The Art of Soviet Cooking and Edible Ethnicity

These two readings conveyed some very different ideas about food as part of the Soviet experience. One thing Scott chose to highlight in the “Edible Ethnicity” reading was the importance of the ritual in food consumption, highlighting the importance of the tamada and the toast. Where to we see the social or ritual elements of eating and drinking in both readings?

One of the moments that stuck out for me in the Von Brezmen chapters was the description of her mother looking at the kulebiaka recipe and crossing things, stating, “Mom started scribbling over it furiously, shaking her head, muttering, ‘Ne nashe’ – not ours” (42).This seemed to convey a strong message about the Soviet experience and how it has shaped the author’s relationship to food. What image does this convey, and where else do we see it or similar ideas both in this reading and the “Edible Ethnicity” reading?

Finally, Von Bremzen has an interesting writing style and unique way of capturing her message about food and the Soviet experience. For example, the use of the kulebiaka throughout the chapters, and the references to Russian literature. What are some characteristics of her writing style, and what work does it do in telling her story?

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SCOTT, EDIBLE ETHNICITY: Consumption is my favorite buzz word

“Far from being simply an administrative category, ethnicity itself became edible, and Sovietness something one could consume around the table.” As I did this reading, I kept thinking about what the organized attention to multi-ethnic cuisine meant for the Soviet imperial project. While this quote isn’t exactly what was on my mind the whole time, it does nicely encapsulate this strange line that was being toed. Food is interesting because eating is so integral to life, yet different cultures attach wildly different meanings to food and the procedures of eating. The centrality of Russian culture leaves room for the exotification and then popularization of Georgian cuisine.  I seems to me that this popular consumption was both a consumption of food and of Georgian culture.

This is a minor aside, but I was struck by how the consumption of Georgian food was so elitist, and then popularized because of its formerly elite status. I wonder how much of Georgian food’s status was directly correlated to Stalin’s status and how that correlation intersects with the exotification of Georgian food. Given that there was a Georgian diaspora of at least some substance, it isn’t as though those ingredients weren’t widely available because Georgian people and their culture weren’t around. I wish Scott had spoken on the status of Georgian people in the Soviet Union, and in Moscow, outside of the explicit context of the culinary scene. Scott says at some point that “the connotations of Georgian cuisine may have shifted over time, but its significance never faltered as it was welcomed into the Kremlin under Stalin, developed as an elite form of fine dining amid a return to luxury in the late 1930s, and popularized for the masses in the post-Stalinist period.” Again, I wish the treatment of common Georgian people was better explained, but I assume from this quote that Stalin’s status was a big decider in the popularization of Georgian food.

Back to my vague thesis-like statement, the public attitude towards Georgian food as something meant to be mass consumed is made to align with Soviet ideals. Scott notes: “one author profiling Kiknadze’s role in promoting Georgian cuisine wrote in Obshchestvennoe pitanie: “Soviet culinary workers affirm the rule that cuisine in our country never was and never will be a secretive [zamknutoi], isolated part of national culture. We can only welcome mutual cultural penetration [proniknovenie] and sharing; and the leading experts of national cuisine certainly should not keep their recipes a ‘mystery,’ passing them along like secrets only to the select few.”” This reads to me as a jab at the former elite status of Georgian cuisine among the Soviets, and also as a treatment of culinary culture as a kind of commodity that can be fairly distributed among the people. To take it further,  I think this is implicitly saying that culture of anyone belongs to everyone in the union.

Expanding beyond a strictly culinary focus, tourism in Georgia also has an air of exoticism, and a similar theme of access to an elite resource. Scott says “the development of Georgia’s tourist infrastructure in the post-Stalinist period made it possible for ordinary Soviets to get their own taste of the Georgian “good life.”” This may be just a function of how Scott said it(though I really don’t think it is), but this positioning of Georgia as a destination again centers Russia as basic and ordinary. To tie this back to my first paragraph, the “exotic” foods of the non Russian Soviet nations enrich the core of the Soviet Union, which is repeatedly implicitly and explicitly established as Russian (very notably so by Stalin, if you’ll recall his toast). They make it multinational, and spicy, and significant through their apparent diversity. And it is this fabricated quality of diversity that is produced as a narrative and consumed by the people along with their shashlik.

