Feature

Mayo-Drenched and Heroic

A tribute to the home cooks of the Red Empire, who turned mass production, propaganda, and want into a cuisine.

Nobody minds the lines at Moscow's Stolovaya 57 -- it's all a part of the Soviet-throwback experience. 

This clever reprise of a USSR-era canteen, with its sprawling retro interior, opened a few years ago on the third floor of GUM, an upscale department store by the Red Square better known for blingy shrines to Hermes and Armani. At lunchtime, everyone's here: well-dressed GUM salesgirls, biznesmen, a taxi driver or two -- all bussing their own plates, nostalgic, apparently, for the days of a "classless society." Here misty-eyed babushkas swoon over fluffy bitki (meatballs) in sour cream and that sine qua non of proletarian repasts, herring "under a fur coat" of beets and eggs. Their Putin-era grandchildren gawk in glee at the clunky Soviet-issue soda machine and primordial conical juice fountains. It's a campy vision of Sovietness, cooked up by Bosco di Ciliegi, a pseudo-Italian, actually-Russian importer of global luxury brands.

Watch: Author Anya von Bremzen and her mother Larisa prepare classic Soviet dishes


For years, Soviet cuisine was remembered mainly for its most ignoble attributes: the soul-destroying reek of stewed cabbage, the suspicious faintness of sour cream diluted with buttermilk, then diluted with milk, then diluted with water. Now, suddenly, places like Stolovaya 57 and Gastronom No. 1, a faux-Soviet supermarket also at GUM, replete with a marble "Stalinist-baroque" interior, are selling a far more delicious culinary revision of the scarlet empire. In this new USSR aglow with commodified post-Soviet nostalgia, the buttermilk is creamy and wholesome, the sausages rosy -- the salesladies smile

The truth about Soviet cuisine, of course, is that it was neither the rotten-potato hell of its bashers nor the cheery, comforting idyll of consumerist memory-mongers.

Yes, Soviet foods included the gristly beef stroganoff and the desolate brown dried-fruit compote of state cafeterias. But there was also the spicy Georgian chicken, in a complex, creamy walnut sauce that my father made for special occasions, the bright vegetarian borsht my mom magically conjured out from old beets and a can of tomato paste, the festive Salat Olivier -- a colorful potato salad with pickles made all the tastier for each hour spent waiting in line to snatch a precious can of imported Hungarian peas.

The official version of Soviet cuisine was born as a grand state project, manufactured out of both the utopian aspirations and the practical realities of the socialist empire. This was the Soviet cuisine that cursed us with the gluey brown industrial podliva (gravy). But authentic Soviet home cooking was another thing entirely: at its best, poignant and heroic, a monument to the daily feats of improvisation and bone-weary resilience spawned by a life of infamous shortages.

Flash back to the mid-1930s. The official Soviet food canon -- created to supplant bourgeois Russian cuisine with its luxurious fish, Frenchified sauces, and class-enemy-type ingredients like sterlet and grouse -- was being concocted almost from whole cloth by one man: the Armenian-born Bolshevik Anastas Mikoyan. In 1934 Mikoyan was appointed Stalin's food supply commissar. His task: to reform, modernize, and standardize the food industry across the 11 time zones and 15 ethnic republics of the one-sixth of the world's land mass that was the USSR.

An obsessive micro-manager (and a foodie), Mikoyan taste-tested each new food product, approved recipes and label designs. These being the terrible years of the Stalinist purges, he also signed arrest orders for "wreckers" and "saboteurs" -- scapegoats blamed for damaging socialist industry and punished by Gulags. Ever-practical, Mikoyan showed no qualms about learning from the capitalist West, and -- these still being the internationalist years -- neither did Stalin. In 1936, The Leader dispatched his commissar on a cross-country tour of America. Mikoyan and his foodie squad toured Wisconsin dairies, Chicago slaughterhouses, and California fruit farms. They studied corrugated cardboard and metal jar lids. They ate intently at self-service cafeterias. ("Here," Mikoyan later wrote, "is a format born out of the bowels of capitalism but most suited to communism.") 

