Illustrations from the book: M. O. Lifshits, chief ed., Kulinariia (Moskva: Gostorgizdat, 1955).

Illustrations from the book: M. O. Lifshits, chief ed., Kulinariia (Moskva: Gostorgizdat, 1955).

Reviews Linking gender and food in the late Soviet context Narratives, discourses, representations

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 104-108
Published on balticworlds.com on december 30, 2019

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The book contains a collection of essays that explore the multiple intersections of gender, food, class, and culture in the late Soviet context. The volume is markedly interdisciplinary, with authors from cultural studies, food studies, history, sociology, and literary studies, who draw on a variety of sources and approaches. Positioning food at the core of both female and male everyday experiences in the late Soviet Union, the ambition of Seasoned Socialism is to fill a gap in intersectional and interdisciplinary studies of gender and food in Soviet studies. Alexei Yurchak’s theoretical model serves as a starting point for many studies in the volume. Drawing on extensive previous research, Anastasia Lakhtikova and Angela Brintlinger’s introductory chapter sets an agenda and engages in a discussion on, among other things, Soviet experiments in the food industry and social engineering, the discrepancy between ideals of proper nutrition and existing practices, and the hypocrisy of Soviet gender equality politics. The editors advocate for the epistemological fruitfulness of linking gender and food in Soviet studies, reflecting on the potential and limitations of Soviet era source material and the applicability of feminist approaches and Pierre Bourdieu’s model to the Soviet case, as well as the sociology of choice in totalitarian contexts.

The volume opens with Adrianne K. Jacobs’ essay exploring representations of gender roles and home cooking in Soviet Russia in the Brezhnev Era (1964–1982), the period of a so-called “crisis of masculinity” and “return to the home”. Focusing on popular culture and public discourse, the inquiry is based on Russian language sources — the popular press, Soviet cinema, memoirs and cookbooks. As the study reveals, a complex image of the khoziaika (“housewife”, “hostess”, “lady of the house”) emerges from the cookbooks of the late 1960s and 1970s, entailing a wide range of skills, tasks and responsibilities (p.38).  While maintaining a full-time job, she is also a multitasking manager of household economy, an inventor, a cleaning lady — all in one. The cookbooks of the so-called “national cuisines” of the peoples of the Soviet Union, as the author reveals, hint at women as vital carriers of cultural tradition and culinary customs (p. 40–41). Jacobs maintains that the Soviet kitchen was a female space, where she enjoyed autonomy and control. It was also a site for mother-daughter bonding, with food playing a vital role in girls’ socialization. Popular culture and public discourse, as the author reveals, manifest a strong correlation between women’s domestic and kitchen skills, on the one hand, and romantic fulfilment, womanliness, marital harmony and happy family life, as a worthy marital partner, on the other (p.42). In Soviet melodramas of the 1970s and 1980s, women could have their chances of “women’s happiness” disrupted if they relied too heavily on factory-made and commercially cooked food, or stick to deviational (more fashionable, not “traditional Russian”) dietary preferences. Apart from shashlyk (grilling, barbecue), representing a “man’s dish” prepared performatively for special occasions outdoors, late Soviet cinema reinforced the idea that a man cooking at home is rather exceptional, indicating imbalance, misfortune, loneliness, absence of women — deviation in any case.  The author concludes that the Soviet public discourse on food during the 1970s and early 1980s reinforced a rather traditional understanding of women’s role in the family (p.51) that was distanced from the emancipatory rhetoric of the 1960s. Irina Glushchenko’s contribution follows the same line, focusing on representations of “men’s patriarchy” and “women’s emancipation”, as the author puts it, in three Soviet films of the early 1980s, namely Moskva slezam ne verit [Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears], Beregite muzhchin! [(Take care of the men], Vremia zhelanii [The season to make wishes]. She reasons that the three films typify gender relations in the late Soviet era, signifying the unresolved contradiction of the very idea of women’s empowerment in its Soviet version, namely the combination of two incompatible roles, those of working mother and housewife, while at the same time uncovering the male “inferiority complex” and discriminatory logic within a family circle.