I’m basing my discussion question on this quote: “Soviet authorities in Georgia frequently criticized the vast amount of money spent on Georgian weddings as a “harmful tradition” and lampooned the conspicuous consumption of copious amounts of food and drink at the Georgian supra (feast) as an undesirable cultural trait. While the republic’s dining traditions provided [End Page 856] a rich repertoire for Georgian culinary specialists working in Soviet cities, they could sometimes appear jarring when experienced in their local context.”

My question is, where does the Soviet government draw the line on what is appropriate and consumable culture and what is against the Soviet project and why? And further, what makes a feast decadent, but not say a sculptural fountain in a desert city?

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Tashkent: Forging a Soviet City – The Home Stretch

Speaking about the Chilanzar apartment block, Paul Stronski claimed that the Soviet government “aimed to transform the city for the benefit of its residents, astonish its foreign visitors, and solidify the power of the state over city residents.” (221) This neatly summarizes the Soviet program in Tashkent as a whole.

Stronski presents evidence in our chapters that the Soviet government struggled to accomplish these goals. The “benefit of the citizens” was not upheld when designing Chilanzar, Stronski claims: “Tashkenters clearly were afterthoughts to these designs…. Once again, cities were not supposed to suit the customs of their inhabitants; inhabitants were supposed to transform their customs to suit the new Soviet city.” (223) One non-Uzbek visitor, Leonid Volynskii, described a scene that would not astonish but appall: “In place of paved pathways and green spaces for the relaxation of the region’s proposed 200,000 residents, garbage, automobile parts, and construction debris constituted the scene Volynskii describes…. residents had little refuge from the heat, noise and dirt of the Uzbek capital.” (221-222) Nor did the Soviet government always succeed in controlling the city residents fully, when, for example, single-family private housing continued to proliferate throughout Tashkent despite the official goal of moving residents into multi-family apartment complexes like Chilanzar. (224) Still, the state was showing signs of adapting policy in the 1960s, to recognize that “Crreating a Soviet city no longer concerned just bricks, mortar, and utopian designs. People, formerly ignored, gained recognition as important components of the urban environment.” (232)

With this in mind, a number of questions could be asked.

  • In instances where the Soviet program conflicted with the byt’ (native ways of life), what measures did the Soviets take, or could they have taken, to try to fulfill the three goals of benefiting residents, impressing visitors, and solidifying power?
  • Looking at the Gallery of Photographs, how did the latest constructions of Tashkent (page 106 and 111, for instance) contrast with models of Tashkent’s possible future development (page 106) and old Tashkent (112-113); and how do these images square up with the descriptions that Stronski gives us textually?
  • And finally, to what extent did the Uzbeks exert their agency to either resist or adapt to the compulsions of the state?
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Tashkent: Forging A Soviet City, and City Forging You

In contrast to Tsarist policy shown in Chapter 2, the Soviets aimed to break down the geographic, ethnic, and cultural segregation in Tashkent between the Uzbek Old City and the Russian newer area. Besides the squalid conditions endured in the Old City compared to the newer area, Soviet officials were also concerned by the regressive practices of Uzbek city dwellers, such as the segregation of women and the keeping of single family homes with apparently no entrances or welcome gate. To do this, the Soviets drafted numerous reconstruction plans for the city for many decades, with some projects coming into being, and others drying up. Some of these plans involved retouching and upkeeping what structures were already there, while other plans necessitated the destruction of parts of the city (even residences) in order to accommodate the vision of the architects.

But little effort was paid to mind the Tashkent natives’ own plans for the city; the Soviets pushed a Russian idea of urbanization and modernization onto the Uzbeks, whether they liked it or not. The failings of these programs the author details, such as food shortages, building material shortages, outbreak of disease, and destruction of buildings due to natural disaster.