In those latter-day memoirs, the unsmiling but urbane Mikoyan could barely restrain himself from gushing about America's foodways as the model of industrialized efficiency for Stalinist Russia. He was particularly smitten with burgers. "Very convenient for the busy man," he marveled. Mikoyan even imported burger grills to the USSR -- but then World War II intervened, burgers lost their buns, and Soviet citizens got hooked instead on kotleti (bunless meat patties). Of course, Russians cooked kotleti at home before Mikoyan, but it's the commissar who turned these into a mass-produced Soviet icon. Even Russian ice cream, our national pride, that vanilla plombir we all licked at 30 degrees below zero, resulted from American technology imported by Mikoyan. (The savvy Armenian also tried -- and failed -- to wangle the syrup recipe for Coca-Cola.)

Mikoyan was the man responsible for the modern, industrialized fruit juices and frankfurters served up today. Mikoyan's commissariat also, in 1939, issued a grand tome that codified Soviet cuisine for the home cook. Produced by a committee of scientists, ideologues, and culinary professionals, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Cuisine would remain the socialist Joy of Cooking until the empire's end, selling over 8 million copies in more than a dozen editions.

In its Stalinist heyday, the hefty, lavishly illustrated volume offered more than just recipes. The Kniga (book) was a socialist-realist landmark en par with the Moscow Metro, featuring invocations of "mankind's centuries-old dream of building a communist society," quotations from Stalin (deleted in later editions), extravagant photo spreads of lavish foods -- oysters! -- never seen in stores, and lectures on nutrition and table manners. While the oysters and the 11 kinds of booze in the photos represented an outlandish socialist utopia -- a sales brochure of the ever-promised, but never realized, Radiant Future -- many of the recipes and simple practical tips taught generations of Soviets to cook.  

Now decades after I left Brezhnev's Russia as a child, I still love leafing through the gravy-splotched pages of the iconic 1952 edition with its embossed dark-brown cover. Here are the mayonnaise-drenched composed salads and fish in aspic that anchored Soviet festive tables across the years. Here are the dozens of kotleti varieties and bracing soups still made at homes all over the former USSR. The book also includes serviceable recipes for traditional Russian dumplings, blini, and pirozhki (savory pastries). And to relieve the Slavic blandness, the book introduced colorful dishes from our "exotic" fraternal socialist republics.

Multiculturalism was one of the tastiest abiding aspects of Soviet cuisine. Even pre-1917, Russian cuisine reflected the span of an empire. Mikoyan's efforts sovietized this diversity by folding ethnic dishes into an all-Soviet canon, bringing it into our homes through the book while promoting the mass-market products and convenience foods of a newly-industrialized state, Over the years, through the ongoing government fanfare about the future Leninist sliyanie (merging) of fraternal Soviet republics, our cuisine, too, was fusing into its own Eurasian pan-Soviet melting pot. By the time I grew up in the late 1960s, state restaurants across 11 times zones served Azeri lulya kebab (meat kebab), Tatar chebureki (fried meat pies), Ukrainian borscht, and crisp-fried Georgian chicken tabaka (chicken cooked in a heavy skillet). Muscovites with the means to dine out ate at restaurants named Uzbekistan or Minsk or Baku. Meanwhile, singularly Soviet hits like Salat Oliver and herring "under a fur coat" lent socialist kitschiness to Kazakh weddings and Karelian birthday parties. For special occasions, my own mother, Larisa, prepared an Uzbek pilaf redolent of cumin and barberries while my dad labored over Georgian red beans loaded with spices and herbs.

It's true that such occasions were rare. Mostly my mom fried up simple kotleti, scraped together impromptu "guest at the doorstep" apple charlottes when people stopped by, and perfected frugal pirozhki dough: water, yeast, and a stick of socialist margarine. Were they culinary masterpieces? Well, maybe not -- but they reflected an authentic and vital food culture that deserves to be recognized. And here's the thing: These improvised treats prepared at homes in an era of shortages possessed an emotional weight that Stolovaya 57's slickly delicious replicas can't hope to match. In Russia today, USSR nostalgia has become a brand, commercial and political, garnished with calculated warm, fuzzy childhood signifiers. But depleted of existential pathos and the aura of eternal scarcity, the newly-hip Soviet cuisine is just another marketing retro-fad, one more balm against Putinland's petro-dollarism and the invasion of globalized pizza and sushi.

