Wednesday, 11 August 2010

'My Soviet Kitchen'

I banged the jar of salted cucumbers sideways on the table covered with patterned kleyonka - the lid easily came off. He cut off three thick slices of servelat, dense with fat and a memory of pig, and placed them sparingly onto oblongs of black bread. Vodka glasses were ready, all warm, bitter and heaven-promising. We threw back our heads - not too far, mind you, the space didn't allow - and gulped in one go...

'Soviet kitchen', photo by Andriy Bychay

Good old, old days, eh? Done by millions of (ex) Soviet people, in tiny spaces of their kitchens, shared by neighbours, friends, families, passer-bys..

Never, however, shared with crowds of gallery visitors, whilst sitting on a taburetka, on and as a display, in an alcove of the church crypt!

This is exactly what happened to me the other day at the launch of Amy Spurling's book 'My Soviet Kitchen. Ivy's guide to life in the ex-USSR' published by Roastbooks.

Amy's newly-published book

Described by some as a 'neo chick lit with a darker side, a vodka twist, recipe’s galore and a generous slice of post-Soviet living', the book (and its companion guide as a free bonus) is, from what I can make, a fictionalised story of the author's journey as a Phd student in Russia (as well as Georgia, Estonia, Uzbekistan) in the years soon after the collapse of the USSR.

Having only read a few pages so far, I can say that Amy's writing style is snappy, light, and witty, with the most dead pan English understatement you can imagine. This combined with Russian over-flowing love for drama and exaggeration, makes for a rather entertaining read (note, am practising English understatement). Some compared the book to Bridget Jones's dairy - Soviet style - and I can imagine why (especially with Amy's weakness for omitting pronouns at the beginning of sentences - am liking the style;)).

'The book cover', photo by Andriy Bychay

Amorous adventures, cultural clashes, awkward encounters with foreigners - the book you can easily swallow up in a few hours whilst lying on a beach (or in bed, whilst nursing vodka-induced hang-over). However, 'My soviet Kitchen' is so well-researched and full of such precise - and hilarious - description of all the kitsch Soviet detail, such as the composition of komunalkas (communal flats, housing several families, and one kitchen) and how to shop in a ex-USSR supermarket (queue 1 to choose, queue 2 to pay, queue 3 to pick up), that it will be fun to read for the most macho of us.

I would give out copies of the accompanying little book 'The guide to life, post-soviet style' to any non-Soviet person who is either:

a) married to a Rus
b) interested in being married to a Rus
c) or ever finds oneself in a company of Russians.

The guide has recipes (such as Estonian Kama drink or Georgian feast), Mayakovsky's Lilya Brik muse and their menage a trois, Properties of Soviet Snow (slyakot, parosha, purga, etcetc), and even the band DDT and Viktor Tsoi!

...Back to the launch.

As in Amy's book, we were taken on the journey through the Estonian banya, sauna, complete with Estonian beers and beech venik:

'Estonian sauna', photo by Andriy Bychay

A proper Georgian feast (thanks to Iberia, a Georgian restaurant in North London and the Georgian wine society), which later served as a real-life snack table, all eaten to the bone:

'Georgian feast' , photo by Andriy Bychay

A Soviet train, with real train-y chukh-chuch sounds (i-pod, behind the red curtain) and vodka:

'Soviet train' , photo by Andriy Bychay

...3 hours later, we were dancing to DDT jauntily, doing khorovods (holding hands in circles) and were very, very drunk.

From Amy's 'companion guide to life':

'Soviet-man stages of drunkenness:

Man disappears to the toilet and comes back with wet hair. At attempt to revive himself and regain lost ground.

Man slumped against the wall.

Man slumped against the front door when you open it.'


kcmeesha said...

I can't believe some foreigner know-nothing wrote a book about our kitchens and you are reviewing it, while it should be the other way around. Get to work!

Katrina said...

MV - how unkind!:) this 'foreigner' probably knows more about the realities of post-soviet space that most! and anyway, it's fun to see 'our' world through 'their' eyes, non? get reading!

kcmeesha said...

I am unkind.Unless you had to live in one of those, or the one with 2 sinks,4 stoves and 5 families like mine, it's still a novelty.I'll buy your book.

Pille said...

I received a copy as well, though I'm yet to read it properly (just checked the kama recipe :))
I loved Bridget Jones - though cannot say I related to it much; browsing through the book a lot of it sounded too unfamiliar to me. Maybe it's the location, maybe the age, maybe the faded memories :)

Katrina said...

Pille - I know what you mean about certain things similar unfamiliar. I think Amy's version of Soviet 'byt' is like a concentrated version, most definitely more prevalent in early 90s.

I relate to certain thing, but more at an emotional level rather than the actual details, so sitting in tiny kitchens, all cramped and happy still rings a bell!