Photo: Thomas Taylor Hammond / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Unconventional Foods People Ate To Survive In Soviet Russia

Over 800 Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of Unconventional Foods People Ate To Survive In Soviet Russia
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The Soviet Union took shape after a series of revolutions during the early 20th century. Characterized by some of its best-known leaders, namely Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union spanned thousands of miles and was made up of hundreds of ethnic groups.

As the administrative and cultural hub of the Soviet Union, Russia was the largest socialist republic. After WWII, Soviet Russia and the whole of the Soviet Union found itself under the authoritarian rule of Josef Stalin, the dictator who implemented collectivist policies, gulags, and other repressive tactics to maintain his power. Standards of living declined and people struggled to survive, often scrounging for whatever food they could find.

As the Cold War progressed, Russian leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev brought changes to the Communist stronghold, but finding enough to eat remained a problem for millions. To survive, people often resorted to unconventional foods, drawing upon culinary traditions as much as whatever resources were available. The unconventional fare that found its way onto Russian dinner tables and into the stomachs of hungry Soviets reflected the multiculturalism of the Soviet Union itself while highlighting issues of scarcity and innovation in the kitchen.

Photo: Thomas Taylor Hammond / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

  • 1
    666 VOTES


    Syrniki, or cheese pancakes, were made from tvorog, a dry-curd cheese, and were a staple for breakfast in the Soviet Union.

    Often cooks added fresh or dried fruit to the pancake or included some compote. Once a mixture of cheese, eggs, flour, and other items to taste was ready, it was poured into a buttered skillet and cooked until brown on one side. It was then flipped and browned on the other. 

    Syrniki could be served with more fruit or with sour cream

    666 votes
  • 2
    461 VOTES


    Falling somewhere between a meatball and a hamburger, kotleti includes minced meat mixed with vegetables like cabbage, carrots, and beets. The mixture may or may not be breaded but is always fried.

    Kotleti didn't always indicate chopped meat and additives, it once referred to cutlets of meat

    461 votes
  • 3
    418 VOTES

    Chicken Kyiv

    Thought to be a dish invented during the 1800s, Chicken Kyiv has long been considered a delicacy, even during the Soviet period. The dish featured chicken fillets with a bone sticking out of the side. The meat was filled with a butter of sorts and came to be served at restaurants throughout major cities in Russia. It later found global attention, especially popular among tourists as they were introduced to Russian cuisine at Intourist restaurants, which were sponsored by the official tourist agency of the Soviet Union. 

    Both Russians and Ukrainians claim ownership of Chicken Kyiv, something that found new attention when George H.W. Bush gave his so-called "Chicken Kyiv Speech" in 1991. The talk, delivered from Kyiv, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time, indicated Bush and the United States did not support Ukrainian independence as the breakup of the Soviet Union loomed. 

    418 votes
  • 4
    288 VOTES

    Steak And Onions

    Meat was a luxury in the Soviet Union, thus the best cuts of beef did not appear on average dinner tables. Restaurants also struggled to provide quality meat options, so in order to make cheaper cuts palatable, many coated meat in breadcrumbs, cooked it for long periods of time, or supplemented it with more common items, like onions. That said, many state-owned restaurants did their best to offer good cuts of meat, punishing managers and food-distributors who misrepresented or cheated consumers. One Polish meat distributor, Stanisław Wawrzecki, was slain for meat distribution fraud in 1965.

    Steak in the Soviet Union was different than in the United States. When Duke Ellington visited the Soviet Union while on tour during the early 1970s, he demanded steaks - a staple of his diet alongside Coca-Cola, sugar, and limes. Ellington was told by the State Department that steak would "not taste like steak in the United States," and couldn't guarantee he'd be satisfied with the food in the Soviet Union. Ellington was ultimately "unable to eat Russian steaks" and when US state officials later heard Ellington was losing weight while on tour, they had a dozen T-bone steaks flown to Minsk for the musician. 

    288 votes
  • 5
    430 VOTES

    Perhaps the most identifiable Russian meal, borscht was generally made up of broth, beets, and cabbage with countless other additives, including potatoes, beans, eggs, vegetables, and cream. The dish was served chilled or piping hot depending on the season and preference. Borscht also took on regional differences. In some regions, like Romania, fruit was often added and seasonal availability of foods often dictated what was thrown into the mix. 

    As a meal consumed by poor Russians long before the rise of the Soviet Union, borscht was touted as a healthy, relatively easy, and delicious meal by military men, Soviet premiers, and cosmonauts alike. Borscht even appears in historical events, like the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin, and in literary works, like Master and Margarita.

    During the Cold War, recipes for borscht remained well-guarded. When it was finally released by the CIA, a traditional borscht recipe from 1948 revealed how beets, fat, bouillon, tomato paste, and vinegar were combined in a closed pot before adding flour, laurel leaves, and seasoning. With cabbage and potatoes incorporated into the mix, borscht was served after subsequent stewing. Borscht could also include sauerkraut, beet leaves, and millet, depending on what a cook had on hand. 

    430 votes
  • 6
    328 VOTES


    Drawing from both the French vinaigrette tradition and the Russian practice of finely chopping vegetables, vinegret was a term applied to just that - vegetables chopped up and covered in an oil-based dressing. Some vinegrets featured meat, but it was more common to have cabbage, beets, and pickles covered in sunflower oil during the Soviet era.

    The vegetable ingredients in a vinegret were boiled before they were chopped to make them soft and tender. Vinegret was served as an evening meal presented alongside meat, bread, and soup. 


    328 votes