. A meal would be capped by sweets and cognac or a dessert wine. Wealthy nobles sometimes maintained fishponds and built hothouses to provide fruits and vegetables off-season and ice-houses to preserve them. Rich and even middle-class Russians employed skilled cooks, sometimes specially trained serfs, in their kitchens. A French- or Paris-trained chef was a mark of distinction. Conspicuous food consumption, the use of luxury foods and beverages from abroad, and elaborate meals for guests were marks of high status and gentility.

Servants in great houses ate less grandly, though they did have access to leftovers and could sometimes appropriate items meant for the master’s table. Still, if the recommendations of the leading nineteenth-century cookbook are any indication, household servants ate better than the peasants. For breakfast they might have had potatoes with fried eggs or porridge; dinner menus included shchi with buckwheat kasha, or borshch with dumplings, or barley soup and roast beef with mashed potatoes, or vegetable soup with a meat and barley kasha. On feast days servants were to have meat or poultry and assorted pirogi.

Alcoholic Beverages

Patterns of beverage consumption showed some dramatic changes in the nineteenth century. Kvas, a barely alcoholic product of bread or grain fermentation over a few days, was the basic daily drink and an important part of the diet. It was widely made and consumed in the home and dispensed by peddlers in towns and markets. Kvas could be produced from barley, oats, rye, and wheat, or, in the Ukraine, from beets, and was sometimes flavored with berries or fruit. It was most popular in central Russia and Siberia. There were numerous regional varieties.

Light beer (braga) and beer were popular, especially in the Baltics, Belorussia, and the Ukraine, but were less widely consumed in Russia and Siberia. Much was home-brewed, but taverns selling commercial beers appeared in the villages and towns. The state levied heavy taxes on commercial beer. Mead continued to decline and became a rarity by midcentury. Tea drinking, accompanied by sugar, spread slowly but became widespread in the villages by the 1880s.

The drink that became most popular, most destructive, most controversial, and most profitable for the government was vodka. According to legend, Vladimir of Kiev, the ruler who chose Orthodox Christianity as the new religion in 988, rejected Islam because strong drink was “the joy of the Rus.” Small-scale distilleries began operating in the late sixteenth century in the Baltic region and along the trade routes between Moscow and the White Sea port of Archangelsk, but vodka, “little water,” did not begin to make inroads in the general population until the second half of the eighteenth century.

Distillation of grain was a monopoly of the state and privileged nobles and was heavily taxed. As early as the 1720s, liquor taxes made up 11 percent of government revenues; the percentage had almost doubled by midcentury. In 1767 liquor monopolies in central Russia were sold to contractors and, except for a brief period of state monopoly in the 1820s, liquor farmers controlled the trade in central Russia until 1863. The farmers operated small drinking places scattered in the villages and towns. Their profits, although extensive, were reduced by the sums they paid the government for their local monopolies and by bribes paid to officials of all ranks.

From 1863 until the 1890s the state again assumed a monopoly to raise additional revenues, after which free trade and an excise tax system were introduced. During the period from 1805 to 1913, receipts from alcohol sales, primarily vodka, averaged 31.4 percent of all state revenues. Free trade prevailed in the western provinces, keeping prices lower and, thus, consumption higher. In the early twentieth century, state production of a uniform product at relatively low cost also encouraged greater consumption.

Social commentators, doctors, church leaders, and sometimes even government officials displayed growing concern over alcoholism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Vodka was the problem, not kvasor beer. Russians consumed 40 times more alcohol in the form of spirits than as beer or ale. Indeed, per capita beer consumption in the 1850s was less than 2 liters a year, far below the roughly 20 liters in the Polish provinces or 50 liters in Britain. Yet per capita vodka consumption was no higher than the use of distilled spirits in other European countries. As in early-nineteenth-century America, the problem was binge drinking; drinking simply to get drunk.

Drinking remained, as in previous centuries, partially linked to social and religious rituals and to mutual-aid activities like barn raisings or group harvest efforts. Cultural restraints on alcohol consumption, however, tended to weaken in the countryside and were especially weak in the cities. Contemporary observers decried the impact of the taverns on family and economic life and on the health of heavy drinkers. Reform efforts were hampered by the crucial role that vodka played in state finance. But concern was clearly rising, and in 1914 Russia embarked on a widely ignored experiment in prohibition.

The Soviet Period

The revolutions of 1917 inaugurated several years of severe food shortages. The new Bolshevik regime inherited food production and distribution difficulties as well as the alcohol problem from its Tsarist predecessor. These were compounded by World War I, the bloody Civil War, and the flounderings of the new regime. Despite many drastic policy changes, Russian patterns of eating and drinking showed substantial continuity with the past.

