Muscovy on the Menu: Europeans get a taste of Russian culture, 1600-1800

Churches, icons, crosses, bells,
Painted whores and garlic smells,
Vice and vodka everyplace—
This is Moscow’s daily face.
To loiter in the market air,
To bathe in common, bodies bare,
To sleep by day and gorge by night,
To belch and fart is their delight.
Thieving, murdering, fornication
Are so common in this nation,
No one thinks a brow to raise—
Such are Moscow’s sordid days.

These colorful lines were composed sometime in the 1630s or 1640s, and were recorded by Adam Olearius, the author of what scholars consider to be one of the richest and most important descriptions of seventeenth-century Russia. These myopic and mean-spirited lines pretty well encapsulate the European consensus on Russian culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which I’ve touched on before: Europeans imagined Russia as a land of religious fanaticism, drunkenness, moral laxity, culinary overindulgence, and overall shameless debauchery. 

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In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I argue, Europeans’ observations of Russian practices and behaviors concerning food impacted their more general evaluation of Russian culture. This evaluation was conditioned by two interrelated phenomena specific to Western European culture of the time: first, the evolving concept of “civilization,” along with the racial and cultural hierarchies it created; and second, the genre of the travel narrative, which, thanks in part to the emergent discourse on civilization, had already pegged Russians as “Asiatic” and culturally backward by the advent of the seventeenth century. 

In a now-infamous two-volume work called The Civilizing Process, renowned twentieth-century sociologist Norbert Elias explored in great depth how discourses about what constituted good manners, politeness, and above all, “civilization” had been slowly transforming European attitudes and behaviors since the sixteenth century. Elias’s “civilizing process” is the historical process by which modern standards of table manners, personal hygiene, and privacy developed, along with the notion that transgressing these norms was shameful. Moreover, to quote Elias, Europeans regarded it as “completely self-evident that theirs is the way in which the world of humans in general wants to be viewed and judged.” Elias writes that the basic framework of the modern, “civilized” norms of behavior at table, which take up about half of his massive study, existed by the eighteenth century. Along similar lines, the contemporary historian Larry Wolff contends that Eastern Europe was “invented” by Western Europeans in the eighteenth century, as a way of ranking and evaluating different regions based on their comparative positions on a scale of “civilization” imagined by the West. This was hardly fair, since all the criteria of “civilization” were invented by Western Europeans and based on their entirely arbitrary preferences and cultural mores.

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Thus it is hardly surprising that European commentators writing in the 1600s and 1700s overwhelmingly agreed that Russian table manners were substandard at best. One of the most striking aspects of this body of literature is the unanimity of its condemnation of the Russians’ conduct during meals. For example, Johan Georg Korb, secretary to the Habsburg envoy to Moscow in 1698-99, recorded two men hitting each other over the head with loaves of bread at a banquet hosted by Peter the Great. He remarked in this connection that “the good men shone all the more, as their species was evidently very rare.” The French priest Jacques Jubé, who served briefly as tutor and chaplain to the Catholic princess Irina Dolgorukii during the brief reign of Peter II, described food being allowed to spill all over tablecloths and dinner guests throwing themselves at the food with no consideration whatsoever for the feelings of others. He wrote, “It is...rare to find gentle people among the Russians, among whom it is normal to see gluttons, gourmands, and drunkards.” After a description of how the German residents in Moscow bathed chastely and enjoyed pleasant refreshments afterwards, the above-mentioned Olearius commented: “Such honorable hospitality and cleanliness, however, are not to be sought among the arrogant, self-interested, and dirty Russians, among whom everything is done in a slovenly and swinish fashion.” These accounts are amusing to some degree, but that does not excuse the sentiments they betray, which are typical features of these European travel narratives as a whole. They are remarkably unanimous and repetitive in their indictments. More damningly, in their observations of Russians’ behavior at table, the European visitors consistently connected moral character with bodily states. Korb contrasted the food-fighting men with “good” people; Jubé juxtaposed “gluttons and drunkards” with “gentle” people; and for Olearius, “slovenly and swinish” were antonyms for “hospitable” and “clean.”

