Orlando Figes
Natasha's Dance

With the rise of Petersburg in the eighteenth century, Moscow became the centre of the 'good life' for the nobility. Pushkin said that it attracted 'rascals and eccentrics'—independent noblemen who 'shunned the court and lived without a care, devoting all their passions to harmless scandal-mongering and hospitality'. Moscow was a capital without a court—and without a court to occupy themselves, its grandees gave themselves to sensual amusement. Moscow was famous for its restaurants and clubs, its sumptuous balls and entertainments—in sum, for everything that Petersburg was not. Petersburgers despised Moscow for its sinful idleness. 'Moscow is an abyss of hedonistic pleasure', wrote Nikolai Turgenev, a poet in the circle of the Decembrists. 'All its people do is eat, drink, sleep, go to parties and play cards—and all at the expense of the suffering of their serfs.' Yet no one could deny its Russian character. 'Moscow may be wild and dissolute', wrote F. F. Vigel, 'but there is no point in trying to change it. For there is a part of Moscow in us all, and no Russian can expunge Moscow.'

Moscow was the food capital of Russia. No other city could boast such a range of restaurants. There were high-class dining clubs like the Angleterre, where Levin and Oblonsky have their famous lunch in the opening scene of Anna Karenina; business restaurants like the Slavic Bazaar, where merchants made huge deals; fashionable late-night places like the Strelna and the Yar (which Pushkin often mentions in his poetry); coffee houses where women were allowed unaccompanied; eating houses (karchevnye) for the common people; and taverns so diverse that every taste was catered for. There were old-fashioned taverns, like the Testov, where parents took their children for a treat; taverns that were famous for their specialities, like Egorov's pancakes ar Lopashev's pies; taverns that kept singing birds where hunters liked to meet; and taverns that were well known as places of revelry. Moscow was so rich in its restaurant culture that it even taught the French a thing or two. When Napoleon's soldiers came to Moscow, they needed to eat fast. 'Bistro!' they would say, the Russian word for 'fast'.

Moscow was a city of gourmands. It had a rich folklore of the fabulously fat, upon which its own self-image, as the capital of plenty, had been fed. In the early nineteenth century Count Rakhmanov, for example, spent his whole inheritance—said to be in excess of 2 million roubles (£200,000)—in just eight years of gastronomy. He fed his poultry with truffles. He kept his crayfish in cream and parmesan instead of water. And he had his favourite fish, a particularly rare specimen which could be caught only in the Sosna river 300 kilometres away, delivered live to Moscow every day. Count Musin-Pushkin was just as profligate. He would fatten his calves with cream and keep them in cradles like newborn babies. His fowl were fed on walnuts and given wine to drink to enhance the flavour of their meat. Sumptuous banquets had a legendary status in the annals of Moscow. Count Stroganov (an early nineteenth-century ancestor of the one who gave his name to the beef dish) hosted famous 'Roman dinners', where his guests lay on couches and were served by naked boys. Caviare and fruits and herring cheeks were typical hors-d'oeuvres. Next came salmon lips, bear paws and roast lynx. These were followed by cuckoos roasted in honey, halibut liver and burbot roe; oysters, poultry and fresh figs; salted peaches and pineapples. After the guests had eaten they would go into the banya and start to drink, eating caviare to build up a real thirst.

Moscow banquets were more notable for their fantastic size than for the refinement of their food. It was not unusual for 200 separate dishes to be presented at a meal. The menu for one banquet shows that guests were served up to 10 different kinds of soup, 24 pies and meat dishes, 64 small dishes (such as grouse or teal), several kinds of roast (lamb, beef, goat, hare and suckling pig), 12 different salads, 28 assorted tarts, cheeses and fresh fruits. When the guests had had enough they retired to a separate room for sweets and sugared fruit. In this society, where prestige meant promotion at court, princes vied with one another in their hospitality. Vast sums were paid for the best serf cooks. Count Sheremetev (Nikolai Petrovich) paid an annual salary of 850 roubles to his senior chef—a huge sum for a serf. Cooks were regarded by their masters as the equals of artists, and no expense was spared to have them trained abroad. Princes attained fame for the dishes first created by their cooks. The illustrious Prince Potemkin, the most famous of them all, was well known for serving up whole pigs at his sumptuous feasts: all the innards were removed through the mouth, the carcass stuffed with sausage, and the whole beast cooked in pastry made with wine.

