Pizza in the USSR

We learned first-hand what pizza is first before the the Soviet Union collapsed. Before that, it was something very foreign and exotic.

We are a country of Slav and Turkic peasants on the edge of human habitation, and we like portable food.

That’s why we didn’t make sandwiches (had no shrink wrapping for it) or pizzas: when you take these things with you to the fields (or to the woods or to the battle with Tartar nomads), everything slips off and makes a mess of the lunch pack your mother lovingly made for you.

That’s why we are so strong on “PIROGI” (in combination with cooked eggs, dried fish and pickled cucumbers on the side). The dough wraps it all up and absorbs any surplus gravy and fat in the filling.

When skeptical foreigners started pestering us with stupid questions about the mystery meat inside, we came to make small inspection openings in pirogi.

But no more concessions! This is the closest you come to pizza in traditional Russian cooking:

Grocery shops in the USSR

In the Soviet Union, there was no room for private shop owners. Grocery shops were state-owned, with a few “cooperatively-owned. They had no branding. It was very simple to find food in the Soviet. You had to go down a couple of blocks looking for big friendly letters saying “Producty” (groceries), or “Gastronom” (food), or if you are in a bigger city “Kolbasa” (processed meat), or “Ryba”/”Okean” (“fish”/”seafood”).

No guarantee that you find anything beyond the basic butter, milk or birch sap (a staple item, always in 3-liter glass containers). But if you saw a line forming inside or outside, it was a good sign: they had a fresh delivery of some rarer stuff.

This is what it looked like when I was little. Signs atop the entrances were my reading school. When my parents took me along for shopping, I would walk by and try to read them aloud by matching letters in shop signs to the sounds that grown-ups used to make of them.

Why did Russia view Poland as its rival in the past?

  • Poland was Russia’s prime strategic rival to the West long before Germany and the US
  • Ever since we in Russia decided that “Moscow is the third Rome, with no room for the fourth”, Poland had effectively been the only Slav country with the capacity and ambition to challenge us for the role of unifying power for all Slavic peoples of Europe
  • Poland was the prime conduit of Western cultural imports to Russia up to Peter the Great and his opening of Russian trade routes in the Baltic Sea. Russian has as many loan words from Polish (and German/Jewish through Polish) as from Turkic languages
  • In terms of geography, if you plan a land invasion to Russia, your way is through Poland. If you are Russian and want to conquer Europe, you must take Poland first. The Carpathian mountains to the south and Baltic Sea to the north leave you no room for maneuver,
  • The favorite Polish ideas of constitutions, noisy parliaments, aristocratic liberties and powerless monarchs have always deeply offended our Russian sense of popular justice, spiritual destiny and Großrussisches Reich (“Великая Русская держава”)
  • They are Catholics, we are Orthodox, and we find repulsive their habit of clothing face-shaved priests in sissy white and letting people sit during the services

How would Russian history differ if the Mongol invasion had not taken place?

Likely much the same.

The Mongol “yoke” over Russia itself is a murky historical construct promoted by Karl Marx and his later adherents.

  • There is no archaeological evidence of Mongol presence in heartland Russia.
  • There are next to none genetic traces of Mongol presence in heartland Russia.
  • Very few Mongol words in Russian language.
  • No Mongol names or ethnonyms
  • No rational explanation for how a massive Mongol horseback expedition could move thousands of miles through Russian woods in the dead of Russian winter.

What is called the “Mongol yoke” was most likely a gradual inclusion of Russian fiefdoms into the sphere of Turkic, and later Mongol influence after the Black Sea trade collapsed as a result of Byzantine sacking by Crusaders.

Why didn’t the Mongols invade Northern Russia?

  1. There is no answer to that in Russian or foreign chronicles.
  2. We have no national legends or epics that tried to explain this episode.
  3. Climate around Novgorod is not considerably colder from what we have in Suzdal or Vladimir. The Little Ice Age did not settle in before later.
  4. No archaeological evidence has been found so far of Mongol invasion to Russia in the middle of 1200 century.
  5. There are many accounts in Russian and foreign chronicles about devastations to cities i Eastern and Central Europe around the time of the Mongol invasion from a big invasive force from the East. But they don’t give a clear account of its military objective. Much simply does not make sense, like cavalry-based military campaign through Russian woods in the middle of the winter.

Did African students at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow experience racism?