Then again, I like Stolovaya 57 as much as the next Muscovite. What's wrong with a lunchtime junket to an idealized version of a past from which we were all exiled when the USSR was deleted from maps? Here in New York, my ferociously anti-Soviet mom still makes kotleti three times a week. And when I feel blue, a festive bowls of Salat Olivier is just the right comfort food. Because Soviet cuisine was actually tasty. If not entirely healthy.

Book of Tasty and Healthy Cuisine; Courtesy Anya von Bremzen

Feature

A Comprehensive Strategy Against Terrorism

Iraq is using all the political, economic, and military tools at its disposal in its effort to defeat al Qaeda.

BAGHDAD — When al Qaeda and other terrorist groups attacked Anbar province in late December and temporarily took control of parts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, "This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis."

Indeed this is our fight. More than two years after American troops left Iraq, with violent extremist groups such as al Qaeda resurgent, Iraq accepts that it is our responsibility to defeat them militarily, to isolate them politically, and to create the social and economic conditions that will deny them any local support in the future.

While the battle against al Qaeda in Anbar province is Iraq's fight, it is part of a larger struggle against terrorism that threatens our neighbors in the Middle East and North Africa and also endangers the United States and the entire world community. The terrorism we face is transnational in nature, and defeating it will require international collaboration, including a strong partnership between the United States and Iraq. As President Barack Obama emphasized in his State of the Union address, we need to work together as partners to "disrupt and disable" terrorist networks. Both the United States and Iraq, then, have much to gain by making the shared effort against our shared enemies.

In order to defend and rebuild our country, Iraq needs American equipment and American know-how, as well as private investment in our own country and strategic coordination in our region. Such common efforts against common enemies in pursuit of common goals are the object of the Strategic Framework Agreement that the United States and Iraq signed before the withdrawal of American troops in 2011.

Iraq is not a protectorate; we are a partner. Iraqis are grateful to the U.S. troops who served in our country, some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice. But today Iraq is a sovereign country that does not need American boots on the ground.

In that spirit of partnership, I want to share the thinking behind our efforts to defend our country against terrorism. Over the last decade, the Iraqi people and their elected leaders have learned many lessons. We understand that a purely military approach will not succeed in stopping terrorism, much less in healing the sectarian, ethnic, and regional rifts that are exploited by violent extremism.

We also understand that terrorism is not solely an Iraqi problem but an international problem. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the Syrian civil war: Time and again, I have cautioned against the spillover of terrorism from that conflict to our own country, and now it has happened. With logistical support from their bases in Syria, al Qaeda and other extremist forces have re-established their presence in western Iraq and increasingly are able to send suicide bombers into our country to cause death, destruction, and disorder. These groups have renewed their campaign to foment sectarian violence and have sought to drive a wedge between our people. The spillover from Syria is the most important factor in the upsurge of violence in Iraq over the past year.

But make no mistake: What we are witnessing is not sectarian strife -- it is indiscriminate slaughter. Al Qaeda kills Shiites. Al Qaeda kills Sunnis. And, on Christmas, the terrorists bombed Christian neighborhoods in Baghdad, murdering more than two dozen people on their holiest day.

Because al Qaeda believes in blowing people up, not in winning people over, it can be beaten, must be beaten, and will be beaten. Iraq has defeated al Qaeda before, and we have a holistic strategy to defeat al Qaeda again.

We aim not only to defeat terrorists when we find them, but also to diminish the discontent on which they feed. We are pursuing a comprehensive, multifaceted strategy of constitutional governance, social inclusion, security operations, diplomatic outreach, and economic development to accomplish this. We want to work in partnership with the United States on all these efforts, especially as we move forward toward a crucial milestone in Iraq's progress from dictatorship to democracy -- our fourth parliamentary elections since 2003.

We are committed to conducting these elections by April 30, 2014, and to providing a secure environment across Iraq that will encourage voter participation, thereby enhancing the legitimacy of the democratically elected government and diminishing the appeal of the extremists.

Al Qaeda understands the importance of our elections, and so should Iraqis and Americans. By trying to sow disorder and chaos less than three months ahead of the vote, the terrorists are seeking to reignite divisions within Iraqi society and undermine our emerging democratic institutions. We cannot and will not allow this to happen. It is our duty to ensure that communities can exercise their right to vote freely without intimidation or fear.