It was not only courtiers who ate so well. Provincial families were just as prone to the consuming passion and, with little else to do on the estate, eating was, if nothing else, a way to pass the time. Lunch would last for several hours. First there were the zakuski (hors-d'oeuvres), the cold and then the hot, followed by the soups, the pies, the poultry dishes, the roast, and finally the fruit and sweets. By then it was nearly time for tea. There were gentry households where the whole day was (in Pushkin's words) 'a chain of meals'. The Brodnitskys, a middling gentry family in the Ukraine, were typical. When they got up they had coffee and bread rolls, followed by mid-morning zakuski, a full six-course lunch, sugared loaves and jams in the afternoon with tea, then poppy seeds and nuts, coffee, rolls and biscuits as an early evening snack. After that would come the evening meal—mainly cold cuts from lunch—then tea before they went to bed.

Sumptuous eating of this sort was a relatively new phenomenon. The food of seventeenth-century Muscovy had been plain and simple—the entire repertory consisting of fish, boiled meats and domestic fowl, pancakes, bread and pies, garlic, onion, cucumbers and radishes, cabbages and beetroot. Everything was cooked in hempseed oil, which made all the dishes taste much the same. Even the Tsar's table was relatively poor. The menu at the wedding feast in 1670 of Tsar Alexei consisted of roast swan with saffron, grouse with lemon, goose giblets, chicken with sour cabbage and (for the men) kvas. It was not until the eighteenth century that more interesting foods and culinary techniques were imported from abroad: butter, cheese and sour cream, smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, tea and coffee, chocolates, ice cream, wines and liqueurs. Even the zakuski were a copy of the European custom of hors-d'oeuvres. Although seen as the most 'Russian' part of any meal (caviare, sturgeon, vodka and all that), the 'classic zakuski', such as fish in aspic, were not in fact invented until the early nineteenth century. The same was true of Russian cooking as a whole. The 'traditional specialities' that were served in Moscow's restaurants in the nineteenth century—national dishes such as kulebeika (a pie stuffed with several layers of fish or meat), carp with sour cream, or turkey with plum sauce—were in fact quite recent inventions: most of them created to appeal to the new taste for old-Russian fashions after 1812. The first Russian cookery book was published as late as 1816, in which it was stated that it was no longer possible to give a full description of Russian cooking: all one could do was try to re-create the ancient recipes from people's memories. Lenten dishes were the only traditional foods that had not yet been supplanted by the European culinary fashions of the eighteenth century. Muscovy had a rich tradition offish and mushroom dishes, vegetable soups such as borshcht (beetroot) and shchi (cabbage), recipes for Easter breads and pies, and dozens of varieties of porridges and pancakes (bliny) which were eaten during Lent.

Not just nourishment, foodstuffs had an iconic part to play in Russian popular culture. Bread, for example, had a religious and symbolic importance that went far beyond its role in daily life; its significance in Russian culture was far greater than it was in the other Christian cultures of the West. The word for bread (khieb) was used in Russian for 'wealth', 'health' and 'hospitality'. Bread played a central role in peasant rituals. Bird-shaped breads were baked in spring to symbolize the return of the migratory flocks. In the peasant wedding a special loaf was baked to symbolize the newly-weds' fertility. At peasant funerals it was the custom to make a ladder out of dough and put it in the grave beside the corpse to help the soul's ascent. For bread was a sacred link between this world and the next. It was connected with the folklore of the stove, where the spirits of the dead were said to live. Bread was often given as a gift, most importantly in the customary offering of bread and salt to visitors. All foodstuffs were used as gifts, in fact, and this was a custom shared by all classes. The eccentric Moscow nobleman Alexander Porius-Vizapursky (even his name was eccentric) made a habit of sending oysters to important dignitaries—and sometimes to people he didn't even know (Prince Dolgorukov once received a parcel of a dozen oysters with a letter from, Porius-Vizapursky saying he had called on him to make his acquaintance but had found him not at home). Wildfowl was also a common gift. The poet Derzhavin was well known for sending sandpipers. Once he sent an enormous pie to Princess Bebolsina. When it was cut open it revealed a dwarf who presented her with a truffle pie and a bunch of forget-me-nots. Festive gifts of food were also given to the people by the Tsars. To celebrate victory in the war against the Turks in 1791, Catherine the Great ordered two food mountains to be placed on Palace Square. Each was topped by fountains spouting wine. On her signal from the Winter Palace the general populace was allowed to feast on the cornucopia.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.