In a story from The Suitcase, Sergei Dovlatov’s masterly collection about Soviet life,1 Dovlatov meets the black marketeer Fred at a Leningrad shashlychnaya, one of the many specialized cafés that once dotted the restaurant-poor Soviet landscape. Shashlychnayas, as their name suggests, offered shashlyk (shish kebab) – grilled, skewered cubes of meat, usually lamb or beef. Not that the food served was praiseworthy. At its best, shashlyk is tender and aromatic, but when overcooked or made with poor-quality meat, which is all that Dovlatov’s characters can expect, it is tough and stringy.
In the story, Fred explains how much money can be made by trading in Finnish socks:
The oilcloth on the table was sticky. The air was filled with a greasy fog. People floated past like fish in an aquarium.
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