When Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953, one of the first things he addressed was the housing shortage and the need for more food. Thousands of people were living in cramped communal apartments, sharing one kitchen and one bathroom with sometimes up to 20 other families.
“All the people wanted to live in their own apartment,” says Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Nikita Khrushchev.“In Stalin’s time you cannot find this. When my father came to power he proclaimed that there will be mass construction of apartment buildings and in each apartment will live only one family.” They were called Khrushchevkas, Khrushchev apartments. Five story buildings made of prefabricated concrete panels.
“They were horribly built, you could hear your neighbor,” says Edward Shendrovich, venture investor and Russian poet. The apartments had small toilets, very low ceilings, and very small kitchens.
“No matter how tiny it was it was yours,” says journalist Masha Karp from Leningrad, who worked for the Russian Service of the BBC. “This kitchen was the place where people could finally get together and talk at home without fearing the neighbors in the communal flat.”
Kitchen Table Talk
The individual kitchens in these tiny apartments became hot spots of culture. Music was played, poetry recited, underground tapes were exchanged, forbidden art and literature circulated, politics debated, and deep friendships were forged in the the kitchen.
“One of the reasons why kitchen culture developed in Russia is because there were no places to meet,” says Edward Shendrovich. “You couldn’t have political discussions in public, at your workplace. You couldn’t go to cafes – they were state owned. The kitchen became the place where Russian culture kept living untouched by the regime. It was the beginning of dissident kitchens.” These “dissident kitchens” took the place of uncensored lecture halls, unofficial art exhibitions, clubs, bars, dating services.
“The Kitchen was for intimate circle of your close friends, says Alexander Genis, Russian writer and radio journalist. “When you came to the kitchen, you put on the table some vodka. And something from your balcony, not refrigerator, but balcony, like pickled mushrooms. Something pickled. Sour is the taste of Russia.”
Furious discussions took place over pickled cabbage, boiled potatoes, sardines, sprats, herring. “Kitchens became debating societies. remembers Gregory (Grisha) Freidin, Professor of Russian Literature at Stanford University. “Even to this day political wind-baggery is referred to as kitchen table talk.”
Even in the kitchen, the KGB was an ever-present threat. People were wary of bugs and hidden microphones. Phones were unplugged or covered with pillows. Water was turned on so no one could hear. “Some of us had been followed,” says Grisha Freidin, “Sometimes there would be KGB agents stationed outside the apartments and in the stair wells. During those times we expected to be arrested any night.”
As the night wore on, kitchen conversations moved from politics to literature. Much literature was forbidden and could not be published or read openly in Soviet society. Kitchens became the place where people read and exchanged “samizdat.” (more)