Russian Stolovaya – a short history
A trip to Russia is not complete without a trip to a classic Soviet-style stolovaya. Usually translated into English as a canteen, the establishment of the Russian stolovaya is a nostalgic mark that adorns almost every street in the centre of St Petersburg and Moscow like a purified crystal from the rich furnace of Soviet history… Okay, that may be a little over the top, but when it’s virtually impossible to find a cheap meal for less than €6 in much of Western Europe, the student within me can’t help rejoicing at fair-priced food. Aside from its reasonable prices, the stolovaya has become an important part of everyday life; Russian people descend on these public canteens throughout the day to buy a cheap, pic ‘n’ mix style meal and take a break from the working day. The appeal of these eating establishments lies in their simplicity and reasonable prices – a concept that is unfortunately rare in today’s capitalist society.
Genesis of the Russian Stolovaya
The stolovaya was conceived in the 1920s when the government started organising various social programmes, including the mass organisation of public catering facilities. After the Revolution the organisation of nutrition became a very important question for the regime and many former bars and restaurants became working stolovayas. From humble beginnings, stolovoyas multiplied and improved drastically during a major effort to improve their quality in the 1930s. Until the war, the stolovoya was considered a fairly high-cultured place with tables covered in cloths and ornate, plaster mouldings, but after the war the food and the decor became more frugal.
Of course, no-one would deny the opportunity for cheap food, but historically the Russian stolovaya is virtually inseparable from Soviet Communist ideology. The main premise of the Soviet canteen was to nourish factory workers so they could work more efficiently and increase production. In 1924, for example, the first factory-kitchen was opened in the town Ivanovo-Voznesensk. These mechanised food production sites were eventually rolled out across Russia, creating jobs in the factories themselves while producing food for the masses. By 1933 there were already 105 factory-kitchens and more than 38,000 eating establishments frequented by workers. With masses frequenting the stolovaya everyday and and Soviet propaganda posters hanging on the wall the canteens very quickly became a mark of working life.
What can I eat?
Even today the stolovaya is known for its simplicity, but it only become so during the Second World War when food was much more limited. A basic meal would include a first course of fish or soup, a meat dish like schnitzel or escalope, a salad, and a fruit compote drink. Thankfully, however, since the collapse of the Soviet Union the quality and variation of food in Russian stolovayas have increased as chains and independent businesses continue to compete for a those looking for a slice of nostalgia at lunchtime.
Nowadays, although fast-food chains like MacDonalds and Subway are growing ever closer to world domination, stolovayas still continue to dominate the streets of Russia. The Russian stolovaya isn’t exactly the right place to go for a Michelin star meal, but if you are looking for authentic Russian food then this is an obligatory visit for all tourists, students and workers alike.