June 09, 2019

This Takes the Cake!


This Takes the Cake!
Black bread coated with flour. stocksnap.io

Almost exactly a year ago, a meme about bakeries materialized on the RuNet. Graphic designer Artemy Lebedev published a logo for a Soviet-inspired bulochnaya, or establishment selling already-baked goods, in Belarus. The logo split the word "булочная" into two halves with a picture of a bread loaf. Not the most conventional design choice, that’s for sure.

"Bulochnaya" logo (bread loaf splitting word "Bulochnaya" in half)
The logo. / Artemy Lebedev

We can appreciate the meme for its inherent weirdness. But to fully understand its context, we have to understand the history of the Soviet bulochnaya. And to fully understand that, we need to learn a little bit about how bread is baked in Russia and Eastern Europe. So, buckle up – or rather, strap on your oven mitts, this is going to be a tasty ride!

***

“Без соли, без хлеба — половина обеда,” goes an old Russian saying. Indeed, is a meal really Russian if it doesn’t come with a hearty side of черный хлеб? And even though bread is a longstanding Russian staple, the means of making it have evolved with the times.

The most traditional way to bake Russian bread is in a traditional Russian stove. These require a lot of preparation, and since they don’t have standardized temperature settings like modern stoves, it can take between 40 minutes and three and a half hours to bake a loaf of black bread. Nevertheless, the unique heating process that takes place in Russian stoves is said to give bread a special consistency and flavor. And besides, there’s a charm to baking bread using an appliance that was historically the lynchpin of the Russian peasant household.

Black bread outside Russian stove
Black bread baked in a Russian stove. / pechnoy.guru

Of course, bread doesn’t have to be baked at home. Under Peter the Great, bakeries selling Western-style pastries swept into Russia. As the imperial era rolled on, baking dynasties began springing up all across Russia. Especially of note were the Filippovs, who ran one of imperial Russia’s biggest chain bakeries. At the height of their success, the Filippovs operated over 15 locations in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tula, Saratov, and Rostov. They sold everything from kalachi (a padlock-shaped white wheat bread) and pastries to caramels, candies, and even coffee. Too bad they predated the invention of wifi by a century. Otherwise, they would have truly been the Starbucks of imperial Russia.

Filippov Bakery's original location on Tverskaya Street
The Filippov Bakery’s original location on Tverskaya Street in Moscow. / Wikimedia Commons

The Filippovs’ company went bankrupt in 1905. It was unfortunate for them, but perhaps in the long run it was a blessing in disguise. Twelve years later, the Bolsheviks started nationalizing bakeries, eventually also taking possession of the Filippovs’ remaining bakeries. They separated the production and sale of bread, building industrialized “bread factories” (хлебозаводы) and organizing collectives of bakers to produce the country’s bread. Gone were the small shops and big bakery chains. Here to stay were state-run bulochnye — the same bulochnye that Lebedev’s client sought to emulate.

Bulochnye were where Soviet citizens went to buy the bread made by collectives and bread factories. The bread sold at bulochnye was of mediocre quality, and especially in remote areas, the bulochnye often sold out.1 It seems ironic that Lebedev’s client advertised its goods as “tasty, aromatic, and high-quality as those in Soviet cafeterias.” But, as we’ve seen for other foods, Soviet nostalgia goes a long way in marketing foodstuffs.

Khlebozavod (Bread Factory) No. 9 in Moscow
Bread Factory No. 9 in Moscow. It produced bread from 1934 to 2015 and is now being converted to residential apartments. / Wikimedia Commons

The 1990s saw the rise of mini-bakeries, or мини-пекарни — small baking establishments that distinguished themselves from Soviet-era bread factories. For a while, mini-bakeries struggled to make headway against Soviet-era bread factories and bulochnye. However, if you visit a Russian city today, most of the bakeries you’ll see are mini-bakeries. Some have even lifted their Soviet-era competitors’ aesthetics, if only for branding purposes. In St. Petersburg, one prominent bakery chain names each location “Булочная” plus a number, hearkening to Soviet naming conventions. But the pastries they sell range from traditional sushki to exotic plum meringues, and their ubiquity is a sure sign that their output is far from mediocre.

Bulochnaya No. 74 in St. Petersburg
Булочная № 74, part of the F. Volchek chain of bakeries. / Tiffany Zhu

Who would have known that a concept as simple as a bakery has such a complicated history? One way or another, the next time you break bread with someone, do it at a Russian bakery — or at least order a hearty side of Russian bread.

Modern bakery interior
Interior of a location of Leningradskie Bulochnye, a bakery chain. / Leningradskie Bulochnye

1 For more on bread baking in the USSR, see E. D. Tverdiukova, “Хлебопечение в СССР в 1960-е – 1980-е гг.”, in Voprosy istorii, 2018, volume 12, p. 42-54.

You Might Also Like

The King of Easter Cuisine
  • April 01, 1996

The King of Easter Cuisine

Kulich is more than just a tradition at Eastertime, it is the king of the feast. Here is a recipe and some discussion of the dish's history.
Bread is Good
  • May 01, 2017

Bread is Good

Russians love bread, and you are going to love this recipe for Whole Wheat Bread with Seeds.
Peace, Land, Bread
  • April 23, 2014

Peace, Land, Bread

Peace! Land! Bread! This was the battle cry of the 1917 October Revolution (old calendar) that changed the history of Russia and indeed the entire world. Since the time of Ivan the Terrible, the tsars concentrated on centralization of their power and control. The most common way of doing this was to take power away from the nobility, appeasing them by giving them dominion over their land and workers. This soon developed into the oppressive, slave-style condition known as serfdom.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
Murder and the Muse

Murder and the Muse

KGB Chief Andropov has tapped Matyushkin to solve a brazen jewel heist from Picasso’s wife at the posh Metropole Hotel. But when the case bleeds over into murder, machinations, and international intrigue, not everyone is eager to see where the clues might lead.
The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

This exciting new trilogy by a Russian author – who has been compared to Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco – vividly recreates a lost world, yet its passions and characters are entirely relevant to the present day. Full of mystery, memorable characters, and non-stop adventure, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and international thrillers.  
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
A Taste of Chekhov

A Taste of Chekhov

This compact volume is an introduction to the works of Chekhov the master storyteller, via nine stories spanning the last twenty years of his life.
Driving Down Russia's Spine

Driving Down Russia's Spine

The story of the epic Spine of Russia trip, intertwining fascinating subject profiles with digressions into historical and cultural themes relevant to understanding modern Russia. 
Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

A book that dares to explore the humanity of priests and pilgrims, saints and sinners, Faith & Humor has been both a runaway bestseller in Russia and the focus of heated controversy – as often happens when a thoughtful writer takes on sacred cows. The stories, aphorisms, anecdotes, dialogues and adventures in this volume comprise an encyclopedia of modern Russian Orthodoxy, and thereby of Russian life.
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

This astonishingly gripping autobiography by the founder of the Russian Women’s Death Battallion in World War I is an eye-opening documentary of life before, during and after the Bolshevik Revolution.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567

802-223-4955