Cooking Towards Communism: Domestic Cooking and the Khrushchev Regime’s Struggle for the Communist Way of Life

During the Khrushchev-era, domestic cooking was not merely a mundane aspect of Soviet everyday life. In fact, the regime perceived it as a leftover form the bourgeois lifestyle, bound to disappear through a protracted struggle for the communist way of life (kommunisticheskii byt). Studying this struggle against domestic cookery, writes Olav Hofland, helps us to understand how problematic the governance of daily life could be for an ideologically inspired totalitarian regime.

by Olav Hofland

In the radiant Communist future, nobody would have to be bothered with cooking any longer. At least, if we should believe Communist futurology produced in the Soviet Union. In November 1957, for instance, the Soviet magazine Family and School featured a science-fiction short-story narrating one day in the life of a small boy named Igor, who lives in the year 2017. When he wakes up, he simply makes his way to the kitchen and drops a handwritten note in an aluminum kitchen machine. The machine starts to analyze the note with laser beams and produces a fresh vegetable salad merely one minute later.

To us, having lived through 2017 ourselves, this might sound very absurd. We can barely imagine electrical devices requiring handwritten directives. And besides that, most of us have to put up with cooking ourselves. But such a story was more than Communist wishful thinking. Indeed, for Soviet ideologues it was quite clear that cooking at home was an activity bound to end up in the dustbin of history.

This article is a brief summary of my master’s thesis Cooking Towards Communism: Domestic Cooking and the Khrushchev’s Regime’s Struggle for the Communist Way of Life, completed at Leiden University (supervisor: Otto Boele). In this thesis I study how the Soviet regime under Nikita Khrushchev (1958-1964) addressed the everyday preparation of food as an issue of ideology and politics. My aim with this study is to contribute to a broader scholarship which tries to understand the ways in which the Soviet regime tinkered with citizens’ daily lives.

The sources I rely upon range from political speeches, policy documents and official statistics to Soviet cookbooks, women’s magazines and brochuresThe full version of my thesis —including extensive references and a bibliography, which I do not include in this summary — can be accessed via a link at the bottom of this page.

Down with kitchen slavery. Poster Yandex


De-Stalinization and the Communist Way of Life

The Russian word for daily life is byt, which is also a key concept in my study. It encompasses the meanings “domesticity,” “lifestyle,” and “way of life.” During the prerevolutionary period, the concept was specifically used to denote the ways of life of ethnic minorities and traditional European peasant societies subjected to the Russian Emperor. After the Revolution of November 1917, the Bolshevik government used byt with a specific political meaning. It conveyed the “backwards” bourgeois way of life persisting among revolutionary Russia’s population which had to make way for a new, socialist way of life. It was thus exactly in the realm of byt where the New Soviet Person was to be formed.

Although byt-reform had been no political priority since the middle of the 1930s, it resurfaced as an important political and ideological issue in the Khrushchev era. Scholars who have studied Soviet daily life in this period — such as Victor Buchli, Susan Reid, Deborah Field, and Christine Varga-Harris — emphasize that Khrushchev’s regime probably made intrusions in Soviet people’s domestic life on a larger scale than was the case under Stalin. After Khrushchev’s so-called Secret Speech of February 25, 1956, the regime initiated a de-Stalinization campaign and proclaimed to make a radical “return” to Leninist values.  This had broad implications for Soviet society as a whole. Not only did the Soviet State and Communist Party have to be restructured, also Stalinist byt, now associated with petty-bourgeois philistinism, had to be reformed to give rise to kommunisticheskii byt, or “the Communist Way of Life.”

This was made into an objective for the Communist Party and the Soviet state. When Khrushchev officially declared that the Soviet Union had entered the phase of full-scale Communist construction in his presentation of the first Seven Year Plan at the extraordinary Twenty-First Party Congress in January 1959, he emphasized the necessity to teach citizens “to live correctly, and to observe the rules of socialist communality.” Khrushchev reasoned that such a result would not come about by itself. Rather it could be “attained through protracted, persistent struggle for the victory of the new communist way of life.”

The Communist Struggle against the Domestic Kitchen

So, how was domestic cooking supposed to fit within the communist way of life? As I have mentioned above, it was supposed to disappear. Bolshevik revolutionaries, especially feminists such as Alexandra Kollontai, had perceived domestic cooking as a left-over of the bourgeois lifestyle that stood in the way of the liberation of women, one of the goals of the Revolution. Lenin himself had overtly supported such views. “Notwithstanding all emancipatory laws,” he wrote in July 1919 in the pamphlet A Great Beginning, “the woman remains a domestic slave, because the petty household burdens, strangles, dulls, and belittles her, binding her to the kitchen….” The domestic kitchen thus had to be brought down.

The way in which the revolutionary government had planned to do this was quite straightforward: it would outsource cooking from the household to socialized canteens and collective kitchens. In the aforementioned pamphlet, Lenin had designated the first of such canteens that had opened during the Russian Civil War as “shoots of communism.” The idea was to develop a large system of socialized eateries, such as canteens (stolovye), tearooms (chainye) or later even large, automated “kitchen-factories” (fabriki-kukhni). This system came to be referred to in Russian as obshchestvennoe pitanie. This literally translates into English as “societal nutrition,” but because it designates a service that was provided by the Soviet state, I argue that it could be better understood as “social foodservice.”

