March 01, 2005

Tasty and Healthy

As you’ll read elsewhere in this issue (page 48), for many years Moscow’s great exhibition center, VDNKh, promoted the achievements of the USSR’s national economy, its narodnoye khozyaystvo.  In 1979, I spent two months at VDNKh, working as a guide for an American exhibition on agriculture, part of the cultural exchange with the Soviet Union that had been set up in the late 1950s.  At the time, I had no idea how appropriate our theme was for the VDNKh exhibition space. In fact, agriculture was the original idea behind the halls. They were opened in 1939 to celebrate Soviet agriculture, or selskoye khozyaystvo, as reflected in the site’s original acronym of VSKhV. Here were displayed the fruits of the collective and state farm system, a latter-day Potemkin village of abundance when the agricultural reality was grim. It wasn’t until 1958 that the exhibition site was renamed VDNKh, and the focus of its displays shifted to industrial production and Soviet achievements in science and engineering – that was, after all, the age of Sputnik. 

The exhibition’s original focus on the harvest was not an arbitrary choice. For centuries, Russians had greeted a good harvest with joy. But the Soviets were the ones who perfected the art of harvest celebration. In fact they politicized it, creating a highly public pokazukha (pretense) of efficiency and abundance. Store windows were decorated with lavish food displays that masked empty shelves within; restaurant menus listed dozens of dishes when only one was usually available. Such pretense was visible both at VSKhV and in the famous Stalin-era cookbook, Kniga o vkusnoy zdorovoy pishche (A Book of Tasty and Healthy Food). This book first appeared in 1939, the same year that VSKhV opened to the public, and, like the exhibition, it depicted happy, healthy people enjoying tremendous bounty. Its many editions reveal the government’s attempt to script the right way for people to live, which necessarily included the proper preparation and consumption of food. Politics were present from the first page. Before offering up recipes for a good and healthy life, A Book of Tasty and Healthy Food proclaims:


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