Some questions to ask: How did the Soviets plan to balance the urgings of ideology for progress and the needs of the natives’ in tradition? What did the Soviets stand to gain, or achieve, by enforcing the planning and construction of the city with such input from the locals as they did? What were their failings, and where did they go wrong?

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Uzbek Music’s Separate Path: Interpreting ‘Anticosmopolitanism’ in Stalinist Central Asia and Stalin’s Music Prize

Kiril Tomoff in his text mentions the “Kul’tura i zhizn’” articles. According to Tomoff, these articles considered certain cosmopolitan authors of music textbooks betrayers, because the authors devalued classical Russian music criticism and underestimated the accomplishments of nineteenth-century Russian composers. For instance, Tomoff writes that the soviet officials disliked that the authors’ work held that Russian compositions were derivative of earlier achievements in Western European music rather than innovative in their use of socialist realism. Soviet officials accused the cosmopolitans of being prone to Western ideas about progressive music, and of having “espoused music theories that strove for “general human” relevance rather than rooting their evaluations in a specific national (Russian) heritage” (p. 214). This seems to be in tension with the policy of the Soviet arts institutions towards the music of Central Asian Republics, which included the harmonization of local folk music in a “progressive” Westernized manner, the insistence on the production and performance of advanced Western genres, the establishment of European-style musical institutions, etc. I’m curious how the Soviet powers understood the boundary between Westernization which was supposed to be good/social realistic/soviet on the one hand and cosmopolitan westernization which was considered formalistic/bourgeois on the other. 

One answer to this question might involve the fact that for Soviet officials, the construction of musical culture in Central Asian republics based on classical musical traditions meant using specifically Russian classical musical traditions. Perhaps for this reason, Westernization was considered appropriate, as it had a socialist content and only applied to Russian traditional musical elements. Still, given Stalin’s famous formula that art should be “National in form and socialist in content”, the intervention of the Soviet government in the tradition of the Eastern musical form itself seems to be too forced. I’m curious if the Soviet government could have ever tried to keep the Central Asian republics’ traditional musical form (even though they considered it “backward”) and fill it with Socialist content only. (For instance, could they have chosen for musical pieces not history or epic episode, but modern plot, as in the case of the opera based on the story of building of a hydro-electric power plant, which Marina Frolova-Walker mentions?) In other words, was it ever possible to avoid this “separate path” music conflict by letting some “backward” elements of Uzbek music (such as monophony) to remain but paying more attention to the content or to the context in which this music was performed?

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National in Form, Socialist in Content

Frolova-Walker’s discussion of Soviet attitudes toward folk music struck me as particularly interesting. Folk music, almost by definition, harkens back to earlier time and for the Soviet linear view of history it makes sense that this would be seen as regressive with a desire instead for the revolutionary. And yet, because of that history rather than in spite of it, folk music is music of the masses and regardless of how the Bolsheviks felt about the peasants they really were the masses. This creates a tension wherein people in power were choosing to discard the peoples’ culture to make way for what they believed to be the correct culture of the people. This tension was born out in the justifications Soviets attempted to make for why folk music had to be revolutionary and progressive – I particularly appreciated Arseny Avraamov’s claim that folk music contained “highly revolutionary elements” (Frolova-Walker, 333). It strikes me that there must have been a better way of incorporating the peasant into Soviet society rather than just disparaging him as regressive considering the way his social status aligns with that of the proletariat, even if he is less technologically entrenched than his proletariat counterpart. Did the Bolsheviks need to reject peasant in order to produce the society they envisioned? Why did Soviet opinion on folk music change if their position on the peasant didn’t?