One of the editors, Anastasia Lakhtikova, aims to explain why educated professional Soviet women chose to engage in cookbook projects and spend time cooking fancy dishes, given their “double burden”, as well as constant food-supply problems. To do so, she analyses twenty manuscripts of personal cookbooks from six Soviet republics, whose compilers lived in various republics between the late 1960s and mid-1990s. In contrast to Soviet cookbooks and culinary publications that were expensive and not easily accessible, personal cookbooks, sources of private origin, are a perfect illustration of what people ate and cooked. Lakhtikova argues that personal cookbooks, illuminated by interviews with their creators or successors, document personal and social identity-building activity reflected in the women’s aspirations to be excellent homemakers, and the quest to gain pride in doing so (p.85). Lakhtikova speaks of the two different realities of Soviet women. One is filled with activities and obligations related to “traditional gender roles,” those that were usually taken for granted and not appreciated. The other reality that comprised activities of “sustaining obshchenie (communication and companionship)”, in Lakhtikova’s own words, was of a different kind. And women not only participated in this reality; they shaped it and made it possible (p.86). One of the factors that motivated professional women to pursue excellence in cooking and maintain personal cookbooks was underappreciation and a search for praise, which was absent in the everyday domestic realm (similarly to the world of academia, as noted by Natalia Pushkareva). It was also about networking at a working place usually originating from shared practices of food preparation and consumption, and recipe exchange (pp. 94–96).  Finally, apart from a quest for appreciation and social interaction, creative self-realization and empowerment (the author even speaks of “a women’s cooking subculture”) are, according to the author, the driving forces that motivated women in their cooking projects, even though they were supposedly the most fulfilled and “the most emancipated of Soviet women,” as Lakhtikova notes.

Benjamin Sutcliffe’s essay opens for the reader the moral universe of food, hunger, senses and envy in Yuri Trifonov’s novel House on the Embankment, demonstrating how Glebov, the novella’s protagonist, mirrors Trifonov’s concerns over the rise of Soviet consumer culture and the “degraded ethics of the intelligentsia” and its “spiritual poverty”. The novella draws on the culinary and the corporeal to illustrate how greed, careerism, envy and ambition abrogate iskrennost’ (sincerity), the quality Trifonov valued most highly (p.116). In the novella, food (Napoleon cake, the smell of boiling cabbage) is bound to memory; it appears as a metaphor, a telling category that dominates Trifonov’s disturbing images of the morality and everyday life of late Soviet intelligentsia. With his novella, as Benjamin Sutcliffe suggests, Trifonov draws attention to the “full stomach” of people such as protagonist Glebov, who typify a generation for which principles are less important than things (p.127).

Olena Stiazhkina’s paper explores societal and gendered practices of prestigious food consumption in the context of the late Soviet economy of scarcity, unveiling the layers of perceptions of “prestigious foods,” ways of acquiring it, and the role of class and status in forming “the symbolism of prestige.”  The Soviet authorities’ role as the only source and gatekeeper of the “food-basket” was undermined by new social groups associated with the shadow economy, Stiazhkina argues (p. 157). She starts by analyzing the meanings of the charged word “provider” (dobytchik), essential to late Soviet everyday discourses, and its connotations and variations. The practice of obtaining foods and goods was associated with hunting and battle; therefore, the word “provider”, the author claims, signifies admiration and encouragement, the characteristics of male behavior regardless of profession, age or social position, and often applied by a woman to a man who managed to bring home goods (p.135). No special name, however, was invented for “she”, who was at the side of a male provider. She could have been a spouse or a housewife, sometimes a mistress (soderzhanka), a lover or a girlfriend, even a mother or a sister of a provider — no name, but a relation (pp. 137–138). While the memory of famine and deprivation shaped perceptions about “prestigious foods” in terms of quantity and volume, Stiazhkina maintains that the images from the Book of Tasty and Healthy Food  as well as popular cinematic and folkloristic representations of feasts (pir), forged an idea of “high-status” foods in terms of aesthetics and methods of preparation. Perceptions about “prestigious foods” also evolved as “a reaction to the chronology and the geography of scarcity,” in the author’s words (p. 140). Stiazhkina recalls an argument from previous research on the existence of “special food orders” due to the geographical factor, since different parts of the Soviet Union were supplied differently, an argument that seems extremely important for this study. As previous research suggests and Stiazhkina reminds us, in late Soviet everyday life, the idea of prestigious foods was not the same everywhere; it was fluid and depended on food-supply circumstances in specific parts of the Soviet Union (pp.140–141). Stiazhkina describes the ways in which procurement of and access to prestigious foods depended on the kind of privileged social group to which the provider belonged. According to the author, the very mechanism by which practices of prestigious consumption were formed challenged the whole idea of Soviet social, ethnic and gender equality.