The industrial north continued to be a grain-deficit region with cities and rural dwellers that had to be supplied from the south and, increasingly, from Kazakhstan and Siberia. Improvements in internal transportation facilitated grain flows and allowed fruits and vegetables to reach European Russia from the Transcaucasian and central Asian republics. Much of central Asia, especially Uzbekistan, became a food deficit area with an economy based on cotton mono-culture. Collectivization of agriculture, conducted during the 1930s at great human cost, did not solve the grain production problem, nor did the plowing of “virgin lands” or massive attempts to grow maize during the post-Stalin period.

Grain imports from the West have been necessary almost annually since the 1960s. Livestock production and meat consumption increased but continued to lag far behind Western norms, although in the years after World War II, efficient Russian fishing fleets roamed distant seas, providing more fish for Soviet consumption. Government policies kept food prices artificially low, with rationing and inflation masked by periodic shortages and long lines in shops.

Collective farmers were allowed to work small plots for their own profit. These intensively worked gardens produced a large proportion of the meat, eggs, milk, and fresh fruits and vegetables that appeared in urban markets. Armenian, Georgian, and central Asian entrepreneurs even found it profitable to bring melons and other produce from their sunny climes to the cold cities of northern Russia.

Rural diets did not begin to show major changes until after 1953, and even by 1960 there was remarkable continuity with prerevolutionary times. Table V.C.7.1, calculated from data presented by Basile Kerblay, demonstrates that (except for legumes, which are not shown), rural consumption levels in 1940 were still a little below averages prevailing at the end of the Tzarist rule. Cereals, potatoes, vegetable oils, sugar, meat, and fish were consumed in lower quantities in 1940 than before the revolution; people ate only marginally more vegetables, dairy products, and eggs.

In 1913, vegetable foods provided 84.2 percent of calories consumed by peasants, and 62.8 percent of the total came from cereals. In 1960 the comparable figures were 80 percent from plant sources, with 56 percent from grains. The most important change from 1940 to 1960 was the greater share of calories provided by vegetable oils and sugar. Consumption of foods of animal origin, especially fish and eggs, had increased significantly in the postwar years.

Official consumption data averaged for the entire population of the Soviet Union are shown for 1913, 1965, 1970, and 1976 in Table V.C.7.2. Quantities of meat, eggs, fish, dairy products, vegetables, fruits and berries, and sugar rose dramatically, with major gains in eggs and dairy products in the decade after 1965. Grains contributed less, with most of the decline coming before 1965. Government data paint a picture very much like those of Kerblay.

As in Tsarist Russia, members of the elite in the Soviet Union enjoyed a far greater variety and higher quality of foods and beverages than the bulk of the population. Ranking party officials and favored athletes, dancers, scientists, musicians, and other prominent persons had access to the finest domestic and foreign goods in special stores that were off-limits to workers and peasants. Such privileges marked a new elite and gave them excellent reasons to conform to the system.

Although food prices were heavily subsidized for most of the Soviet period, Russians continued to devote a substantial, though declining percentage of their incomes to food. Data for urban workers and employees of collective farms, presented for the period from 1940 to 1990 in Table V.C.7.3, show steady declines for both groups. It is interesting to note that the poorly paid farmers had to spend a higher proportion of their incomes for food than did urban contemporaries. Many toiled on farms that specialized in grain or cotton production, but even those who raised crops for themselves on private plots still had to buy much of their food.

Urbanization has been a major theme in the twentieth-century history of Russia, and urban diets have undergone somewhat more change than those of rural areas. Most of the improvements have come since the late 1940s, following the horrors of collectivization, forced industrialization, and World War II. City dwellers do consume a wider variety of foodstuffs than in the past, and the amount of foods of animal origin has increased significantly. Indeed, greater livestock production became a major goal with Stalin’s successors. Still, travelers and medical observers continue to describe a diet heavy in starches and low in fresh vegetables and fruits. Throughout the post-1945 period, production problems and a primitive distribution system have meant periodic shortages and long lines in shops. Meat and poultry remain expensive and of low quality. Sausage is a major component of meat consumption. Fat intake has risen and is, along with alcohol, implicated in rising rates of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.

The Soviet regime never solved the alcohol problem it inherited from Tsarist times. Prohibition collapsed during the war, and with the establishment of stability in the early 1920s, old drinking habits reappeared. During the 1920s and 1930s there were intensive efforts to reduce drinking both in cities and in the countryside, but these had little impact. Officials decried the adverse effects of excess drinking on production and health, but the state continued to reap huge revenues from liquor sales. For example, during the 1960s and 1970s, taxes on alcohol produced about 10 percent of the state’s income. Home distillation began in earnest during the Soviet period, as people coped with high prices and poor-quality state production and evaded periodic temperance campaigns by making samogon. Normal vodka had an average alcohol content of 40 percent; the alcohol content in samogon ranged from 25 to 75 percent. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, ethanol shortages led many to consume stolen wood alcohol, with sometimes fatal results. Cheap sugar, available from Cuba from the early 1960s, was a boon to samogon producers.