There were rumors in the USSR of abuse that blacks occasionally faced during their stay as students in Moscow. There´s not a tradition in Russia to keep police track of racial abuse or hate speech. Whatever happens of such incidents, is lumped together with general crime statistics.

My impression is that middle class Russians are no more racist than the rest of Eastern Europe. It´s mostly low-income groups that tend to be involved in these incidents. In other words, they are not more abusive or violent toward Africans than they are against each other.

What complicates life for Africans in Russia is our weak tradition of actively opposing racism in daily life. We’ve been too used to letting state take care of the abomination. Besides, a whole lot of us find pride in being free from political correctness, and along with this pride goes indifference to racial slur, sexism and suchlike.

How to describe the China-Russia relationship?

It´s a marriage of convenience.

The ruling elite in Russia doesn´t like Western-style democracy because it means rotation of power. Historically, in Russia, if you lose power, you lose everything. Check what happened to the darlings of Yeltsin era, like Nemtsov, Khodorkovsky and Berezovsky. Why anyone would want that?

China, with its one-party state, offers a successful alternative to the West. The weaker Russia becomes, the more it gravitates toward China.

China welcomes this drift, as it gives it more legs in its international standing. There are no unresolved strategic issues between the two countries. Russian raw-material based economy is a useful backyard for Chinese manufacturing.

For Russia, it´s more dubious. Behind the shiny smiles and handshakes there is ingrained mistrust. Deep down, we have qualms about becoming China´s satellite. Russians are fascinated by the rise of China, its robust and multi-faceted, millennium-old culture. But there´s little appetite for “becoming like the Chinese”. We Russians prefer Western clothes, European education and Western culture. We like to see white people busy around us.

The entire “pivot to the East” initially started as a tactical move for leverage against the West. What Putin and the rest of the Russian elite have long worked for, is some kind of a Grand Bargain with the West. The US and Europe must guarantee the top 10.000 Russian families and their friends and associates an indefinite continuation of their power and offer support, like the Chinese do to their client states. If that doesn´t happen, Russia hardly have any alternative to further being turned into a Chinese dependency, much like the neighboring Central Asian states.

When will the bridge be built across the Bering Strait between Russia and America?

As soon as someone figures out the use of it.

Right now, what we have on either side of the Bering Strait?

  • Next to none people living on either side of it
  • No apparent natural resources that would be useful to mine and bring across the waters
  • The climate and landscape that won´t attract even most desperate refugees from the worst war zones
  • The closest industrial centers and transport hubs thousands of miles away
  • Two neighbor nations that are not exactly best pals
  • Vicious permafrost that makes even the simplest construction project a challenge
  • Ice fields that crush everything in their way at least once a year

Even with Mr Putin´s proclivity to spending billions of dollars on boosting the national image of Russia, it´s not an undertaking anyone is willing to take in the next couple of decades.

What inspired the “onion-top” architecture in Russia?

It was an inspiration from Iran and South Asia that came with Mongol-Tatars. Before that, Russians used to build Byzantine half-domes.

After the Byzantine Empire was crushed first by Crusaders and later by Ottomans, Russians figured that it maybe was not so wise to slavishly follow our Greek Orthodox teachers in everything. A spat of Iranian-Turkic imports came in like cucumber ornaments in our murals, multi-dome churches and riding boots with uplifted noses.

That´s when the onion domes came as well. Their outline mimicked human head on a long feminine neck. It turned so popular that communities went to the trouble of re-engineering existing churches to fit the new cool tops and color them bright or gold wherever local budgets had room for that.

What caused the tensions between the Allies after World War Two?

  • Stalin was very dissatisfied with how the strategic situation turned out for the USSR after WWII. The demarcation line with the Western allies in Germany meant that most of Germany, the praised goal of Communist revolution since 1918, was now shielded from the victorious Red Army. The Soviet tried to exert military and political pressure on the West in order to change that.
  • The West expected Stalin to make good on his promise to introduce democracy in countries like Poland and Czech Republic. Stalin meant these were his spoils of war and he was in his right to do whatever he wanted with them.
  • Soviet soldiers and officers were shocked to see the difference in living standards between the USSR and Central European states. They brought this discovery back home, along with many precious trophies taken from German, Polish, Czech and Austrian homes. Stalin needed to instill a new sense of external threat to prevent his people from questioning how the Communist rule was so superior to Capitalism after all.
  • Communists in Italy and France were hugely strengthened by the the wave of popular sympathy for their role in the resistance against Nazis. In order to weaken them, the Western governments isolated them through their association with the hostile USSR.