May 01, 2011

The All-Important Tavern

The All-Important Tavern
Moscow Tavern, by Boris Kustodiev (1916).

Boris Kustodiev’s painting Moscow Tavern (1916) captures a world that was soon to vanish. Here, old-fashioned cabbies, wearing the telltale long beards and caftans of Old Believers, enjoy a break from their work as they relax over tea.

The first tavern, or traktir, in Russia dates back to the sixteenth century. Originally these were way-stations where travelers could put up their horses for the night, and get a bed and a very basic meal (and a shot of vodka). With the rise of rail travel in the second half of the nineteenth century, traditional taverns began to disappear, and the word traktir came to refer to a second-class restaurant, one that served exclusively Russian food, unlike the fancier restaurants that boasted foreign fare.

In Alexander Ostrovsky’s 1871 play The Forest, Arkasha Shchastlivtsev declared that, for Russians, the tavern was more important than anything. And indeed, Russia’s larger cities boasted hundreds of them, which catered to vastly different clienteles. Kustodiev’s painting portrays the interior of a cabmen’s tavern. Here the cabbies were able to feed themselves cheaply while their horses rested in the yard. Although the scene here is very proper, other Moscow taverns were frequented by the criminal underworld, and bore nicknames like “Siberia” and “Hard Labor.” Yet other taverns catered to the more exclusive merchant class, such as the famous Testov’s in Moscow, which was known for its excellent pies. Typical offerings at Testov’s included cold sturgeon with horseradish, caviar, crayfish soup, fish or kidney solyanka (soup) with savory pies, roast suckling pig, and veal.

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