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Russians say, “Russia is a country of kitchen conversations.” From time to time people get together in the kitchen and hold long conversations. Using very ordinary attributes, Russian people created a unique custom that can tell a lot about Russian character, perhaps more than volumes of history books. Over the course of last century, “kitchen conversations” affected Russian society at all levels and became a symbol of freedom from communist thought control and Russian people’s dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in their country.
A Russian proverb says: “we don’t value what we have and cry when we lose it.” Russian people recklessly lost their freedom when they gave the power to communists in 1917. Among the great many consequences of this upheaval was a major economic crisis, part of which was a massive housing shortage. As a result, millions of people were cramped into what was called “communal apartments.” Generally, those were large apartments with a long corridor that led to a kitchen, a bathroom and several bedrooms where different families used to live. Since they had to share a kitchen and a bathroom, they basically had to share their lives. Everything that happened in society and neighbors’ lives was discussed in the kitchen. Moreover, neighbors actively meddled in other neighbors’ lives, often without any permission. Malicious tricks and helping hands, peaceful coexistence and furious quarrels, ridiculous misunderstandings and deep compassion transformed the kitchen in a theater-like place where tragedy and comedy intertwined into farce and the audience shared heroes’ drama.
Most people used to live like this for more than thirty years (some still live like this today) when the government decided to build more housing in the 1950s and families in communal apartments were gradually resettled into single-family apartments. New apartments had a small kitchen and no dining room, but people gathered in the kitchen anyway. First of all, people thought about the kitchen as a common area where it was convenient to spend their free time. Secondly, people got used to talking about important events in their life in the kitchen. Lastly, small kitchen space made people physically closer to each other, which created informal and sincere atmosphere and gave them freedom to speak openly without regard to communist authority.
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Actually, it is a very simple custom. Friends gather around a table in someone’s kitchen to eat and talk. Food is usually very ordinary and is not important. But the drink is. There are two essential drinks in Russia: vodka and tea. Both contribute a lot to make a kitchen conversation free of any limits. Popular wisdom says, “Tea warms a soul”, which means that tea prepares your soul to communicate with another soul. Vodka, a Russian would tell you, just helps one relax and postpone one’s difficulties, which is also helpful for a good conversation. These ordinary attributes mixed together with a good conversation made a special combination that contributed to Russian society and culture.
For many years, kitchen conversations have kept Russian soul outside official control. Communists made great efforts to silence their own people but were still unable to prevent free speech inside people’s homes. Moreover, starting with the political “thaw” in the fifties and sixties, an underground culture developed on the basis of kitchen conversations. Books, audio- and videotapes that were forbidden by authorities were passed from person to person. Soon, underground publishing was born. Underground editions, often handwritten but usually typewritten and Xeroxed (unauthorized Xeroxing was illegal in the Soviet Union), included Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago”, Solzhenitsyn’s “One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” and “Gulag Archipelago”, Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita”, and many others. Art exhibitions and even small concerts took place in many kitchens. Cultural and spiritual discussions were a source of inspiration for many writers, musicians and artists. Some of their creations (pictures, movies, books, songs, etc.) were performed in public only years, even decades, later. The topic of conversations often turned to politics. In spite of dangers of such talks, many people wanted to express their discontent with communist regime and dissent with the official ideology. People talked about alternative political, economic and social structure, made mostly utopian plans to make their country better, and finally made their plans to leave the country for good in search of greater freedom. They listened to forbidden radio stations broadcasting in Russian from abroad (such as Radio Freedom or Voice of America), hoping to find more unbiased news about what happened inside and outside their country. Starting in the late 1960s, authorities tried to reply by arresting and sending many people to jail, prison camps or psychiatric asylums, but they could not jail the whole country. Even from the Iron Curtain there was an escape hatch.
Even ordinary people, who had nothing to do with intelligentsia or political dissidents, contributed to the opposition by creating many political jokes, which ridiculed increasingly senile Soviet political leadership and many absurdities of everyday life under socialism. (Here is one of the most popular political jokes about the first communist leader Lenin, officially portrayed as a saintly figure. A homeless boy tells another one: “You know I met Lenin in the street yesterday.” “And what did you say?” “I said, ‘Grandpa Lenin, please give me a piece of bread.’” “And what did he say?” “He just looked at me and gave me the finger. But his eyes were so kind…”) People were telling these jokes with their doors and windows closed and often jokingly apologized to “comrade major” who was supposedly listening to them through a bugged electrical outlet.
Times change, but old customs die hard. With the opening of political climate in the late 1980s, kitchen conversations acquired a new meaning for the Russian society. Communists gave up their power, and the nation was able to obtain its long awaited freedom. The new times changed the content of kitchen conversations but did not change their significance to people. Just as before, Russians get together in their kitchens and talk to each other about things that were not and will not be broadcast on TV or printed in newspapers. They are still endlessly trying to answer the three principal questions: “Who is to blame?”, “What is to be done?” and “Where to begin?”. As a result, kitchen conversations became both a symbol of constant dissatisfaction with official power and ideology and a symbol of discussions not followed by concrete actions, argument for the sake of argument. Despite that, people still believe they will find answers to those questions, and then Russia will become a country of freedom and wealth. Thus, they keep this custom and pass it to the new generation, which they believe will pass it to the next one. After all, kitchens are still small and dining rooms are hard to find.