The conception of what the Russian national music style should be seemed fairly weak and that weak conception was ultimately bad for the production of Russian music. Frolova-Walker talks about how some composers leaned so far into a Russian style, which in practice seemed to mean anything not Western, that it bordered on the absurd. One particular opera had “an obsessive avoidance of standard “Western” traits, such as a basic four-part texture, common modulations, chromaticism, and the leading tone in minor mode” (Frolova-Walker, 345). This absurdity seems almost inevitable when the primary guidance given to composers was to eschew all the rules of composition that could be considered even mildly western. Is it possible to have a national music form that still incorporates certain tropes associated with other cultures?

When they say “nationalist in form, socialist in content” they mean that the music needs to extoll the virtues of socialism and fit ideologically into the Soviet socialist framework but should do so through the cultural particularities of each nation. Do you hear that happening in the listening assignment? Do the various nationalities’ music strike you as different in form? What similarities are there in the different musics and what differences?

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Nationalist and Form and Socialist in Content?

The first thing that struck me from the reading was the dominance of “Russian” music in the international sphere and the Soviet sphere. The distinctly Russian style that is regarded so highly internationally and within the Union clouds the nationalization project in a way that I don’t think we have observed with, for example, the theater. Frolova-Walker writes: “Official Soviet praise of the Russian classics at times knew no bounds: Russian opera was pronounced the best in the world, and any history of Russian music honestly acknowledging Western influence was castigated as a deliberate distortion. Such ideological pressures left burgeoning national cultures little choice in their models.” (pg 339) The reading talks about the dominance of this style — Soviet Officials either implemented it in other nation’s music or it was already so engrained throughout the Union that it didn’t need implementation from officials. “Soviet” music just seems to me to be “Russian” music, or at least that was how it was known. Though they hoped to get away from the style of the West, especially Europe, a lot of the operas and music composed in Russia had undeniable Western roots and have the grandiose bourgeois feel. With all of this though, the importance of folk music and folk style was claimed to be of the utmost importance. How can we square the importance of each nation’s folk music with the hegemony of the Russian style of music that the folk music was ultimately transformed into? The article delves into t his problem, too: Russian nationalist composers had never acknowledged any discrepancy between the folk song they heard in the field and its representation on the piano” (pg 341) What does this transformation (i.e. the piano version of a folk song) do? Does it fit with the Soviet nationalization project?

Looking at videos 3 and 4 on the YouTube playlists demonstrates this question perfectly, I think. Video 3 shows a traditional song played on the qobyz from Kazakhstan, and video 4 shows a piece performed by a piano and a qobyz, introducing a Russian aspect. Through watching the video, it is obvious that each piece has a very different effect, with the second video obviously more Westernized (the huge pillars of the set behind the artists, the lavish outfits). I think looking at these two videos can start a discussion about orientalism (and Russia capitalizing off of the “exotic”) and the paradoxes of the nationalization project in music.

Finally, what is the significance of the sheet music included in the reading? Obviously, not every reader is accustomed to reading sheet music and the technical side of music. So, I think including the breakdown of notes to demonstrate some sort of formula that was followed when trying to make something uniquely Soviet, or uniquely Russian, or uniquely “Eastern”, is really significant. Does this formulaic construction of a national style of music signify that that national distinction is possible through a mere adhesion to these rules? Or does it signify the shortcomings of these rules in the nationalization project? Can sheet music and different types of technical style create socialist content? Or does its mere opposition to European composition (the “negative character” of Russian style) convey the socialist content? (pg 344)

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Beau Monde and The Golden Calf

In chapter 4, Fowler discusses the role of national culture in theater and how that was different in Moscow or St. Petersburg than in the other republics. He says, “Elissa Bemporad argues that the Yiddish theatre in Minsk was more successful because they could do any play they wanted; the audience was a Jewish audience who wanted shows in Yiddish, whether those were European classics, traditional Yiddish plays, or the latest Soviet offerings. In Moscow, regardless of his theatre’s critical success, Mikhoels had to the fit the niche of the “Jewish” theatre in order to secure and audience” (159). He also discusses differences in the funding, success, and reception of Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian theatre in Ukraine. What is the role of national culture in Soviet theatre and its connection to the Party-state? How is this different in the center vs. the periphery? How is this different for ethnic groups without a republic?

