When in Russia, eat like the Soviets. While the country’s cuisine has taken off in recent years, with major cities like Moscow and St Petersburg dotted with modern restaurants, bars and bistros, there is still a nostalgic corner for the humble stolovaya.

In the erstwhile Soviet Union, these canteens, in factories, universities, schools and almost every workplace, were an essential part of everyday life.

They were opened to provide the vast populace in post-revolution Soviet Union with healthy food at a nominal charge. The canteens have now been updated to suit modern tastes, but remain an option for budget meals for locals and tourists alike.

They are self-serving, buffet-style eateries, usually with four tables, where you can carry all you want on a tray and pay at the end of the line. Most of them serve cheap beer, and might end up being ideal watering holes for football fans flocking to Russia during the World Cup.

Nowhere is the facelift more evident than at the Stolovaya 57, housed in the sprawling shopping complex GUM, which sits in the eastern corner of the iconic Red Square in Moscow. GUM is the largest shopping mall in Moscow, a glistening ode to capitalism in the heart of what was once the largest bastion of communism in Europe, and possibly the world.

The Stolovaya 57, which coexists comfortably with the luxury brands of the West, is a relic of the Soviet era sugar-coated with modernism. It serves traditional dishes like dressed herring, (borsch) beetroot soup, cabbage soup and blinis with large dollops of Soviet nostalgia.

Free soup at a church canteen in Moscow, 2001. Photo: Reuters
Free soup at a church canteen in Moscow, 2001. Photo: Reuters

“Today’s canteens are more like cheap cafés with some food options pre-cooked and sorted," says Moscow resident Boris Popov, who was born in Ivanovo.

“There are some canteen-styled fancier places with better food in the centre of Moscow and other cities that are oriented towards tourists. Also, a lot of business centres nowadays have canteens for the office workers, where you can eat lunch at prices lower than in the restaurants/cafés around."

The Russian revolution of 1917 had left the country reeling and famines were widespread. The Bolsheviks wanted to set up canteens to serve a dual purpose: to provide food to all layers of society and include women in the expanding workforce. Essentially, the drive towards equality, in socio-economic status as well as gender, began in the kitchen.

So stolovayas were meant to provide standardized, hygienic, scientifically proportioned nutritious meals.

In a January article headlined “How The Soviet Union Brought Culinary Equality To The Table", Anna Sorokina writes in Russia Beyond: “A working person had no need to eat a lunch at home. He could eat at a canteen in his factory or office, where all dishes were cooked according to the state standards (GOSTs), that regulated everything from the quantity of meat in the soup to the chemical composition of forks."

The canteen culture quickly caught on. In Moscow, the number of canteens rose from 881 in October 1918 to 2,350 in June 1919, according to historian Mauricio Borrero. Petrograd, now called St Petersburg, saw the numbers climb from 200 to about 700 in almost the same time frame. Overall, in two of the biggest cities in the country, they catered to a total of about 900,000 people.

In a May 2014 report, “How Russia’s Shared Kitchens Helped Shape Soviet Politics", Russian culinary writer Anya von Bremzen has been quoted saying: “Bolsheviks were not into food. (Vladimir) Lenin was not a foodie. They saw it as fuel; they had to feed the workers. The Bolsheviks kind of wanted to eradicate privacy. And private hearth, private stove becomes very politicized."

In communist Soviet Union, these canteens were strictly places to eat, not to socialize. The interiors were often dank and the quality of food declined sharply after World War II. Meat and vegetables were not readily available round the year, so food was laden with fat and mayonnaise and Thursday was declared a “fish day". Also, rather than reducing the load of cooking, women ended up being employed at these industrial kitchens en masse.

“For many not-so-rich people, a lunch at a stolovaya is a fact of life, regardless of the age," says Peter Kozyrev, whose company Peterswalk has been organizing walking and bicycling tours of St Petersburg since 1996. “It’s just older people who may be able to compare the choice and the quality of meals offered (now). Back in the Soviet days, there wasn’t really a choice of anything—life was simple, predictable, and standardized across the country. Stolovaya ration was more or less the same anywhere in the country, with the same state-controlled prices and the same odour of overcooked food."

But Kozyrev is quick to point out that “those times are over".

Moscow residents lining up at a canteen in 1921. Photo: Getty Images
Moscow residents lining up at a canteen in 1921. Photo: Getty Images

The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a decade of chaos in the country. The subsidies to these canteens stopped and most of them shut shop as they could not compete with the cafés and restaurants. Communal kitchens in shared apartments became a thing of the past, giving people the mental and physical space to indulge in home-cooked food.

“The beginning of the 21st century saw somewhat a revival of the canteens but more in general form than the real spirit," adds Popov, a graduate of the London School of Economics.

These Soviet-era canteens now range from ones serving basic meals with no atmosphere to those with chic interiors and global cuisines. The ones in bigger cities now also label dishes in English.

So if you do find yourself in Russia, head over to a stolovaya for a spoonful of history, culture and economy in a bright bowl of borsch.

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