Introducing the reader to a dacha microcosm in the Tver and Moscow regions with its complexities and paradoxes, Melissa L. Caldwell’s essay has an anthropological character and derives from the analysis of interviews and ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 1995 and 2007. Caldwell examines the gendered dynamics of Russian dacha lifestyle, focusing on the ways in which Soviet-era gendered norms of labor were simultaneously encoded and reworked, in the author’s words, in Russians’ experiences with dachas and dacha foods. The distinctions between physical and affective dimensions of dacha labor are of prime focus for the study (p.167). The dacha microcosm, centered on food-related activities, was marked as a space of intense physical gendered labor. Despite the prevailing depictions of men being responsible for the physically demanding activities of construction and repair on which dacha narratives relied, in practice these gendered depictions were not necessarily borne out by personal narratives, the author argues (pp. 176, 178). As noted, the older generation of women might share a common reality of being single or widowed, divorced or never married. Retired female interviewees for Caldwell’s study frequently recall the tasks they took on regardless of gender, such as construction and renovation projects (p.178). Accounts of dacha work, as the author points out, rather speak about imagined gender roles and gendered division of labor (p.189). Caldwell’s study also discloses a generational difference in perception. Dacha work, the author sums up, was described by elderly Russian interviewees as “work”, and “duty”, something that required commitment, whereas for the younger generations, dacha activities were associated with relaxation (pp.182—183). For many older Russians, the author notes, dacha lifestyle and foods are central to the concerns connected with “cultivating a form of national citizenship”, preserving the national heritage, and passing on Russia’s cultural values and physical past to future generations (pp.184–185). The author concludes that the assumed distinctions between male and female, labor and leisure, shift within dacha space.

Lidia Levkovitch examines the literary representations of alcohol consumption and drinking in Vil Lipatov’s 1970 novella Seraia mysh [Grey Mouse]. She argues that, while both the novella and material from the officially sanctioned women’s monthly journal Rabotnitsa [Woman Worker] stereotype drinking as an exclusively male problem, with women as allies in the government anti-alcohol initiatives, they also illuminate the nuanced and varied roles that men and women occupy, and even reveal “the emergence of alternative practices enabled by reproduction of the official discourse” (p.194). The novella is examined within a broad context of the Soviet official position on alcohol and the paradoxes of so called “vodka politics”. In contrast to Rabotnitsa’s anti-alcohol content that condemns drinking due to its negative impact on family and productivity, Grey Mouse, the author suggests, discovers “boundary spaces negotiated by drinking men and nondrinking women and tries to decipher their meaning and explain their lure” (p. 215). Although both men and women in Lipatov’s novella reproduce authoritative discourse critical of drinking, the gendered differences are still noted. While men support moderation, women, reflecting their supposed place in the forefront of the government’s anti-alcohol campaign, tend to promote complete abstinence. According to the author, placing women in the forefront and letting them articulate the late Soviet official discourse on alcohol in a literal way challenges the traditional understanding of feminine sphere as quietly subversive (p. 216).

Inspired by Pierre Bourdieu’s approach, Ksenia Gusarova conducts a case study of dietary recommendations presented in 100 Minutes for Beauty and Health by Polish author Zofia Wędrowska, a book written in an innovative style, which brought Polish tastes to Soviet women and shaped notions of femininity, health and beauty in the late Soviet era. As Ksenia Gusarova reveals, Zofia Wędrowska herself was a representative of the socialist bourgeoisie, and the norms and ideals she promotes in her book conform to the features of Bourdieu’s bourgeois habitus with its food aesthetization and abstraction, self-imposed restrictions and dieting, ritualization of eating, and the domination of form over substance. However, as the author concludes, despite all the literary and discursive tricks serving the aim of food abstraction and aesthetization, Wędrowska makes clear the key function of her heroines’ and readers’ bodies. It is work, and her diet is for “working women.”  Hence, the late socialist habitus appears as a hybrid of the “proletarian” and the “bourgeois,” in Gusarova’s words.