The theatrical image is the main difference between Mykytenko’s and Kurbas’ Dictatorship. The prevalence of image is obviously seen as threatening to the Party-state, and does not fit the characteristics of Soviet realism. Fowler examines the Soviet resistance to this use of image, stating, “some scholars explain this textualization of theatre as caused by censorship as necessity of monitoring performance. Yet Hungarian dissident Mikos Haraszti offers different view on socialist realism: ‘This art neither hates nor worships ‘reality’; it merely denies reality the chance to be mysterious … Kurbas’ production so radically differed from Mykytenko’s text, however, that the director showed the possibilities and the elasticity of the word”(141). Which do you believe motivates the “textualization of theatre”, the threat of mystery or the ease of censorship? Is the use of image or transformation itself a threat to the Party-state, or is it just the “elasticity of the word” exposed through the use of image? Is more text-based theater better able to “engineer the human soul”?

Finally, what elements of Soviet realism do we see in Petrov’s The Golden Calf? What do the sons of Lieutenant Schmidt represent?

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Cultural Exchange post and pre-Soviet

One of the major issues addressed in Fowler’s Beau Monde is the tension between the cultural exchange inherent in Ukrainian culture, and the Soviet desire to portray Ukrainian culture as authentically as possible, thus requiring the separation of the different ethnic elements of Ukrainian culture into different institutional and aesthetic forms. This prompts the question, how did the policy of cultural separation affect inter-ethnic relations between artists and people more generally in the Soviet Ukraine?


Chapter one starts with the portrayal of inter-ethnic relations in Chekhov’s story “Rothschild’s Fiddle”, which depicts the contradiction that such relations held. On the one hand, while Jews and gentiles participated in each other’s musical ensembles, Jews suffered under fierce anti-Semitism from there gentile counterparts in these ensembles.


As shown in the reading, the Russian Empire even encouraged this cultural exchange in that, as opposed to the situation the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there were no guilds to limit the travel of musicians: “Soviet ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovski  told a revealing story about recording a musician he assumed was an authentic Klezmer, only to find out that the fellow was, in fact, a Pole playing Jewish tunes in Kyiv courtyards. Unlike Austria-Hungary, whose strictly enforced guild system made it difficult for musicians to travel outside their local district, Russia had no such guild system limiting musicians’ mobility. (Fowler, Pg. 47)


Lastly, the cultural exchange not only occurred between artists in the context of musical ensembles, but also in the domestic sphere: “Ukrainian women often served in Jewish homes. Jews, therefore, would hear Ukrainian lullabies and everyday sounds and, in turn, Ukrainian women would have taken Jewish melodies back to their own families.” (Fowler, Pg. 47)


As can be derived from the text, this mutually beneficial cultural exchange happening within the domestic sphere did not occur without some level of antipathy between Jews and gentiles engendered by the employer-employee relationship that was between Jews and gentiles. This is most readily seen in the Ukranian play The Hireling, which depicts a Ukrainian orphan abused by a Jewish master.


As Fowler goes on to describe, during the Soviet era, the policy of Korenizatsiia tried to separate the different elements of Ukrainian culture: “The literary fair solved this dilema, like good Soviets, by organizing the arts according to ethno-national categories: Jewish audiences were assigned to the Jewish theatre with Jewish artists and Jewish plays; Ukrainian audiences to the Ukrainian theatre with Ukrainian artists and Ukrainian plays; Polish audiences to the Polish theatre with Polish artists and Polish ; and so forth.” (Fowler, Pg. 119)


The question is, did this attempted separation of the arts change the relationship between Jews and gentiles in Ukraine more generally? Did the policy of Korenizatsiia paradoxically lessen anti-Semitism between artists in the Soviet era, did anti-Semitism lessen for other reasons, or does Fowler just neglect to mention anti-Semitism in the Soviet era to the extent that she brings it up in the pre-Soviet context?


