Missed the Soviet era? Don’t despair. Not only are there still some authentic Soviet bars and restaurants around town, but there’s also a wave of nouveau Soviet establishments recreating the experience — with a sense of humor, and higher-quality food.
Other fashion designers, interior designers, publishers, radio stations and restaurateurs have since been catching on to — and cashing in on — the nostalgia many Russians still have for the Soviet Union.
“Does nostalgia work? Of course, it does,” said prolific restaurateur Arkady Novikov, creator of Tsarskaya Okhota, Sirena, Vanil, Yolki Palki and many other Moscow restaurants. “Every person has recollections about childhood, youth, pioneer camp or school. If you can get some food-related pleasure out of these memories, then it’s good.”
Soviet retro-theme establishments have been popping up all over Moscow, with early pioneers like Petrovich later joined by the likes of Zhiguli, followed by this year’s wave led by Marinad. The presence of Soviet-themed Propaganda bar and Cafe CCCP in St. Petersburg is evidence that the trend extends beyond the capital.
Industry observers and participants say it’s not the queues or food shortages that people miss, but their youth. And this is something restaurateurs shouldn’t treat lightly.
“You need to evoke the right emotions,” said Andrei Kiselyov, director of Marinad, a new retro-Soviet cafeteria that recently replaced Orange cafe on Ploshchad Revolyutsii.
“This book used to be in every family, but nobody could cook from it,” Kiselyov said. “It was kind of absurd.”
Waitresses in his cafe wear checked knee-length skirts, black shoes and white socks, while the radio plays timeless Soviet and foreign estrada tunes intermingled with comic sketches by favorite Russian comedians.
“Our clients are people aged 35 and older; those who remember that time and can appreciate the humor,” Kiselyov said, referring to a mural depicting Khrushchev presiding over a festive table with Soviet, American and British politicians and celebrities as his guests. Other murals and heavy, ornate chandeliers look every bit the VDNKh grand empire style, reminiscent of Stalinist metro stations.
“On one hand, this is 100 percent kitsch — but it is a brand of a kind. Why bury it?” Kiselyov said.
Take the newish Gogol shotbar — a drunken hello to those long-gone standing-room-only shelters with cheap beer and zakuski that served many a weary office or factory worker trudging home after work.
Over on Novy Arbat, cheap and plentiful beer and lots of Soviet music is what the Zhiguli beer hall/restaurant is today. And this is what it was before it closed in the late 1980s, after only a decade in business.
“When the first Zhiguli opened, it was probably the only bar where you could buy beer, prawns and American cigarettes,” said manager Yevgeny Motin, who’s been working there since it reopened two years ago on the exact site of the old beer joint. “We get people who come and say, ‘I remember things here being like this and that 20 years ago.’ Old waiters, who are now in their 50s, also drop by.”
The middle-aged women dispensing brewed-in-the-basement beer wear uniforms with black and white polka dot scarves, and look like they have not changed one bit since the days of bushy-eyebrowed Brezhnev — who can be seen sharing a drink with Josip Tito in large picture on the wall near the entrance.
At Cherdak 100% — a 1980s-style beer restaurant that opened two years ago — a block of Druzhba processed cheese, which was vodka’s faithful companion for decades, is served to guests on a placemat made from a 1980 issue of Komsomolskaya Pravda bearing the headline “The Funeral of Alexei Nikolayevich Kosygin” above a photo of surly politburo officials lined up on Lenin’s tomb.
Until recently, only a tiny intellectual elite seemed to appreciate the kind of Soviet kitsch that is the trademark of Petrovich club and restaurant, decked out with Khrushchev and Brezhnev-era memorabilia.
As for the menus of nouveau Soviet eateries, the format has remained more or less Soviet, but the quality of products and presentation has improved.
“If everything in the past was done conveyor-style, today, chefs are carefully selected and many foods are actually prepared by hand in the restaurant,” said Gogol’s Glazkova. “The owners are asking for quality, and competition makes you go after it.”
Alexei Levinson, head of the social and cultural assessment department at the Yury Levada Analytical Center, was quoted by the newspaper Vedomosti as saying nostalgia for Soviet times is likely to linger.
“Tendencies change naturally every seven to 10 years. But in our environment nostalgia doesn’t depend entirely on trends,” he said. “The authorities are doing what they can to help it. By promoting a policy that plays on nostalgic feelings, they even affect [people’s] reaction to changes.”
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