Khrushchev in 'kitchen debate' with US-vicepresident Nixon, 1959.

By the end of the 1950s, staggering amounts of Soviet women had entered the workforce, but the kitchen had anything but disappeared. Working women retained their traditional responsibilities for the household, leaving them little time to rest, develop themselves and partake in society on an equal footing with men. Khrushchev acknowledged this problem at the Party’s Twenty-First Congress. “Soviet power has released the woman from that humiliating semi-slavish position in which she had found herself under Tsarism and still finds herself in many capitalist countries,” Khrushchev said to his audience, “but many women are occupied with the household and childcare, hampering their active participation in societal life.” In fact, Khrushchev faced a problem similar to the one Kollontai and Lenin had faced forty years earlier.

And Khrushchev’s solution to his problem was exactly the same. “It is necessary,” he concluded, “to still broader develop the network of kitchen-factories, canteens at factories, institutes of higher education, and in schools and to have social canteens in housing blocks….” This idea was reiterated in the Communist Party’s third political program that was adopted at the Party’s Twenty-Second Congress in 1961. In line with its famous claim that communism would be attained within two decades, the program also stated: “the social foodservice will be able to take precedence over nutrition in domestic conditions within 10-15 years.” The Khrushchev regime rebooted the Bolshevik’s struggle against the domestic kitchen with the explicit goal to complete the emancipation of Soviet women.

This struggle attained an international dimension with the advent of the Cold War. Under Khrushchev, the Soviet Union’s relations with the capitalist democracies in the West thawed. The leaders of the Cold War superpowers sought a peaceful arena of competition between the socialist and capitalist systems. At the Twenty-First Congress in 1959, Khrushchev pledged that the Soviet economy would “catch up with and overtake” the most advanced capitalist countries in the production of consumer goods. The Soviet system would prove that it could attain a higher standard of living for its people than capitalism could.

The most advanced capitalist country, the United States, gladly accepted the challenge. In the summer of 1959, the Americans organized a National Exhibition in Moscow. The exhibition emphasized American prowess in the production of modern consumer goods and confronted Soviet visitors with the American take on domestic life — the planning of this exhibition is elaborately discussed in the book Cold War Kitchen, edited by historians Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachman. Khrushchev visited the exhibition on the 24th of July and met American Vice-President Richard Nixon in a fiery discussion. This conversation was staged in front of a General Electric’s kitchen model, and hence it became famously known as the “Kitchen Debate.” “In America, we like to make life easier for women,” Nixon said to Khrushchev while pointing to a dishwasher. “We have such things,” Khrushchev responded.

Though Khrushchev’s response seemed quite indifferent, the Soviet press still incidentally referred to this event two years later in a rather belligerent tone. In the November 1961 issue of The Female Worker, the monthly Soviet magazine for women, a candidate in philosophy named M. Lifanov wrote that “some ‘miracle kitchen’ on its own does not liberate the woman from domestic work, does not help in the development of her abilities and talents.” Instead, Lifanov argued, the social foodservice liberates women from the kitchen, as it will make sure that “little by little cooking in domestic conditions will become obsolete.” The Americans built futuristic kitchens; the Soviets were poised to make them useless.

Poster. Illustration Yandex

Private Apartment, Private Kitchen

But the Khrushchev regime also pursued policies that did not necessarily support, and even contradicted the objective of its struggle against the domestic kitchen. One of its signature policies was to initiate a housing campaign in July 1957 by which it sought to solve the housing shortage that had pestered the Soviet Union for decades. Most Soviet families had found themselves in communal apartments (kommunalki), where they shared a kitchen with multiple other families.  The Seven Year Plan foresaw the construction of 15 million private apartments (otdel’nye kvartiry) between 1959 and 1965. By the beginning of the 1960s, millions of Soviet families were moving into an apartment of their own for the first time in their life, and these apartments came with their own kitchens.

How could the regime make the domestic kitchen disappear, while providing them to families on a large scale at the same time? This lays bare a contradiction within the Khrushchev’s policies with regards to byt.

I argue that the Khrushchev regime attempted to overcome this contradiction by taking two approaches. Firstly, it aimed to improve the social foodservice by introducing innovations that made it compatible with urban apartment life. Secondly, it promoted consumer products and household tactics that would greatly reduce the time spent on cooking at home. In the remainder of this article, I briefly elaborate these two approaches and illustrate them with examples from my research.

The Social Foodservice and Soviet Take-Away

On February 20, 1959, not long after Khrushchev called for an improvement of the social foodservice at the Party’s Twenty-First Congress, the Party’s Central Committee and the Soviet Council of Ministers passed a resolution titled ‘On the Further Development and Improvement of the Social Foodservice.’ In order to make the service, “more massive, comfortable and favorable to the population” this resolution called for the construction of 64,300 new establishments in the next seven years, increasing the amount of seats with 3.1 million, and doubling the output of dishes. Moreover, the resolution ordained the widespread implementations of progressive forms of foodservice, such as the introduction of meal subscriptions, self-servicing and the provision of take-away meals.

