NOVEMBER READING: MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING by Anya von Bremzen
Growing up in the West during the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, international relations were dominated by this thing called the Cold War. The war was between 'us' and 'them' - a whole different, entirely undesirable, backward, and frightening other world behind this other thing called the Iron Curtain. It probably never entered my empty teenage head that there were people just like us behind this Iron Curtain - Mums, Dads, children, teenagers, grandparents. They were, quite simply, all communists - baddies, a serious threat to the democracies we pretty much took for granted. But after reading this memoir by a woman of a similar age to me, is it possible that threat may well have been a lot of hot air? It seems they were all too damn hungry and spent too much time standing in queues to be a threat to anyone!
Nevertheless, Anya von Bremzen's memoir is a book truly written from the heart - for her mother and grandmothers, her father, her grandfather, her fellow Soviets, the terrible waste, deaths, family tragedies all resulting from the megalomania of a few. In their own way each of the leaders was mad. The chapter on Stalin is the most compelling and frightening to read, Khrushchev is positively boring in comparison, and the chapter on Gorbachev was a complete revelation. In the Western media, I remember him being portrayed in glowing terms - perestroika, glasnost and all that. But in the USSR it seems he was quite a different sort of fish.
And of course throughout the book there is the food. It is amazing how we so often associate food with how we feel, our overall well being and happiness with ourselves, our lives and how it lives on in our memories. Now a successful food writer in the US, Ms von Bremzen takes the traditional Russian food of her family and weaves the history of both her family and Communist Russia from its beginnings in 1917 under Lenin to its dissolution in the early 1990s. She treats the whole 70 year odd years as an unmitigated disaster for virtually everyone. I really hope that writing this memoir was cathartic for her and for her mother who is still alive.
Anya was very fortunate that in 1974 when she was 10, she and her mother fled to the US, leaving everything and everyone behind, knowing that they would never be able to return. In her writing there is very little happiness or nostalgia for what she left, and although their first few years in Philadelphia were not easy, at least it was better than what they had come from. She would never have had the life she currently has if they had stayed.
The link above is an interview with the author talking about the book and her life. It is long, but well worth it. She makes for a great interview subject, and best of all, her mother is in the television audience. Beautiful to watch.