Gender and Food in the Soviet Union


From Soviet food poster, c.1938

by Iryna Skubii

Seasoned Socialism: Gender and Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life,
edited by Anastasia Lakhtikova, Angela Brintlinger, Irina Glushchenko, 
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 373 pp.

Food is a window into any culture. In Soviet society, gender and food were always tightly interconnected, which looks like an ideal representation of the ambiguous nature of Communist ideology, as well as social and power relations. For early Soviet consumers, different everyday obstacles seemed to be temporal, while the reality of developed socialism forced many consumers to adjust to this scarce “stability” and develop everyday practices, skills, and norms of morality appropriate for survival or comfortable existence. Seasoned Socialism: Gender and Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life focuses on the paradoxes and contradictions inside a Soviet kitchen, various foodways, and food cultures in the late Soviet era. The book is interestingly crafted in three sections (comprising eleven essays) by its editors, Anastasia Lakhtikova, Angela Brintlinger, and Irina Glushchenko. It is an interdisciplinary collection of individual research findings, which represents the diverse spectrum of areas that could be included in food studies—from poetry to culinary cookbooks, from films to food places, from plants to prestigious foods, etc. Due to such a thought-provoking and stimulating approach, Seasoned Socialism is a much-needed contribution to the development of Soviet food studies.

The book starts with a comprehensive foreword written by Darra Goldstein, in which she explains in detail the basic features of Soviet everyday life with reference to scarcity, desire, and creativity, all of which constituted an integral part of the life of a Soviet consumer. What is also valuable is that she rightly emphasizes for prospective readers the presence of nostalgia in the personal recollections of late Soviet cooking and some socializing practices connected with the kitchen and food, a kind of “kitchen dissidence” (p. xv). Therefore, such still-vivid memories should be accessed critically, since, in this domain, researchers are dealing with personal emotions and feelings. Explaining the specifics of a Soviet kitchen world, she argues that they serve “as both backdrop and enabler,” which explains its social role, a role that should not be seen as a neutral space since inside of Soviet society food was performed rather than cooked or consumed (p. xvi).

The editors’ introduction provides readers with a fresh look at gender, food, and identities in Soviet society, which unites this volume under a common set of themes. This well-written and detailed part of the book serves as a window for understanding the specific features of Soviet food culture, consumption, and gender relations, and provides a thoughtful comparison between the sociology of choice in totalitarian and market economies. This section will be beneficial for newcomers to the field of Soviet consumption studies, as well as experienced scholars, based on its research approach. The other essays examine various spaces of food culture and gender identity, and are constructed around valuable case studies, sources, and fieldwork.

Adrianne K. Jacobs’s essay, intriguingly titled “Love, Marry, Cook: Gendering the Home Kitchen in Late Soviet Russia,” uncovers the dominant social norms and worldviews in Leonid Brezhnev-era Russia as influenced by the changing social climate, the increasing role of women in the workforce, and the changing norms of femininity. At the same time, the author traces the ambiguity of that period, since it was also a time when cookbooks were published for “young housewives” and included various secrets of good cooking, addressed explicitly to Soviet women. Notably, this essay uncovers for its readers, possibly unseen at first glance, thoughts about the social role of Soviet kitchens as sites for mother-daughter bonding and maternal love. As the author rightly points out, it was suggested that women should prepare special dishes for International Women’s Day but, at the same time, were advised to treat face dryness with a mask made from sour cream and yeast “to be the most festive and the most beautiful” (p. 39). Suggesting that such norms of gender relations in late Soviet society had not emerged from nowhere, Jacobs traces their roots to traditional Russian culture and women’s historical connections to food-preparation practices. Obviously, these assumptions could also be broadened to many kitchen cultures, among other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union. The analysis of two famous Soviet melodramas, A Train Station for Two (Vokzal dlia dvoikh, 1983) and Love and Doves (Liubov’ i goluby, 1985), provides a remarkable example of the social power of food and women’s cooking skills in their families and romantic relations. However, the author acknowledges other films in which men also cooked, which created a different food and gender discourse but did not change the dominant view of a kitchen as a female space for social practices.

The other side of a gender ambivalence is examined by Glushchenko in her essay about the challenges of women’s emancipation from patriarchal relations based on the plots of late Soviet films. Similarly to the previous author, she highlights the basic contradictions of gender equality in examples of cinema culture: Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, 1980), Take Care of the Men! (Beregite muzhchin!, 1982), and The Season to Make Wishes (Vremia zhelanii, 1984). Overall, like Jacobs, Glushchenko concludes that, in the case of Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, a male hero reforms his counterparts, turning them into “real women” (p. 68). The two other examples also present a picture of how a successful and emancipated woman “accepts the logic of patriarchal family” (p. 74). However, the ambiguity of women’s role in households did not lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union; on the contrary, as the author concludes, in post-Soviet society, neoliberal reforms had a more negative impact on their equality.

The first section concludes with a thought-provoking essay written by Lakhtikova, who focuses her study on personal cookbooks as an essential part of a woman’s material world and cooking culture in Soviet society. Unlike previous essays, she does not explain failures in achieving social equality as being related to the “double burden” on women. Acknowledging the existence of such realities, she forces readers to think beyond the existing paradigm, which fails to explain the entire world of women’s power relations with society and the state. Writing about the importance of imagination as essential to women’s cooking skills, she suggests that readers examine brilliant examples of personal cookbooks, undoubtedly rich sources for food scholars, in order to understand the peculiarities of Soviet everyday life. Lakhtikova suggests looking beyond the “kitchen tyranny,” not only relating it to women’s powerlessness but also interpreting it as an opportunity to present their cooking achievements and to attract the necessary attention for being a good hostess (p. 94). Providing a valuable theoretical background, she suggests perceiving women’s cooking practices as performative behavior, as cooking for an audience, used to develop their social interactions and networking, but also as something that was taken for granted by society. The obvious questions raised by this essay relate to the post-Soviet culinary practices of women. As a rich cultural artifact, a woman’s cookbook could not disappear with the collapse of the Soviet Union; on the contrary, it could be seen as preparation for the difficult 1990s, which required from women even more cooking aspiration and reinforcement, leading to such cookbooks becoming a source of intergenerational knowledge.

