Secrets of the Soviets

PHOTO by Nikolai Malyshev / TASS
Burgers, bars, convertibles, electric toothbrushes and reality television – can they really have been completely unknown in Russia before the 1990s?

Cornflakes

Cornflakes are believed to have been introduced in the USSR back in the 1930s by the Stalin-era food industry commissar Anastas Mikoyan after a trip to the USA. The inaugural 1939 edition of the Soviet cookery bible “The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food” says: “Cornflakes are nice to the taste, nutritious and digest well. It is a ready-to-eat food.

To make cornflakes, corn is steamed, boiled in sugar syrup with salt and malt extract, then dried, simmered and pressed into thin flakes which are finally roasted in gas ovens. The resulting thin crispy flakes with a caramelized surface resemble Angel Wings pastry. <…> Cornflakes are most beneficial for your health when eaten with sour cream and sugar, condensed milk or kogel mogel (a kind of sweet, egg sauce)”.

Corn flakec
"Tasty and nutritious!" claims a Soviet advertising poster of corn and wheat flakes. "Good with milk, kissel, sour cream, broth, tea and coffee"

Supermarkets

Soviet-era universams (from a Russian phrase meaning “universal self-service shop”) were the closest equivalents of supermarkets, down to the trolleys and shelves with neat rows of groceries. The choice of food, however, was infinitely more limited than today. The idea to open a supermarket in the USSR is said to have been suggested by a Leningrad party boss in the early 1970s after a trip to Finland. This may be true, given that the first-ever Soviet supermarket opened in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the new residential district of Kupchino.

Supermarket
An universam in Moscow Region, 1981

Electric Toothbrushes

Speaking of Kupchino, a resident of this district has recently placed an advertisement trying to sell one of the earliest Soviet-era electric toothbrushes. The toothbrush was manufactured in 1968 by a Moscow factory and consists of a vibrating handle and a set of slim plastic nozzles of different colours. It is not clear whether more electric toothbrush models were put into serial production in the USSR.

Burgers

“Soviet hamburgers”, appropriately nicknamed Mikoyan’s cutlets, were yet another historic outcome of the American mission by the Soviet food minister. A well-known extract from Mikoyan’s book “Tak Bylo” (“The Way It Was”) reads: “We were very interested in the mass mechanised production of standard-sized patties which were fried and sold in bread rolls as sandwiches (called “hamburgers”) from street stalls.

The patties are fried on both sides and take several minutes to prepare. The vendor slices a bread roll, places a patty inside, adds some tomato, a slice of pickled cucumber or mustard, and your hot sandwich is ready. Very convenient if you're busy.” Kiosks with hamburgers appeared in Moscow in the mid-1930s but disappeared during the Second World War.

Burger
"Hot Moscow cutlets on a bun"

Whisky

Beverages called “Whisky 73” and “Soviet Whisky” are reported to have appeared in the USSR during the late 1940s and were supposed to be drunk with soda water. However, although many consumers believed that the figures on “Whisky 73” denoted its alcohol content, the brand was in fact a reference to the cheap and dangerously popular Russian “port wines” which usually had numbers in their names (Portvein 13, 72, 777, etc.). However, this marketing trick was unsuccessful as whisky somehow failed to generate demand in the USSR.

Wisky

Bars

A cocktail bar certainly existed on Tverskaya Street (then named Gorky Street) back in the 1940s and 1950s. It was the only cocktail bar in Moscow, and therefore a very expensive one. According to “Life” magazine, a cocktail named “Cowboy” would cost about 90 cents, which was worth about a tenth of the monthly rent for a comfortable flat. The bar was only full on Sundays and usually housed several retired army officers sprawling in luxuriously soft armchairs. It also hosted many writers, film-makers, actors, theatre directors, artists, sculptors: some of the richest and most spoilt customers in Soviet Russia – with the exception of the party bosses. “A unique phenomenon for Moscow, Communism or Stalinism, the bar reflects the instinct on the part of the USSR to attain the heights of a complete and perfect civilisation, which is usually associated with the USA. The results are so touching they may bring tears to Westerners’ eyes”, “Life” continued.

Bar

Convertibles

Civilian open-top cars – a rare breed in the Soviet Union – were primarily used to replace the horses which used transport commanders during military parades.

Contact Lenses

Contact lenses have existed since the 19th century and were originally made from glass and, later, Perspex. The first lenses were inconvenient and even dangerous as they would completely block the supply of oxygen to the eyes. However, the patients were ready to ignore the risks if it helped them get rid of those awful spectacles. The first contact lenses in the Soviet Union were developed in 1927 by the Research Institute of Eye Diseases and, by the 1980s, rigid lenses were often prescribed by community clinics across the USSR.

Lense

Oysters

“The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food” provided detailed instructions on how to eat raw oysters: “Wash the oyster shells in cold water. A minute or two before serving, open the shells with a special knife, remove the smaller top shells and quickly place the oysters on the larger shells into cold salted water (preferably with ice); wash the oysters and place on a dish lined evenly with finely crushed ice. Serve with lemon cut into halves or quarters, or lemon juice”. Despite this, oysters remained an unattainable delicacy in most of the Soviet Union, although some connoisseurs have let slip in their interviews that oysters were farmed in Krasnodar Krai, while in Vladivostok, they were harvested for export.

Oysters

Psychoanalysts

Psychoanalysis was firmly established in Russia by the 1920s. A Psychoanalytic Institute, where Sigmund Freud’s brilliant students Tatiana Rosenthal and Sabina Spielrein played a key role, opened its doors in Moscow in 1924. Freudianism found support among eminent psychologists such as Lev Vygotsky, and high-ranking politicians alike. Freud’s ideas were even championed by Leon Trotsky, which may have been behind his arch-enemy Stalin's decision to virtually outlaw psychoanalytical research in the early 1930s.

Cosmetic Surgeries

A cosmetic surgery centre called the Beauty Institute did exist in Moscow, although much of its work is still veiled in secrecy. The Institute provided cosmetic procedures to Stalin-era actress Lyubov Orlova and is rumoured to have helped foreign Communists and an unknown number of intelligence officers to modify their appearance. However, technically the Institute was also supposed to serve the general public, so it offered facelifts at a knockdown price of just 7 roubles.

Orlova
Lyubov Orlova

Reality TV

Shortly before the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, Soviet TV launched a project “Born in the USSR” inspired by the British reality show “7 Up.” The Russian spin-off programme, directed by Sergey Miroshnichenko, followed the lives of several participants from age seven upwards, with one episode shot every seven years. “Born in the USSR” still appears on TV: the most recent episode (Episode Four) aired in 2012, while the final instalment is to be released in 2053, by which time the subjects will have turned 70 years old.