Not only did the Russians display terrible table manners, but the Europeans condemned their food as well. Differences between foods available in different parts of Europe were, of course, due to geography, climatic conditions, and tradition. Many of the travel writers did in fact make some effort to accommodate and understand cultural difference, but they drew the line at the supper table. The Englishman Samuel Collins, physician to Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, remarked, “They know not how to eat Pease and carrots boyld, but eat them shells and all, like Swine.” The account of Koenraad van Klenk, the Dutch ambassador to Muscovy who travelled there in 1663, generally displayed a positive attitude toward Russian food, but stated that it was habitually very ill-prepared. For Jubé, even worse than the Russians’ conduct at table was, in his view, the fact that none of the food was cooked “comme il faut”: “They also have stews as grotesque as they are disgusting, patés and cakes more highly praised by the Russians than the recipes are ancient, [such] that, accommodating as I am to foodstuffs, I could never accommodate: my first attempt was the last and the only one I wanted to make.” Jubé also noted with horror that the Russians routinely ate undercooked meat, “stinking eggs,” and “stinking fish.” Regarding salted and pickled fish, the German-born diplomat Friedrich Christian Weber wrote, “though they may be smelt at a great distance, yet the Russians, especially the common People, eat them with a great deal of Appetite and prefer them to fresh Fish.” Similarly, Olearius: “In Moscow, they use coarse salt fish, which sometimes stinks because they are thrifty with the salt. Nevertheless, they like to eat it. One can detect a fish market by the odor well before he sees or comes upon it.” Olearius attributed the poor quality of Russian food to the excessive number of fast days prescribed by the Orthodox Church.

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Not only was Russian food generally terrible, European visitors insisted, but the environments surrounding its service and consumption were routinely described as dirty and smelly. Korb, Olearius, and Klenk all complained that the Russians possessed few fine silver dishes and vessels, and the few they did possess were always dirty. Korb critiqued the cleanliness of Russian dishes at the court of Peter the Great at Moscow: “The cups in which drink is presented to the Czar are made of gold and silver, in sooth, but so coated with filth that it is hard to discover which precious metal lies hidden beneath the dirt. There is no order in the arrangements of the viands; they are thrown higgledy-piggledy; and they are generally torn asunder, not carved.” Klenk’s secretary likewise noted that Russians possessed few bowls and dishes, and what few they did possess they rarely washed. Again connecting food with the disagreeable state of Russian interior spaces, Olearius remarked: “They generally prepare their food with garlic and onion, so that all their rooms and houses, including the sumptuous chambers of the Grand Prince’s palace in the Kremlin, give off an odor offensive to us Germans. So do the Russians themselves (as one notices in speaking to them), and all the places they frequent even a little.” In what was very likely a direct borrowing from Olearius, the author of Klenk’s account inserted almost the exact same comment toward the end of his narrative.

For these European commentators, virtually every aspect of the Russian dining experience was distasteful, from the quality of the food, to the Russians’ awful table manners, to dirty dishes, to smelly rooms. Clearly, Russians did not know how to properly handle and maintain food, the dishes it was served on, or the spaces in which it was consumed. In general, while the foreign visitors were impressed by the quantity and variety of food served by Russian courtly elites, they were appalled by what they perceived as its low quality and the squalor in which it was served. For the Europeans, personal prestige and social standing were increasingly measured by bodily restraint. The ability to maintain one’s dress, possessions, and living space to certain standards of cleanliness, while suppressing bodily functions now deemed shameful, was understood to be the primary measure of one’s civility. Assuming their own standards to be universal, and failing to recognize that the Russians had their own standards of honor, European travel writing perpetuated the stereotype of Russians as dirty and unruly, a stereotype that, in many ways, continues today.