Senior Russian Major Studies “Kitchen Conversation”

30 January 2007

Jenny Holm, a senior Russian major from Minnetonka, Minnesota, spent a month of her winter break in Russia on a Kelley Fellowship, conducting an independent research project on the evolution of the “kitchen conversation” in Russia’s new democracy. The term, well-known in Russia, typically refers to the informal political discussions that would arise among family and friends during the years of “stagnation” under Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970’s. Without any public forums in which to express dissent from the Party line, Soviet citizens tended to vent their frustrations in the only “private” space large enough to accommodate guests—the kitchen.

Jenny began her adventures in Moscow, where she stayed for a week with the family of this year’s Russian language associate, Masha Kozhevnikova. There she got the chance to meet up with one of Moscow’s only food scholars, Ms. Alexandra Grigorieva, who took her on a whirlwind market tour and tasting extravaganza, hosted a dinner/research meeting for Jenny with one of Russia’s most accomplished chefs, and conversed willingly for hours about the changing role of the kitchen in contemporary society.

Jenny had expected to go from Moscow straight to St. Petersburg, but decided to make a stop-over in the northwestern city of Pskov when she received an invitation from a friend who is there teaching English for the year. “The visit turned out to be really valuable research-wise,” says Jenny; “I was able to talk a lot with Russian college students about my project, which is a group I hadn’t had direct access to in Moscow.” Pskov is known as a bastion of pro-Communist sentiment, which also affected the way people talked about politics in the kitchen, she said.

After three days in Petersburg (where she discovered the little-known Museum of Bread), Jenny flew down to Krasnodar, a provincial capital near the Black Sea coast and the northern edge of the Caucasus mountains, where she stayed with a host family. Her host mother, a professor at the local university, arranged several meetings for her with various interesting people, including a professor of literature, a fashion designer, an international student program coordinator, and other university students. “Part of what makes Krasnodar so interesting to me is the Cossack culture that’s still very much alive there,” Jenny says, referring to the group of peasants-turned-imperial border guards who, long before the Revolution of 1917, had earned themselves a reputation for being bawdy, drink-loving rebels. “People seem to have a spark to them that makes everything a little more animated.” She hopes to return to Krasnodar in the fall of 2007 with a Fulbright scholarship to spend a year writing a collection of essays on food and foodways in Russia’s agricultural heartland.

So after all this traveling, what did Jenny discover about kitchen conversations? “I noticed that opinion is divided over whether or not they still exist within Russian society,” she says. The majority of people she talked to insisted that they are a thing of the past, at least in the form they took then, because nowadays one can criticize the government in public without fear of exile or imprisonment. Many, though, pointed out that the habit of speaking with guests in the kitchen, rather than in any other room of the apartment, has remained. “The most visible differences of opinion I found were between young people and the older generation, and between people living in Moscow or St. Petersburg and those living in provincial cities,” Jenny explains. “Young people and people living in larger cities are more mobile than others, and they have more options and more money for going ‘out.’” She also noted that, while the domestic political situation may have been an issue to rouse passions back when such discussions were officially repressed, people often prefer not to talk about such matters now. Finally, Jenny’s research got her doing a lot of thinking about how physical space and the objects within it help structure interpersonal dynamics. “Linguistic barriers notwithstanding, the conversations I have with friends in the U.S. and in Russia do feel different,” says Jenny. “This trip brought me a long way in figuring out exactly why that is.”