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Nutrition, gastronomy and revolution

9 June, 2020 · History

How the Russian Revolution transformed workers’ relationship with food.

Vignette from a Rosta illustrated story. The Bolshevik worker, turned into a red army soldier, reads the press while sipping tea under the portraits of Trotsky, Marx and Lenin.

A revolution is not a mass of people cast out into the streets “protesting” while “revolutionary” parties lead them towards taking power. It is, nowadays, a process of mass organization that creates the conditions and the organs through which the workers win the capacity to collectively and consciously re-organize the whole social fabric. At a glance, such a tremendous burst and development of collective capacities, against the very foundations of capitalist society, can hardly be reduced to a merely political domain. Historically, working class revolutions have disrupted all social spheres, expressing in each of them the programme implicit in its own situation as a “universal class”: the imposition of the satisfaction of human needs as the general criterion of social organization. The history of the working class is not a history of epic pictures, miraculous battles and brilliant rulers, such is the history of all bourgeois revolutions, not the history of the working class’ revolution. Since 1378, when the first proletarian insurrection took place way before the rise of capitalism as a system, it is instead an attempt at gigantic collective explorations which leave nothing out of reach. These revolts and revolutions are apparently intermittent and explosive movements. But only apparently, because as soon as we broaden the perspective, every “leap”, every “revolutionary explosion” is found to borrow from the previous attempt, no matter how thwarted it may have been considered.

Let’s ground this to the basics: food. It may seem absurd. There was nothing metaphorical about the demands for “bread” in the early stages before the seizure of power; and the production and distribution of food, dependent on the necessarily conflicting “relations between the proletariat and the peasantry” was from the very beginning a major problem of the Revolution in Russia, further exacerbated by its isolation. In fact, it was the famines produced by the civil war which ended up dismantling a large part of the urban proletariat at the beginning of the 1920s, decisively weakening the soviets in the face of the rise of the bureaucracy. In other words, the overall picture would seem to be the least conducive situation anywhere in the world for millions of people to rethink the functions of food, promote research on nutrition, and try to socialize cooking and eating as a universal priority. And yet that is exactly what happened.

Down with the slavery of the kitchen!

“Down with the slavery of the kitchen!” 1919 poster.

On October 27, 1917 (November 9), the second day of the revolution, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets approved the decree allowing local soviets to organize “communal kitchen” systems. A year later, in Petrograd and Moscow alone, there were more than 3,000 such kitchens where millions of workers ate every day. “Socializing” the kitchen responded to three fundamental objectives.

The first one, which emerged from “the initiative of the masses”, was the need to progressively turn food into an effective and free universal right. It will be completely free in many places and finally a free food system for minors will be established.

The second was organizational: to be able to organize with a certain degree of rationality the collective satisfaction of needs. The idea of organizing the proletariat in every neighborhood and in every large industrial complex into a large consumer cooperative would be increasingly asserted by the Bolsheviks, and Lenin would make it one of the flags of the NEP in 1920. If during war communism such a measure was understood as a way of grouping and calculating needs in the midst of growing scarcity, from 1920 it would be presented as the way in which the workers could exercise power collectively against the peasantry in the market for food products created by the NEP.

The third was the idea of “ending kitchen slavery”. An idea inherited from Bebel and his book “Women and Socialism” that had an exceptional following among the workers. The end of the family kitchen – and with it of the cooking obligations of the working class mother – was almost universally regarded as the material basis – together with the nurseries – for the egalitarian reorganization of the family, and it also merged with the extraordinary communal explosion of the 1920s which involved millions of workers in collective housing and production experiences. It is difficult to overestimate the weight of Bebel’s ideas by reading Kollontai for example:

Anyone who is able to see and pay attention recognizes that daily life has changed profoundly. In the course of the last four years, our workers’ republic has removed the very roots of women’s centuries-old slavery. […] Since the autumn of 1918 we have adopted in all cities the principle of public canteens. Municipal kitchens and free meals for children and adolescents have taken the place of the household economy. The development and application of our public kitchens to society as a whole has unfortunately been slowed down by our poverty and lack of foodstuffs. But the principle of the collective food system has been put into practice, and we are already setting up supply centers, even though we still lack food to organize a more rational, planned and centralized distribution.

“The revolutionary change of everyday life”, Alexandra Kolontai, lecture at the Sverdlov Institute in 1921.

What was eaten in these canteens? Basically… whatever was available. We know that in the days before the Civil War, when meat rations arrived at the Smolny, they were fattened up as “Convict Chops”, the original version of the Spanish “Russian Steak”. The meat was ground with pepper, bread soaked in milk -if any was available any- onion and parsley, the result was kneaded, breaded and fried. Today it is usually served with a little mustard. Rosmer tells us about the shortage of food at the Lux Hotel, where the trade unions and the Red International Trade Union had their headquarters. By 1920, most days when the leaders of the International could eat, they ate herring soup.

But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a “gastronomic reflection”. On the contrary. Another thing is that it was not, and is logical given the conditions, too hedonistic. Its primary objective was to go beyond the “hygienism” also inherited from the Second International in order to discover the “scientific bases of the diet” and to be able to ensure, in times of shortage, a minimum diet that responded to the needs of each person. The Futurists were, once again, pioneers in this, but the Proletkult also gave a push. The result came too late. In 1927, when the soviets were already practically destroyed – although they would not be legally abolished until the Stalinist constitution of 1937 – the “Conference on Nutrition of the Soviet Union” was held, from which the “Central State Institute of Public Nutrition” was to emerge, dependent on the People’s Commissariat for Health of the “Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic” (RSFSR).