The second section of the volume focuses on resistance and compliance within Soviet food culture in the late Soviet era. Three essays focus on particular types of foods, either ordinary or prestigious, while a fourth is devoted to a particular social space—the summer cottage (dacha)—and, in particular, to a strong gender division of labor within this area, “a male gatherer” and “a female preparer” (Melissa L. Caldwell). However, all this section’s essays focus on a common feature—gendered practices, the social messages of goods, and power relations, whether concerning the consumption of the prestigious (Olena Stiazhkina) or ordinary foods and drinks (Benjamin Sutcliffe on cake and cabbage; Lidia Levkovitch on vodka). These chapters are not about a particular type of food but mainly present the authors’ reflections about the emerging role of women, for instance, in the gender-specific acquisition strategies for prestigious foods or the official anti-alcohol campaign. As suggested by Stiazhkina, there existed a particular group of consumers, “Others” or “sated people,” whose emergence became a noticeable feature at that time. Interestingly, inside this group, the routine of everyday practices was not the same, including gender relations, as “neither they nor their ‘other women’ stood in lines” (p. 135). This clearly shows that it is not possible to apply the theory of the “double burden” to the whole of Soviet society as if it was a homogeneous entity. It is useful to bear in mind Levkovitch’s concluding remarks, as she suggests reconsidering the traditional understanding of the feminine sphere as quietly subversive, which could also be applied broadly for further studies of gender and social relations in Soviet society.

The third section is constructed around the idea of the semiotics of scarcities, the ritual uses of food, and their gender dimensions. Each of the four essays presents different research that focuses on discussions around the proper usage of food and resourcefulness in the Soviet Union: from women’s dieting to the collection of plants in a labor camp, or from the consumption of cabbage to leftovers in still-life poetry. This section starts with a fascinating and noteworthy discussion of scarcity and the dietary regime of women under late socialism, which is based on the Russian edition of 100 Minutes for Beauty by Zofia Węndrowska (initially published in 1968 in Polish, and which, since 1973, has had several editions published in the USSR). Ksenia Gusarova, the author of this essay, concludes that the book became an example of “subtle moral and ideological influence…, instrumental in promoting the system of values … that to a large extent defined the social and cultural norms of late socialism” by practicing so-called elective ascetism (p. 240).

One of the unexpected gems of this section is Ona Renner-Fahey’s piece on plants and women’s manipulation of foodways in a late Soviet labor camp. Based on Irina Ratushinskaya’s memoir, this essay uncovers female survival strategies, knowledge and use of plants, and the gender ethic of care. An especially promising research focus is the author’s interest in plants as survival resources of women imprisoned in labor camps, which represents a very promising topic for further research. The third essay is explicitly devoted to cabbage as a source of sustenance and a highly symbolic food in Russian cuisine, as the heart of the family, as well as its links to women’s lives, power, and identity, which the author and co-editor of this volume, Brintlinger, decided to analyze using examples from diverse Soviet texts—cookbooks, fiction, and fairy tales. The section ends with a case study about everyday obstacles and material needs in Nonna Slepakova’s Soviet-era poetry, thoughtfully compiled by Amelia Glaser. According to the author, this still-life writing is a poetic system for analyzing the postwar Soviet domestic sphere, represented by byt (quotidian), leftover foods, everyday objects, and female experiences, and which also reflects the essence of ambient reality and constructs the realist image without promoting an ideological agenda. It should be noted that, obviously, the idea of placing leftovers at the center of research is fascinating and requires special elaboration in the context of Soviet food studies and social history broadly.

This rich and through-provoking volume concludes with the afterword written by Diane P. Koenker. She suggests that readers consider “how the distinctive economic and social realities of late socialism shaped a particular consumer regime,” which places the book within the broader field of consumer studies (p. 320). By describing the key results of each essay, she analyzes them from controversial perspectives, such as thinking about class in a classless society, as well as analyzing the process of preparation and serving food using the dichotomy of work and leisure. As a result, readers are urged to explore the diverse meanings of food, gender, things, and late socialist ideology, which leads to her concluding remarks about the paradoxes of the female social role of serving at home, with no respect outside its invisible borders in the Soviet social market.

To conclude, Seasoned Socialism presents the latest collaborative achievements in the field of Soviet food history, which reflects the changes in the modern historiography, moving from an everyday-life approach to a more complex and nuanced way of presenting the ambiguous features of Soviet social reality, consumer culture, and gender relations. The volume makes a significant and long-awaited interdisciplinary contribution to the areas of consumption, material culture, gender, film, and poetry studies. It is a well-written and well-organized collection of approaches to understanding the nuances of Soviet food and gender relations, as well as food cultures under socialism; it is, therefore, highly recommended to anyone interested in these areas of study. Each scholar contributes to the general topic suggested by the editors by adding to the overall picture their own research focus and lens, which makes the volume a rich collection of thoughts about the diversity of food cultures and modes of gender relations in late Soviet society.

Piece first published at H-Net Reviews under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.