One glimpse we get into the relationship between Jewish and Ukrainian cultural institutions has to do with the Ukrainian theater lending money to the Yiddish theater even when it did not have enough money for itself. This would indicate a level of respect and friendship between the artistic communities of the two ethnicities, even when the Soviet government officially privileged the Ukrainian language theater because it was a theater associated with the titular nationality.


While there was this level of financial friendship, and while Fowler does recognize that the ethnic categories set up by the Soviet government broke down both “artistically and institutionally”, the example she gives of possible interaction between Ukrainian and Yiddish theater involves the director of the Yiddish theater in Kharkiv, Saul Guzhnovskii, refusing to put on the Ukrainian play Myna Mazailo because of fears that his Jewish audience would not be able to understand it, even if it were translated into Yiddish. This is despite the fact that as a general principle, Guzhnovskii believed that there should be more Ukrainian plays translated into Yiddish, and performed on the Yiddish stage.

Tangentially, I want to conclude with the question: Just as the policy of Korenizatsiia separated the constituent parts of Ukrainian culture, could it be that the Tsarist policy of Ukrainian and Yiddish cultural repression brought the cultures together?

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Why do traditions disappear?

            Silent Steppe is, I think, a valuable source for our purposes because Shayakhmetov is so interested in delineating the effects of collectivization and cultural destruction down to the level of interactions between individual family members. During his description of the solo journey to the aul where he grew up in Chapter 17, Shayakhmetov recounts a particular uncle’s emotional reaction to the loss of a way of life: “Apart from consistently not having enough to eat, what drove my uncle to  despair was the way communism had undermined the foundations of family life” (Shayakhmetov 2006, 170). A central question for Shayakhmetov is how communism destabilized familial connections as well as any number of other preexisting cultural traditions. I think it is important to ask, how does Shayakhmetov narrate his conclusions about the causality of this cultural destruction? And do we find that his conclusions sufficiently account for the changes he describes?

In Chapter 17, “Hunger Comes to the Aul,” he describes his mother and a small set of his relatives who they rely on after escaping the labor camp as the last holdouts of traditional Kazakh virtues. “‘Never stop caring for your relatives still on this earth!’” his mother says to him in the depths of the famine, and consequently he says, “experiencing town life and food shortages, cramped living conditions and what it really felt like to be in dire need had made me think long and hard… and I promised to myself there and then that when I grew up, I would do my duty as far as my family was concerned, and help those who were in need” (154). This notion of familial generosity appears to be one of his main takeaways from the purges and the famine. He continues to say that this sense of duty informed his actions for the rest of his life.

But mostly, these chapters present a landscape of unfulfilled duty and collapsing tradition. He describes the famine as “possibly the first time in the history of the Kazakh people that two families living under the same roof—and, what’s more, related through marriage—did not eat together” (162). Shayakhmetov describes one in-law, after having secured a position as a minor official: “He did not even seem to notice me. I sensed this at once because I recalled how affectionate he used to be with me” (169). Essentially, hospitality and familial support are refused over and over again in Chapter 17. And when a gift is given to a visiting relative there is a sense of shame at its inadequacy: “Other people there asked for his forgiveness and then lowered their eyes, somber and ashamed” (159). But who, according to Shayakhmetov, is at fault for this collapse of solidarity?

He tells us briefly how the famine was exacerbated by rapid collectivization, how rations were not sufficient, and how policies like the dairy cow distribution had adverse effects on the food supply. It is, of course, ironic that in this time of enforced collectivization people simply stop sharing with each other, but is extreme food shortage enough to account for the radical collapse of traditional relations? And why do Soviet officials seem to be distant and passive in Shayakhmetov’s famine narrative? Is he placing some measure of fault on the people themselves whose reaction to shortage is to cut back on generosity which, according to Shayakhmetov, had been a bedrock of Kazakh cultural understandings before collectivization disrupted traditional ways of life?

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