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15 November 2018

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Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

Anya von Bremzen (Crown)

von Bremzen’s book is 80 years of Soviet history viewed through the looking glass of food and personal history.

Indeed, this is a highly personal memoir, full of gastro-centric stories that are by turns rich and luscious, humorous and enlightening – each set in motion by the challenge of cooking one meal for every decade of Soviet rule. From the excess of pre-revolutionary kulebyaka, through the desolate years of Stalinist totalitarianism and Brezhnevian zastoy, to a flush return to the Rodina, it is also a tale of exile and return, of alienation and survival.

Von Bremzen writes in a wonderfully florid style that makes you eager to hear her account of Soviet history, even though you know the general line, because, in reality, her story is different, because her family was different (grandfather a spy, father a caretaker of Lenin’s corpse, mother an inveterate anti-Soviet). And truly fascinating.

"A complicated, even tortured relationship with food has long been a hallmark of our national character,” von Bremzen writes. And this is what she is truly exploring in her memoir, weaving her family stories with discussions of kvas and black bread, the various grades of sausage, the history of famines, why the post-revolutionary Kremlin had such awful food, the zakaz system, Uzbek melons, Eskimo pies, and on and on. In the process, she changes our perception of twentieth century Russia, illuminating the central role food (or lack of it) played in that history. Or, put another way, in Russia, food is always more than food.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Nov/Dec 2013