Security Operations

Winning the support of the people we defend is central to our strategy for defeating terrorism. Because al Qaeda is targeting all Iraqis -- whether Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, or Turkmen, among other groups -- we are seeking to unite all Iraqis against the forces of extremism

An effective counterterrorism strategy requires us to harness the full capacity of our security forces. Because of our outreach efforts, many Sunni tribes and clans have been fighting alongside the security forces in Anbar, Ninevah, and other troubled provinces.

As during the American "surge" beginning in 2007, the security forces have the support of the Sons of Iraq. These groups of local citizens -- which started among the Sunni tribes in Anbar province and expanded nationally -- help to protect their communities by serving as auxiliary police forces.

We are also empowering local tribesmen, who fight alongside Iraqi police forces, to help eradicate the scourge of al Qaeda. We are providing these tribesmen with the weapons, money, and logistical support to take on the challenge -- and where local forces require extra assistance, we have sent in special forces that are trained in counterterrorism operations. The national army is also pursuing terrorist camps in the remote desert areas of Anbar, in addition to securing our borders.

We have also listened to the concerns of the local provincial council and have refrained from ordering the Army into Anbar's towns. We know that al Qaeda uses civilians as human shields -- because of our desire to avoid civilian casualties, we have sought to empower local forces to tackle this threat from within.

These operations may take time, but they are the surest way of reducing the suffering of local residents, who have endured much over the years, while ensuring that the security gains can be sustained and consolidated. That is why we plan to build upon our effort to incorporate the Sons of Iraq movement into the security forces so that they can take primary responsibility for their own areas -- and to eventually position Army units outside the provinces, as stipulated by the constitution.

Our government has also sought to reinstate army and police officers who had been unfairly dismissed after the collapse of the former regime. We have held five rounds of reinstatements to encourage former officers to rejoin the security forces.

U.S. support for Iraq's security is still important -- especially military equipment and intelligence cooperation, which allows us to track down and eliminate terrorist networks. We have also begun discussions with our American counterparts on resuming training for our counterterrorism forces. We are not asking for American foreign aid. Thanks to our rapidly growing economy, we are able and willing to pay for all the military equipment we need. That is why the Obama administration offered to sell us Apache helicopters, and we are grateful that Congress has now approved that sale.

Social Inclusion

Open, inclusive politics is an integral part of our security strategy. A society where every community has a voice and no one feels excluded will deny extremists the support they require for their violent aims.

As a testament to our progress, Freedom House recognized that opposition parties were able to organize freely during last year's provincial elections. For this and other reasons, Freedom House upgraded Iraq's rating on political rights. We are striving for a society where grievances can be heard and differences can be resolved through open debate and peaceful protests.

However, we cannot allow extremists to undermine our country by taking advantage of our democratic freedoms. Once it became clear that terrorists in Anbar were attempting to hijack the lawful demands of civilian protesters and infiltrating their protest camp in Ramadi to foment sectarian tensions, in addition to blocking the main highway to Jordan and Syria for several months, we moved to work with the local provincial council and tribal elders to end the protests peacefully. We knew that given the opportunity to address their concerns peacefully, local leaders would reject those who preach divisiveness and practice violence.

When security forces eventually moved to close down the camp, there was not a single instance of violence. As our past elections have shown, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis embrace ballots, not bullets. From our recent history, Iraqis have concluded that no single faction -- whether ethnic, religious, regional, or political -- should dominate our country. The only way for our government to succeed is to be inclusive, in every way.

In all these efforts, it is essential to empower local governments to settle local grievances. By decentralizing governmental authority, we aim to promote the social inclusion that discourages people from resorting to, or even tacitly supporting, violent rebellion. Decentralization may not be the easiest way to govern, but it is the most empowering because everyone has a stake in the system.

Iraq is led today by a government of national unity. All the major political blocs in parliament are represented at the cabinet level. This is the antithesis of the kind of single-party government that we endured under Saddam Hussein. We may have our differences, but we are resolving them through dialogue and understanding within our constitutional institution. While inclusiveness and dialogue may not be the speediest ways to make decisions, they are the best ways to ensure that decisions are accepted across ethnic, regional, and religious lines.

International Support

Complementing our domestic outreach, we have called on the international community, including the United States, the European Union and the Arab League, to tackle the transnational nature of terrorism.

Much of our effort has focused on working with our neighbors to find a just end to the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has had a direct impact on our security. We have insisted from the very beginning of the conflict that only a negotiated political settlement can offer hope for ending the cycle of violence, and we have fully supported the United Nations' initiatives, such as the Geneva process, which provides a framework for talks between the Syrian government and the opposition.