Officials continued to decry the costs of alcohol abuse, and in the 1980s both Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to control sales and enforce moderation in drinking habits, but their campaigns had little success. Indeed, as Figure V.C.7.1 shows, per capita alcohol consumption rose steadily and alarmingly in the years from 1955 to 1979, and it has remained high since then. Beer, braga, and wine consumption were clearly eclipsed by “strong” distilled beverages, although use of the former also rose. The heaviest drinkers were males in the Baltic and Slavic republics, especially Russia, Estonia, and Latvia. Per capita consumption was less in the traditional Islamic regions and in the wine-producing republics of Armenia and Georgia.

In 1970 it was estimated that Soviet citizens over the age of 15 spent an average of 13 percent of their incomes on state-produced alcoholic beverages. For Russia, the figure was 15.8 percent. These estimates do not include samogon or home-produced beer or wine. It is not surprising that health officials have placed much of the blame for high death rates among middle-aged and elderly Slavic males on alcohol abuse. Acute alcohol poisoning killed almost 40,000 people in 1976, a rate almost 90 times that of the United States. The impact of alcoholism on diseases of the liver and the cardiovascular system was also much greater than in the United States.


A final aspect of food history in Russia must be mentioned: famine. In Russia, as in most other preindustrial societies, bad weather and war often resulted in serious food shortages, sometimes over large regions. In contrast to the Western experience, however, famines continued to ravage Russia until the mid-twentieth century. Major famines have been recorded from the tenth century until 1946-7; even in the nineteenth century there were famines or serious, widespread food shortages in roughly one year out of five. Bad weather, primarily cold in the north and drought in the south and in the Volga provinces, triggered many famines, but war and government policies frequently compounded or, sometimes, even created them.

Other factors made Russia particularly vulnerable to dearths. The deep poverty of most Russians meant that personal food reserves were usually inadequate to carry families over bad years. Many of the central provinces suffered serious rural overpopulation by the nineteenth century; seasonal labor migration to cities or richer agricultural areas and permanent migration to the Volga region and Siberia were inadequate safety valves. The Tsarist government made some efforts to monitor agricultural conditions and store grain for emergencies, yet lack of revenue and bureaucratic ineptitude hampered relief efforts. The government was usually too weak to control hoarding and speculation, even when it tried. But fortunately Russia was so large that the whole country could not be affected by the same adverse weather conditions or, usually, the same war or disorders, so there were always food surplus regions that could supply suffering provinces.

Large-scale movement of foodstuffs was, however, hindered by huge distances and a backward transportation system. Even the development of a national rail network in the late nineteenth century, although certainly helpful, was inadequate to meet needs. When frosts came too early or too late, or when the rains failed, peasants tightened their belts. They adulterated bread with a variety of wild plants and weeds, collected what they could from woods and fields as famine foods, and slaughtered their animals. Frequent dearths and the vagaries of the annual dietary cycle gave the peasants ample opportunity to learn to cope with food shortages.

Despite folk wisdom, peasant toughness, and relief efforts, the death tolls from famine were sometimes enormous. The 1891-2 famine killed roughly 400,000 people, despite government relief measures that were far more successful than critics of the regime would admit. Millions perished in 1921-2 when famine, caused by drought, the devastation of the Civil War, and ideologically driven state policies, swept the Volga provinces and part of the Ukraine. Only massive aid from the United States and Europe prevented a much greater catastrophe. The horrible famine of 1933-4, which ravaged most of the Ukraine and parts of the Volga basin and the northern Caucasus, was the direct result of Joseph Stalin’s drive to collectivize agriculture and destroy the more prosperous stratum of the peasantry. Death tolls are currently being debated, but it is clear that several million perished. Similarly, the postwar famine of 1946-7, which killed at least several hundred thousand people, owed more to recollectivization of zones liberated from the Germans and government reconstruction priorities than to dry weather.


It would be wrong to conclude this survey on such a bleak note, especially as the Russian, Belarussian, and Ukrainian peoples are attempting to create new economic and political orders. Privatization of agriculture and free retail trade should bring better quality and more variety to grocery shelves. Russia is once again open to new dietary influences, ranging from McDonald’s, Pepsi, and pizza to haute cuisine from France. By the same token, Russian foods, from caviar and beef Stroganoff to pirogi and borshch, have enriched the cuisines of many countries as Russian, Ukrainian, and Jewish migrants have brought them to Europe and North America.