|Hotel Moskva, 1930s.
(Previously: 30 years ago today: A taste of Moscow, with occasional beers for sustenance. Portions of the following have been adapted from my 1985 Leningrad tale)
The price of our SSTS tour of the USSR and Poland in 1987 included meals. Given that we were “youth and students” on a budget outing, I expected little, and wasn’t once disappointed.
One sack lunch sticks in my mind. There was a hard-boiled egg a la Dr. Seuss (it was green), a heel of bread and a hunk of congealed sausage.
I wolfed them down. We drinkers understand the value of a proper foundation.
As for the needs of others, in the sense of dietary restrictions? This simply wasn’t a concept, and vegetarians surely would have starved unless they ate cheese.
As for food and dining on the part of the citizenry, there seemed to be a noticeable absence of restaurants. Of course, with almost all economic activity controlled by the state, there’d have been no way to be entrepreneurial.
In a country where famine had occurred within living memory, food supply definitely was an obsession. In a country with a centralized economy, food supply was something undertaken very differently than at home in the States.
It isn’t that Moscow’s inhabitants didn’t dine outside their homes. Many received their main meal at lunchtime, as served at their workplaces, and they also took quick bites at any number of “people’s” or “worker’s” cafeterias, many serving soup, potatoes and dumplings.
As a guidebook colorfully stated, these eateries were “dirt cheap and dirty,” and while they didn’t stand out at first, they definitely were there, seemingly allocated by population. Having arrived in Moscow via Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Hungary, I’d already become enamored of these sorts of places.
Parts is parts, and sausage never scared me. Especially in Hungary, cafeterias punched far above their weight for the price.
On my first day in Moscow, with time to kill, I grabbed a bowl of pelmeni in grayish-brown sauce from an inconspicuous cafeteria-style eatery. Pelmeni are classic Russian ear-shaped dumplings roughly the size of small won tons, made of unleavened dough with a meaty filling.
It’s best not to ask any more questions.
There didn’t seem to be a kitchen, strongly implying that the day’s pelmeni were delivered each morning from the Central Moscow Pelmeni Factory, and when depleted of dumplings, the door would be locked.
Relative anonymity was the norm. A sign out front identified the establishment with just a name and a number: Pelmeni No. 34. After all, when the government owns everything, everything is a chain by definition, and marketing isn’t really necessary when choice is intentionally limited.
Soviet “sit-down” restaurants comparable to the sort Americans were accustomed to seeing by the half-dozen at every interstate interchange were regarded by ordinary Russians as places for special occasions, like weddings and anniversaries.
Above a certain classification, formal restaurants had the reputation and appearance of being inaccessible to normal human beings. In essence, all their seats were reserved, all of the time.
There’d be a sign stating the restaurant was entirely booked, even though a glance through the window showed most (sometimes all) seats empty. A doorman would guard the door as though he were defending the vaults at Ft. Knox.
Only later did I learn the key to breaking the code, because in fact, anyone could phone the restaurant or visit earlier in the day and make a reservation, so long as a wedding wasn’t taking place. It really was that simple. However, in the beginning this wasn’t evident. The game for westerners was all about bribing one’s way inside.
Hence the value of western cigarettes and toothpaste. So it was that four of us (myself, Barrie, Nick and Nat) decided to squander a half-inch of Barr’s black market ruble windfall on an evening’s merriment.
Our choice was the cavernous restaurant at the Hotel Moskva, a monstrous 1,000-room structure dating from 1935, situated near Red Square and the Kremlin, squatting massively astride what seemed to be a dozen lanes of wide highway that never had more than a handful of Ladas chugging through them, but apparently came in handy as a May Day parade ground.
The sheer size and scale of hotels like Moskva, Ukraina, Intourist and Rossiya bear witness to two fundamentally important points. First, that the Soviets constantly invoked sheer size and scale to prove they could create a man-made world on a par with capitalists.
Perhaps more importantly, in a gated society with the number of outside visitors strictly rationed, it was imperative to monitor them, and easier to do so in a 500-room hotel than scattered hostelries.
Of the four hotels I’ve mentioned here, three have been demolished since the fall of communism: Intourist, Rossiya and Moskva, although the Moskva recently was rebuilt with the same 1935 facade, preserving the contours of the streetscape leviathan with modern interior amenities.
Curiously, I remember nothing at all about how we gained access to the restaurant. It surely involved a small gift to the doorman, as we hadn’t made reservations, and of course every chair had an empty seat suit sitting on it.
Once inside, the guesswork would have commenced. Soviet restaurants certainly had menus, though they tended to be approximations, particularly in the case of foreigners who spoke no Russian. Even if the restaurant was able to serve a dozen main courses, the selection likely would be narrowed to simpler options, like either beef or fish.
Probably everyone involved understood the nature of the exercise, and you’d take what you were served, beginning with drinks and zakuski. In Russia, zakuski are appetizers both hot and cold, though often featuring pickled and smoked vegetables, cheese and fish.
The practice of zakuski apparently originated among the landowning classes as a reflection of Russia’s vastness and a mutually beneficial obligation to provide hospitality to travelers. In short, snacks and vodka were kept at the ready. These would sustain tired visitors until the kitchen could be animated to produce a full meal.
As meant to be taken with vodka, zakuski often proved to be the high point of restaurant meals in the Soviet Union.
Diners were given ample time to graze the zakuski and empty their bottles before the indifferent entree would appear, usually only after diners were sufficiently well lubricated to be grateful for belly mortar irrespective of quality. There’d usually be dessert, often ice cream.
My globetrotting cousin used to tell a wonderful story about his Moscow dining experience, which unfolded adjacent to a table occupied by two heavily drinking Russian men who obviously were Communist Party officials, judging by their imperious attitudes and outdated 1950s-era suits.
When their huge bowls of ice cream appeared following enough vodka to stun an elephant, one of the men promptly passed out — face down, straight into his ice cream.
The other one shrugged, reaching across the table to save his friend from drowning by grabbing a patch of thinning hair and removing the hair’s head from the bowl, depositing the head and dripping ice cream onto the table, then continuing to eat his own ice cream between gulps of the bottle’s last dregs.
Indeed, the drinks list at Soviet restaurants tended to be slim; perhaps juice, mineral water and sparkling wine to complement the ubiquitous vodka, though oddly, seldom beer. Vodka was the choice, and it is vitally important to remember that one should never try to keep pace with Russians drinking vodka.
They’ve been doing it since they were babies, via tubes inserted through their swaddling.
We spent several hours at the Hotel Moskva. I doubt the check totaled more than the equivalent of $50. I think we paid in dollars for a cab ride to the hotel. Nothing else about it is coming back to me these many years later, although I’m quite sure my face didn’t scream for ice cream.
We were rock stars in the worker’s paradise.