Hidden Kitchens: The Kitchen Sisters


Time now for Hidden Kitchens. And today, we go to Russia to peer into the kitchens of the Soviet era. In the years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, people poured into Moscow from the countryside. Housing and food were both scarce. By the 1920s, the new Soviet Union, under Joseph Stalin, set out to create an industrialized food system and to reimagine the role of the kitchen in Soviet society. The Kitchen Sisters - producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva - bring us this story of the communal kitchens of the Soviet Union.


SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: In the time of revolution, the Stalin time, the theoretical idea of communism declared that all people have to be equal, and the women have to be free from the slavery work in the kitchen. There mustn't be a kitchen in the apartment. They will go and eat in the cafeteria. I'm Sergei Khrushchev, retired professor from Brown University. My father was Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964.

ALEXANDER GENIS: The most important part of kitchen politics in early Soviet time and the revolution time was they would like to have houses without kitchen, because kitchen is something bourgeois. Every family, as long as they have a kitchen, they have some part of their private life and private property. I am Alexander Genis, a Russian writer and radio journalist. The first houses that were built during the revolution, there really was no kitchen. Everybody was supposed to eat in huge, 500-people cafeteria canteens.


MASHA KARP: This is part of the romantic approach of the early post-revolutionary years. My name is Masha Karp, from Leningrad. I worked for the Russian service of the BBC. People forget what an incredible upheaval the 1917 revolution was. There was a huge movement to free the country from the Czarism, bring happiness to poorer classes. People thought maybe it's a good idea to relieve a housewife from her daily chores, so that she could develop as a personality. She would go and play the piano, write poetry, and she would not cook and wash up. The idea to have cafeterias was the continuation of this wonderful intention.


GRISHA FREIDIN: But it was only in theory, because after the revolution began the civil war, and they didn't build any cafeterias.

ANYA VON BREMZEN: Bolsheviks were not into food. Lenin was not a foodie. They saw it was fuel to feed the workers. The Bolsheviks kind of wanted to eradicate privacy and private hearth, private stove becomes very politicized. I'm Anya von Bremzen. I'm the author of "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking."

FREIDIN: Food shortages and the famine of the 1920s devastated whatever was left of the Russian kitchen. My name is Grisha Freidin, professor of Russian literature at Stanford University. Stalin's industrialization program included the industrialization of food. Completely new food appeared - mass produced. The whole of the Soviet Union, all 120 different ethnic groups, were suddenly being fed exactly the same stuff. Choices for this or that food, the tastings, took place at the politburo level. The kinds of candies that began to be mass-produced was decided in a special meeting with Stalin and Molotov.

EDWARD SHENDEROVICH: One of the goals of the new Soviet government was to kind of provide housing to the workers. I'm Edward Shenderovich, venture investor. I'm also a Russian poet. They started putting people into communal apartments. Before, they were generally occupied by the Russian rich or aristocrats who were driven out by the new government.


FREIDIN: I lived in the communal apartments until the age of 16, about 10 families sharing one kitchen. On one side of my room was the man who washed corpses at the local morgue. There were two rooms where mother and father served in the KGB. Then there was a woman whose husband was serving a sentence for stealing bread from the bread factory where he worked. There were two four-burner stoves. Everybody cooked their own - cabbage soup, borscht, beets, potatoes, buckwheat groats...

SHENDEROVICH: Five different kettles...

FREIDIN: ...boiled chicken.

SHENDEROVICH: ...give different parts that are all marked. When relations between the neighbors were especially fierce, you could see locks on the cabinets.

KARP: People cooked in the kitchen, but they practically never ate there. They would go with their pots along the corridor to their rooms and eat there.

SHENDEROVICH: Because they were communal kitchens, they were not places where you would bring your friends. I think that was one of the ideas for creating communal kitchen. There would be a watchful eye of society over every communal apartment. People would report on each other. You would never know who would be reporting.


FREIDIN: So, even though you lived in a communal apartment in a horrible hovel and had very little to eat, there were moments you could glimpse the future. After Stalin's death, the goal of the Soviet Union was to catch up and overtake the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Vice President Nixon escorts Soviet Premier Khrushchev on a preview of the United States Fair at Sokolniki Park in Moscow.

FREIDIN: Khrushchev decided to have an exchange of exhibitions with the United States. In order to compete with the West, you had to know what it was. This was 1959. I was 13 years old. Every visitor would pass the counter where Pepsi Cola was given out in disposable paper cups that I had never seen before. They were the first American company - even before McDonald's - to get their foot in the door.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Stolichnaya, a Russian vodka.

FREIDIN: Part of the deal between Pepsi Cola and the Soviet Union was that Pepsi Cola would be given the distribution rights for Stoli, Stolichnaya Vodka.


FREIDIN: The kitchen at the American exhibition reflected itself on the conversation between Khrushchev and Nixon, known as the Kitchen Debate.

KHRUSHCHEV: America built a model of the American kitchen. And then they go to this kitchen. Nixon talk about American achievement, my father talking about Soviet achievement. They argue with each other which system is better.

GENIS: Nixon, Khrushchev talk about food - how people live, how people eat.


MONTAGNE: Communal Kitchens was produced by the Kitchen Sisters, with Charles Maynes and mixed by Jim McKee. Next week, Hidden Kitchens returns to the Soviet Union. Under Khrushchev, the kitchen became the place to discuss and spread dissident literature and politics. Plus, you can see photos of those communal kitchens at npr.org.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from