Hidden Kitchens: The Kitchen Sisters




Last week, our Hidden Kitchens series chronicled the communal kitchens of revolutionary Russia - 10 to 12 families living together, cooking in and sharing one kitchen. Today, the Kitchen Sisters' producers, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, take us to the middle years of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. This is when the Soviet Union changed its future by changing the Soviet home. Thousands of new family apartments were constructed, this time with individual kitchens. And those new private home kitchens became hotbeds of politics, literature and protest.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 1: The communal kitchen was a war zone. During the Stalin time, it was the most dangerous place to be - in the kitchen.

MASHA KARP: After Khrushchev came to power, people started moving out from their communal flats into the separate flats. Khrushchev introduced this completely new era. It was called a Thaw and for a reason.

VLADIMIR VOINOVICH: Like in the winter, when you have a lot of snow but some spots are green. New grass is coming. It was a little bit more liberal than before, very good time for inspiration.

SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: When my father came to the power, he proclaimed there will be mass construction of the apartment buildings, where in each apartment will be only one family - small kitchen, small bathroom. I'm Sergei Khrushchev, retired professor from Brown University. My father was Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964.

EDWARD SHENDROVICH: Khrushchev apartments, they were called khrushchevkas - five-story buildings, concrete panels, horribly built, very small kitchens.

KARP: No matter how tiny it was, it was yours. My name is Masha Karp from Leningrad. I worked for the Russian service of the BBC. This kitchen was the place where they finally could get together with their friends and talk at home without fearing the neighbors in the communal flat.

SHENDROVICH: One of the reasons why kitchen culture developed in Russia is because there were no places to meet. I'm Edward Shendrovich, venture investor. I'm also a Russian poet. You couldn't have political discussions in public, at your workplace. You couldn't go to cafes. They were state-controlled. The kitchen became a place where Russian culture kept living, untouched by the regime. It was the beginning of dissident kitchens.

ALEXANDER GENIS: Kitchen was for intimate circle for your close friends. The kitchen was relatively safe. I am Alexander Genis, Russian writer and radio journalist. First of all, when they came to kitchen, they put on the table some vodka, and you put something from your balcony, like pickled mushrooms - something pickled. Sour is the taste of Russia. And you just start talking.

GRISHA FREIDIN: Kitchens became debating societies. People would crowd over that kitchen table - huddle there. Sometimes, there would be KGB agents stationed in the stairwells. During those times, we expected to be arrested any night.


FREIDIN: We ate bunch of bread, canned food like sprats, a lot of vodka. Tongues got looser. My name Grisha Freidin, professor of Russian literature at Stanford University. Even to this day, political windbaggery is referred to as kitchen table talk. After politics, literature, samizdat.

GENIS: Samizdat means self-publishing. A lot of literature was banned, couldn't be published or read openly. It was published on people's typewriters, distributed through kitchens.

FREIDIN: You put your carbon paper in typewriter. You type the whole book. It wasn't easy to get typewriter, too, because all typewriters must be registered with KGB.

KARP: A friend of mine got hold of a typewritten copy of Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago." It was 1973. She said, I'm reading it at night. I can't let it out of my hands, but you can come to my kitchen and read it here. So I read it in four afternoons.


GENIS: The same things that happened with samizdat books, happened with music. It's called magnitizdat - recording on tape recorder. Some friend got it from another friend. So the most famous was Vladimir Vysotsky, who was Bob Dylan of Russia. This what you can listen in kitchen.


KHRUSHCHEV: Usually, it was the Western music that they wanted to copy. Before the tape recorders, they used - they used x-ray film and record music on the x-ray of bones - bone music.

VOINOVICH: Every kitchen has its own radio. It was a window to the freedom. There was Voice of America and BBC. My name is Vladimir Voinovich. My books were circulated in samizdat, smuggled abroad. Then foreign radio stations broadcasted it. I heard, in the kitchen, some BBC voice reading my chapters. After that, it was immediately summoned to KGB.

YULIY KIM: My name is Yuliy Kim. I am writer and composer. (Through translator) I wrote this cycle of songs called "Moscow Kitchens." Telling a story of a group in the '50s and the '60s that are called dissidents. How they began to get together and how it lead to protest, how they were detained, forced to leave the country. This is how the subversive thought grew and expanded in the Soviet Union, beginning with free discussions in the kitchens.


KIM: (Through translator) A tea house, a pie house, a pancake house, a study, a gambling dive, a living room, a parlor, a ballroom and a salon for a passing by drunkard. A home for a visiting bard to crash for a night. This is a Moscow kitchen, 10 square meters housing 100 guests.

GREENE: Hidden Kitchens is produced by the Kitchen Sisters with Charles Maynes and also Jim McKee. You can see those dissident kitchen musicians and also see pictures of those Soviet songs recorded on x-rays of bones. It's all at our website npr.org. This is NPR News.

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