04/15/2023, 10.04
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Wartime Russia's Easter table

by Stefano Caprio

As was the case in the 1990s, food becomes the dimension of identity lost and identity to be found. Average salaries drop and then the only food remains the "spirituality" of traditional moral values, relying on the miracles invoked by metropolitans and patriarchs, but entrusted to the hands of cooks left without ingredients.

At the end of the long nightly Easter service, as prescribed by the Typikon, the Orthodox monastic rules, it is necessary to share the "great fraternal consolation," the Paskhalnyj Pir or banquet at the end of the Fast, and celebrate communion with the risen Christ. At His appearance to the frightened apostles after His death, the Lord shared roasted fish to convince them that He was not a ghost.

One of the most significant aspects for Orthodox spirituality, especially during the time of Lent and the Easter festivals celebrated today, is marked by the relationship with food. From the very beginning of the fast, good women begin to collect onion skins, better than any imported powder for the coloration of eggs with the most brilliant and intense red-brown hues, and on which miniaturists are able to depict saints and angels, seas and mountains and all the churches and monasteries of Russia.

If the services in Moscow's churches are attended by at most two to three hundred thousand worshippers out of a population of twelve million, between five and seven million people come to church grounds throughout Holy Saturday for the blessing of eggs and kulič, the typical Easter cake.

The colored eggs, a symbol of new life, are sufficient for Russians to consider themselves faithful members of the Orthodox people, and the kulič on the home table smoothly replaces the Eucharistic sacrament, which in the Byzantine rite is prepared with leavened dough anyway, especially since its "heavy" composition allows it to be kept throughout the Easter season until Pentecost.

The banquet obligatorily ends with Paskha, a creamy cottage cheese cake reminiscent of the Promised Land with its rivers of cream and honey, which the chosen people reached after their long wanderings in the desert.

The great Russian culinary expert Pavel Sjutkin tried to explain the depths of sacred food in a speech on the Radio Svoboda website, in light of the looming crisis on the Russian economy after a year of war and sanctions. Although so far there have been no sudden collapses in production activities in Russia, the air of crisis can already be felt in the very places where food is shared, in restaurants, bars, and various venues.

One of the signs of the growing difficulty in imagining the future is the excessively carefree atmosphere of Moscow's downtown restaurants, even before the "Easter consolation," as Sjutkin recounts after a visit to the renowned establishments of the Patriaršie Prudy, the "patriarch's gardens" made famous by Mikhail Bulgakov's novel, The Master and Margarita, which recounts the encounter of some men with the devil Woland.

He speaks of scenes similar to the Nazi siege of Leningrad by the Nazis, which lasted 900 days leading to a terrible famine, where laughter and toasts try to hide a pervasive sense of anguish and destruction, caused by the tragedy of war, but which people flee by considering it a distant event, which "does not concern us."

Party leaders fight heir war with caviar and vodka, and even today from the top leadership there is an assurance that "everything will return as it once was," even though brands of the most popular Western products have now disappeared from Russia.

Pirožki, the stuffed pancakes, bliny, crepes to be spread with smetana, sour cream, red and black caviar that sells by the kilo, and Orthodox kisel, the jelly for preserved meat, which is eaten on Easter night while still in the church, are sold everywhere. These are the foods repeatedly magnified by Putin himself in his autobiographies, expressing nostalgia for the golden age of Soviet youth.

In fact, all over the social networks are the complaints and curses against the patriotic "delicacies" that are replacing the classic elements of Western-style fast-food, where even simple French fries cannot be consumed, and the cheeses on supermarket shelves look like plastic imitations of British cheddar or mozzarella from Caserta. The phenomenon is not related only to the last year, after the invasion of Ukraine, but dates back to 2014, when sanctions began to hit Russia after the annexation of Crimea.

The exaltation of the Putin ideology known as krimnašizm, the "Crimeanostrism" based on the cry Krym Naš!, "Crimea is ours!", had led to counter-sanctions restricting precisely the importation of foreign foodstuffs (though not alcohol), in favor of authentically Russian foods. Suffering first and foremost were the restaurants, which even more than the common supermarket shopping, relied on the choice of quality products.

Then the "black market" of Soviet memory was reborn, where instead of the ruble's increased exchange rate with the dollar, French cheeses and Spanish jamon were smuggled in. Since this could not be explained on the menus of starred restaurants, the term "import substitution," importozameščenie, was invented, with rather contradictory effects.

The use of low-quality ingredients, from milk to oils and fats, with outdated and faulty technologies, made it impossible to offer convincing alternatives to European delicacies, so much so that by now the "elite cheeses" in Russia are considered to be those from non-sanctioning countries such as Switzerland, South America and Iran. And this is also true throughout the rest of the food chain, where these "substitutes" cost on average twice as much as the now-lost original products.

So there is an emphasis, especially in the days of breaking the fast in the Easter season, on "going back to the roots," to authentic Russian cuisine. Beyond the ideological emphasis, this presupposes the use of elements traditionally found in all country gardens, where people spend their vacation days: turnips, nettles, oats for polenta, spelt, chicken offal, berries and mushrooms, as well as potatoes and carrots.

For restaurants, these are big savings, offering instead of consommé and lasagna the patriotic boršč and šči soups, with red turnip and sour cabbage, to be given the title "Valaam soup" and sold at 600 rubles per serving, with an expense of less than 50.

Genuine "parallel import" products are getting smaller and smaller, even Turkey is denying the transit of French champagne, and you have to fall back on the artificial carbonation of sovetskoe šampanskoe, to end up on vodka of a quality also inferior to Polish or Scandinavian. And perhaps try to end with a smuggled coffee, so as not to have to sip the boiling dark liquid of dubious origin.

The problem could get even worse as the value of the ruble, which in the war year held up artificially with protective maneuvers from above and by exploiting energy gains, now increasingly at risk.

Stolovye, the "popular canteens" of Soviet times with cheap Russian food, cabbage salads and hot broths of uncertain content, bread patties and various fats instead of hamburgers and American-style chicken wings from "fascist" McDonald's, have been revived. As was the case in the 1990s, food becomes the dimension of identity lost and that to be found, as political and economic systems shift.

Average salaries drop below 40 thousand rubles (0), and there is no telling to what abyss they will descend, forcing even the pleasures of the table, in restaurants as well as at home, to be reduced more and more. And so the only food remains the "spirituality" of traditional moral values, relying on the miracles invoked by metropolitans and patriarchs, but entrusted to the hands of cooks left without ingredients.

In Vladimir Sorokin's dystopian novels, food has only three designations: patriotic, Orthodox, patriarchal, and there are only two kinds of meat, pork and beef, two kinds of condiments, Russian-made ketchup and mayonnaise, two kinds of bread, white and black, and only one kind of cheese, as in Soviet times. Unless we can write an anti-utopia of peace, which will satisfy peoples' appetites, and grant the consolation of Easter.


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