It Takes More Dough To Buy Russian Bread

Bread has a major place in Russian culture. It's more than just a staple. In Russia's turbulent history it's often been the only thing that's kept people alive. Now this delicious part of Russian life is under threat.

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In Russia, no meal is complete without bread, often a traditional dark, thick rye bread. For centuries, it's been a staple, its quality even regulated by law. But as Russian lifestyles have become more globalized, so has Russia's bread. NPR Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer has this report.

GREGORY FEIFER: In a small store in central Moscow, shoppers select loaves of bread in plain paper wrappers. Seventy-eight-year-old Maria Evonivna(ph) says traditional Russia rye has been a crucial part of her life.

Ms. MARIA EVONIVNA: (Through translator) Even during the war, when we had to line up with ration cards for meager portions of bad quality, the bread still somehow tasted really good.

FEIFER: For many Russians a meal isn't a meal without bread. In provincial cafeterias the borscht may be greasy, but the thick, slightly sour rye bread is almost always delicious.

But bread is more than just an accompaniment to meals. It's had a crucial social function since czarist days. Peace, Land, Bread was a Bolshevik rallying cry during the revolution. And under communism the price for a loaf was just pennies. Even today a loaf costs 15 rubles, only about 40 cents. But 73-year-old Mesia Felipenev(ph) says that's already too much.

Ms. MESIA FELIPENEV: (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: How are pensioners supposed to live with rising prices? she says. The government just doesn't care about the elderly.

Some politicians are calling for the cheapest bread to stay around 30 cents a loaf. But that's met with unanimous opposition from bread producers, who say they're barely scraping by as it is.

This large bakery built under Stalin was privatized like all Russian bakeries in the 1990s.

(Soundbite of machinery)

FEIFER: The machines here still shape the dough into loaves carried by rattling conveyors into massive ovens. It isn't fancy, but it's the basic Russia bread created to the same standards set under the Soviet Union. Bakery director Anatoli Cosovan(ph), who's president of the Russian Bakers Union, says unless prices are allowed to rise, Russian bakers won't be able to compete with the growing selection of imported breads.

Mr. ANATOLI COSOVAN (Russian Bakers Union): (Through translator) People spend an average of $12 a month on bread. That's nothing. If we can't buy new equipment, the quality of bread will decline, and that's bad for everyone.

FEIFER: The cultural significance of bread also extends beyond the dinner table. Official visitors are often greeted on airport tarmacs with traditional bread and salt. One favorite variety, a dark bread flavored with treacle and coriander, is named after Borodino, where Russian soldiers made their epic stand against Napoleon's army in 1812.

But Anatoli Cosovan says today bread is slowly losing its role in Russian life.

Mr. COSOVAN: (Through translator) Bread used to be seen as something holy. It's still important, but attitudes are changing, especially among the young.

FEIFER: As lifestyles become more Westernized, Russians are eating more meat and less bread, and more white loaves instead of the traditional rye. But for many Russians, bread remains one of their country's greatest products.

Back at the bread store, Nikolei Malinkin(ph) says it's the best in the world.

MR. NIKOLEI MALINKIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: He says, If only we could make cars like this.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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