We are also cooperating closely with Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries in the region to address the crisis in Syria. Such cooperation is critical to demonstrating moderate Arab solidarity and countering growing sectarian polarization. In the face of extremism and terrorism, we need an axis of moderation with our Arab brothers.

Our region requires a concerted effort to cut off regional sources of funding that are sustaining al Qaeda and other extremist groups. We also need to address the worrying rise of recruitment by jihadists who incite hatred and sectarianism by glamorizing their evil acts of violence. Throughout the Middle East, governments and civil society need to be more vocal in countering the sectarian narrative of jihadists who seek to pit the people of our region against each other.

Iraq is reaching out diplomatically to all our neighbors in order to build strong relations and resolve any outstanding political issues, which will involve tackling the sources of regional instability upon which al Qaeda thrives. Turning the page from the previous regime, we have a policy of noninterference in our neighbors' affairs. We do not want to have differences with any country in the region -- not Turkey, not Saudi Arabia, not Iran, and not Syria.

And our policy is working. Under Saddam, Iraq was isolated internationally and regionally. Today, 17 nations from the Middle East and North Africa have embassies in Iraq, and we have good relations with almost all Arab countries.

Where we still have disagreements, we are moving forward to resolve them through constructive dialogue. We are resolving our outstanding issues with Kuwait -- a legacy of the former regime. The recent official visit to Baghdad by the prime minister of Kuwait and the restoration of air travel for the first time in 23 years are significant developments in resolving our differences. As a consequence of our improved relations with Kuwait, the U.N. Security Council has lifted the crippling sanctions against our country. Our diplomatic progress is also reflected in our having hosted the Arab League summit in Baghdad in March 2012.

Today our neighbors see us as the partner that we are, not the pariah that Saddam Hussein once was.

Economic Development

Economic development dampens support for extremist violence by offering better lives for all our people and opportunities for the young men targeted by extremists for recruitment. On Saturday, Feb. 15, I visited Anbar and discussed with local council officials and tribal leaders our plan to defeat terrorism and rebuild the province. We agreed to integrate some 10,000 tribal fighters into the local security forces and announced plans to allocate a multimillion-dollar reconstruction package for Anbar in this year's federal budget. By providing jobs and stimulating investment, we can begin to undo the damage that has been inflicted upon our people in Anbar by terrorists.

On the national level, we have made significant strides in bolstering our economy. The Economist Intelligence Unit recently listed Iraq as one of the 10 countries whose economies are expected to grow the most in 2014.

On the energy front, our oil production has increased by 50 percent since 2005. And it is poised to grow further: We produced 3.2 million barrels a day last year and expect to increase our oil production to 4.5 million barrels per day by the end of 2014 -- and then to 9 million barrels per day by 2020.

This translates into $5 trillion in oil revenue for the Iraqi government through 2035, and we are investing this money in our people, our communities, and our infrastructure. We are rebuilding roads, bridges, highways, railroads, and airports. We are restoring our electric power, water supply, and sanitation systems. And we are improving our schools and health-care facilities.

Americans can provide what our nation needs through investment and trade, not charity and aid. Iraqis want to partner with every segment of society -- not only the government, but also the business sector.

Iraq offers American companies tremendous opportunities to design and build schools, bridges, highways, hospitals, water treatment facilities, telecommunications systems -- and much more.

These investments are potentially lucrative and play an important role in our strategic plan to fight terrorism and promote reconciliation. Major American companies, including Citibank, Ford, Boeing, and General Electric are doing business with Iraq, and we hope that many more will seize the opportunities of our expanding economy. Iraq's recent purchases from American companies have soared into the billions of dollars -- notably 41 Boeing planes, contracts with General Electric to rehabilitate our power grid, and purchases of military hardware to equip the Iraqi security forces. These are just a sign of our potential as a partner and market.

Our determination to build a united and prosperous Iraq that is a beacon of stability and democracy in the region has not waned. The threat of al Qaeda has rallied Iraqis behind our security forces at this crucial historic moment.

Americans and Iraqis have sacrificed so much in our common struggle against our common enemy -- terrorism. With a comprehensive strategy against violent extremism, we are determined to build an Iraqi future worthy of our shared sacrifices.

Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images