The culinary counterrevolution

The new state bourgeoisie recovered Western women’s fashion as a way of establishing their “merry life” and differentiation as social class. The banal discourse was elaborated in magazines for women of the new ruling class like “The Art of Dressing”, in the cover image of issue number 1, published in 1929

But by the time this happened, in 1930, the stalinist bureaucracy had already seized all the power and was applying itself to destroying everything created during the Revolution. Among them was the universal food system that aimed at free food. With the introduction of “differential salaries” the restaurants for the rich and the poorly supplied houses of the workers came back.

The reforms that followed from June 1932 revealed the true face of the regime. Stalin began by strongly opposing one of the aspirations most desired by the workers, one of the few conquests of October that had not yet been taken away from them: the principle of economic equality in the proletariat. On a dictatorial order, a new gospel was established: the workers’ hierarchy, the “reform of the wage system” with the aim of creating “greater differences in remuneration between different groups”. This essentially capitalist principle was declared to be in conformity with socialism and communism. The old principle was fought against and stigmatized with the name of petty-bourgeois “levelling”!

It was no longer collectivism or solidarity, even if it was compulsory, which should stimulate the worker to produce, but the old capitalist principle of selfishness and profit. In addition, a system of piecework was introduced – “piecework with progressive bonuses” – which had long since been abolished in the West thanks to the efforts of the labor movement. After doubling administrative coercion with a new sweating system, the Soviet leaders proclaimed that the intensity of labor had no limits: the physiological limit of capitalist production “had been abolished in the country of socialism thanks to the enthusiasm of the workers”. The “rhythm of the galleys” in the serial work of the capitalist countries from now on had to be… accelerated even more.

If they were striving to create “greater differences in pay” among the workers according to their qualifications, what about the gulf that existed between the workers and the civil servants, whether they were communists or not? The “merry life” enjoyed by the upper strata to the detriment of the miserable masses never ceases to amaze the foreign tourist visiting the USSR and taking the trouble to look around. This “merry life” was first legalized after Stalin’s speech in June 1931. In order to further increase the privileges they had in terms of supply and accommodation, a new closed distribution network was created and some restaurants were reserved for the top communist or non-party managers. Finally, “state warehouses” were created for their exclusive use where absolutely everything could be bought at prices inaccessible to the workers. The remnants of “war communism,” as the bureaucracy liked to call them at the beginning of the Five-Year Plan, were thrown away. All this smacked of pure class selfishness, and the accounts of the prisoners who had recently arrived in prison confirmed the impression that this new policy responded to a deep and lasting trend. The people were not fooled when they defined the situation with these bitter words: “There are no classes among us, only categories”. In fact, the entire population of Russia was divided into five or six categories from the point of view of their standard of living, which placed each one in his or her rightful place in society. But in the epoch of which we speak the label of “dictatorship of the proletariat” had not yet been replaced by that of “Soviet people”; the most favored workers still belonged to Category No. 1 and the bureaucracy designated their privileges with the trivial title of “category number zero”.

Yet the shift was so overt and brutal that those who were free could not be fooled. A Moscow factory director who came to our prison in 1932 defined the situation of Communist personnel in this way: “During the day we make propaganda among the workers in favor of the general line and explain to them that socialism is about to triumph; but in the evening, among colleagues, while drinking tea, we ask ourselves whether we really represent the proletariat or a new exploiting class…”.

The tendency to consolidate this new order of things that emerged from the Five-Year Plan was also expressed through a desire to reconcile the various elements that made up the social elite. The “specialists without a party”, who yesterday were still harassed without mercy, today were proclaimed to be allies of the communist bureaucracy. “There are obvious symptoms that these intellectual circles are changing their attitude,” Stalin said. “These intellectuals who once sympathized with the saboteurs now support the Soviet power… What’s more, a part of the old saboteurs are beginning to collaborate with the working class.”

The “new style” of the Soviet cities, the reopening of elegant shops, restaurants and night clubs, the easy and relaxed life of the leaders, all this reminded of the NEP, but there was no private initiative, no merchants and no nepmen… The NEP without the nepmen was the symbol of the new Russia that replaced private trade with state trade, the merchant with the bureaucrat, the private NEP with the state-owned NEP!

Before Ciliga. The Russian Enigma, 1937

The stalinist counter-revolution recoreverd and exacerbated old gender roles as part of the restoration of capitalist order.

With the perspective of the socialization completely aborted, the working woman was once again considered the “queen of the house” and all the old gender roles that the revolution had tried to overcome were glorified. Of course there was no lack of resistance among working women… but a counter-revolution is not confronted by fighting against its daily consequences, but against its core.

What direction could the “Institute of Nutrition” take in this context? The logical and expected one: to become dependent on the “Academy of Sciences”, a specialized branch of the bureaucracy, and dedicate itself to the miracle desired by every bourgeoisie in the world: to feed the workers with processed remains. The main objective of the Institute was none other than to try to create what today is marketed as “Soylent“, synthetic food from scraps that supplies the medically recommended food needs in the form of a liquid pap. There is no need to waste time or stop working in order to eat.

Meanwhile, the bureaucracy returned to the old regime’s seamstresses and the chefs of the czarist era. “Nostalgic” restaurants from whose evolution the badly named “Soviet cuisine” of the sixties and seventies would emerge. Soviets had been emptied and destroyed decades earlier.