November 01, 1997

Potatoes in Uniform



Potatoes in Russia are like a second bread. This nourishing and inexpensive vegetable is the staple food of most Russian families, especially those which are not so well-off. And there are a great many potato-based dishes. But, surprisingly, this was not always the case. In fact, not long ago, Russians had to be forced to plant potatoes.

From the beginning, the history of the potato in Russia has been closely linked with men in uniform. Legend has it that the potato was brought from Holland by Peter the Great, a man who dearly loved to wear a uniform. He decided that this down-to-earth crop would help to feed the hungry people of Russia forever. And, in 1797, a government decree ordered potatoes (called “ground apples” by one contemporary scientist) to be planted throughout the country.

But Russian peasants, always suspicious of changes imposed by their leaders, had no desire to grow these foreign tubers. The Old Believers, in particular, refused to eat potatoes, christening them “the Devil’s Apple.” So, the legend goes, Peter had to resort to trickery — sending soldiers to guard the potatoes. The peasants thought: well, these things are being guarded, so they must be good. And, as the soldiers purposefully kept only half an eye on the potatoes, the peasants began to steal them and drag them back to their own plots. 


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