Ona Renner-Fahey’s contribution investigates everyday practices connected to foodways in the women’s camp subculture described in Irina Ratushinskaya’s memoir Grey Is the Color of Hope. The memoir portrays a community of East European women of different ethnicities and religions, Ratushinskaya’s fellow prisoners, who, as Renner-Fahey puts it, by drawing on their collective knowledge of and abilities in gardening, cooking and nutrition, and on their inventiveness as a community, managed to manipulate foodways in the camp and gain agency (p. 249). According to the author, Ratushinskaya constructs a powerful counter story to the male-focused master Soviet camp narrative by structuring her memoir around how her camp community of women, each playing a specific role, subverted the camp authorities thanks to its collective knowledge of foodways and its “ethic of care” (pp. 248, 250). Erasing from her text much of the official labor or treating some aspects of the imposed regime with sarcasm, as the author explains, Ratushinskaya instead depicts everyday practices and routines such as gardening, procuring food, sharing rations, and advocating for nutritional needs, as well as sharing detailed knowledge of health concerns connected to hunger strikes, forced feeding and treating illnesses (p.252). By not structuring her memoir around the imposed regime and instead allowing “the moments of reprieve”, in the words of Renner-Fahey, to structure the narrative, Ratushinskaya creates a text of resistance and gains a control in an otherwise powerless position, as the author concludes (p.254).

Scrutinizing selected works of William Pokhlebkin, Alexander Genis, Pyotr Vail, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya and Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Angela Brintlinger examines the literary treatments of cabbage — “the food of poverty” — seen by many as essentially Russian.  The author suggests that the five writers are split along gender lines in their approach to cabbage, and this divide is manifested in the genre of their works. The two female authors pen literary fiction, similar to the fairy tale genre, while the male authors select the genres of essay, dictionary and culinary history (pp. 272—273). Brintlinger’s analysis suggest that having employed an “authoritative nationalistic voice,” the male writers use cabbage to claim the right to define Russian national identity and “Russianness,” whereas the female writers go beyond the culinary to highlight social and family values, presenting and evaluating the so-called feminine tasks of birthing, mothering and nourishment. In Brintlinger’s opinion, these male and female representations of cabbage and of its place within food writing and fairy tales reproduce ideas about Russian identity.  The male view emphasizes how cabbage was central to the Russian peasant diet, while also using it to highlight positive traits of the Russian character, while the female view focused on birthing, motherhood and nurturing the Russian family (pp. 274, 281, 285).

Following the literary studies approach, Amelia Glaser turns to the analysis of Nonna Slepakova’s everyday poetry, that invokes visual images of food, kitchen and material objects and culture. A poet of the Leningrad 1960s generation, Nonna Slepakova (1936–1998) contributed to developing a poetics of everyday Leningrad life and material culture that originated in the 19th century (pp. 298, 299). Glaser argues that by gendering the individual’s struggle between byt and bytie, present and future, Slepakova creates a poetic system for analyzing the postwar Soviet domestic sphere (p. 298). While avoiding political issues, Slepakova’s poetry of everyday Soviet life undermines the very rhetoric of progress, maintains the author (pp. 301–302). Rejecting the path of the bright future, in Glaser’s opinion, Slepakova used food to emphasize cyclicity.

Finally, the anthology is rounded off by Darra Goldstein’s foreword and Diane P. Koenker’s afterword. In her concluding essay, Diane P. Koenker ponders on three aspects that the eleven papers of the volume tackle and reflect on, namely the question of class in the allegedly classless Soviet society, the blurring of lines between work and leisure in the world of food, and the ideological façades of Soviet socialism.

Ethnicity, the concept that lies behind some essays of the volume more than​ others, is not analytically addressed in Seasoned​ Socialism.These categories are just as important as class in comprehending the nexus of food and gender in a Soviet context. A few lines in the references to the introductory chapter contain the seeds of an interesting discussion on the heterogeneity of the Soviet empire, its space, culture and society (p. 29, reference 53). The kaleidoscope of power trajectories, hierarchies, and logics that are otherwise intangible in the constellation of gender, food, and class in everyday Soviet life might have been reflected if the ethnic and geographic diversity of Soviet Union had been taken into consideration and problematized. With its discoveries and revealed complexities that go far beyond the twenty years of late Soviet era, Seasoned Socialism invites a wide range of readers and scholars to an intellectual feast.

References


  1. Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

  2. The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food [Kniga o vkusnoi i zdorovoi pishche], written by scientists from the Institute of Nutrition of the Academy of Medical Sciences, first published in 1939, is the earliest official culinary publication of the USSR.
  • by Julia Malitska

    Postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies at Södertörn University. Received her PhD in History in 2017 with the dissertation Negotiating Imperial Rule: Colonists and Marriage in the Nineteenth-Century Black Sea Steppe. 

  • all contributors

Seasoned Socialism: Gender and Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life , Ed. by Anastasia Lakhtikova, Angela Brintlinger, and Irina Glushchenko. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2019, 396 pages