The latter development, that of take-away meals (otpusk obedov na dom)is interesting, as it shows how the regime found a creative synthesis between private domestic life and socialized dining. One way in which this was supposed to be organized was by selling ready-made meals and convenience foods at workers’ canteens at a ten percent discount.

Additionally, a wholly new type of establishment was introduced around the same time: the “house kitchen” (domovaya kukhnya). Essentially, these were small establishments without any seating, constructed on the bottom floor of apartment blocks. Ready-made meals could be bought there and eaten in the apartment. These house kitchens were frequently praised in The Female Worker. A reader’s letter published in the issue of May 1958, for instance, described a new house kitchen on Moscow’s 3rd Frunze Street that sold seven kinds of soups and nine kinds of main meals. In the May 1960 issue, one of the magazine’s journalists reported throngs of women carrying pots, pans and netted shopping bags (avos’ky) swarming an establishment on the capital’s Lyusinov Street. The report cited a woman who was ordering aspic and salads in anticipation of guests at home, saying that “the guests always compliment ‘my’ dinners.” The house kitchen was portrayed as if it perfectly substituted cooking at home.

The reality probably was different. By 1962, a total of 1,352 house kitchens were constructed throughout the Soviet Union. Moscow, then a city of more than 6 million people, only had about 60 working house kitchens. From 1963 the number of house kitchens was not separately included in government statistics anymore, which might mean that the regime had lost its interest in this experiment.

In contrast with the house kitchen in specific, the broader picture of the developments in the social foodservice was quite rosy. By 1965, 61,800 new establishments had been built, increasing the number of dining seats with 3.07 million. In comparison with 1958, the yearly output of dishes had increased by 70 percent in 1965. Although the goals of the aforementioned resolution were not fully met, the progress seems remarkable. The sixth edition of the Soviet Union’s most read cookbook, The Book about Tasty and Healthy Food, published in 1965, advised women to make use of the social foodservice as an alternative to cooking at home. Whether Soviet women and other members of their families actually took this advice is a question that I could not answer within the scope of my study.

Soviet-family in the fifties/sixties. Picture RBK


Alleviating the Burden of Cooking and the Soviet Refrigerator

In its political program of 1961, the Party promised that the social foodservice would replace domestic cookery within a period of ten to fifteen years. The program provisioned that the burden of domestic work be reduced and made lighter until that time. According to the program, one way to do so was to provide Soviet households with “up-to-date inexpensive domestic machinery, appliances, and electrical devices.”

In The Female Worker and The Book about Tasty and Healthy Food, domestic machines and modern consumer goods, such as potato peelers or canned green peas, were praised as blessings that really helped women to save time and energy for self-development and rest. Technological novelties that were making their appearance globally in the post-war period were presented in a Marxist-Leninist wrapping in the Soviet Union.

Especially the domestic refrigerator shined in the spotlights. A brochure on domestic refrigerators, published in 1962, claimed that the average time spent on cooking — 1080 hours, according to the writers — could be reduced by five times by the use of a refrigerator, as it negated the need to go shopping for food every day. On the pages of magazines and cookbooks the refrigerator was rapidly becoming an element of Soviet daily life. In 1965, The Book about Tasty and Healthy Food claimed that the “refrigerator has firmly entered our byt.

As was the case with the house kitchen, the reality of the Soviet refrigerator was rather disappointing. Yes, the production of refrigerators had greatly improved during the Khrushchev years — from 360 thousand a year in 1958 to 1.675 million in 1965. But as historian Susan Reid points out, there were too little of them to possibly satisfy the demand: in 1968 there were 13.7 million freezers on approximately 70 million households. The blessing of the refrigerator widely celebrated, but owning one remained but a dream for the average household.

But in this case The Female Worker provided a solution. Its May 1959 issue included an article that explained how citizens could build their own refrigerators. These were no technological marvels at all: a small saucepan put in a larger pot filled with cold water passed as a refrigerator, as did a plywood box containing a slab of dry ice. This is an interesting example of how the Khrushchev regime tried to make its ideological project work in a setting in which means were scarce.


With this article, as well as in my thesis, I do not pretend to present an all compassing view of Soviet daily life and cooking in the Thaw period. Rather, my research led up to two conclusions about the way in which the Khrushchev regime approached the daily life, the byt, of Soviet citizens.

In the first place, my research has shown that something as banal as cooking at home was an issue of high-politics, at least discursively. Khrushchev problematized the household in speeches at the Party’s congresses, and resolutions were passed with the goal to restructure the household by outsourcing cooking to society. As such my research merely confirms the conclusions made by scholars who have studied byt-reform before me.

In the second place, I conclude that the regime’s approach to byt was not immutable. It was not as if a communist monolith entered into the private sphere and could change everything as it saw fit immediately. The Khrushchev regime constantly had to adopt its approach to the changing conditions of Soviet everyday life that were often the result of its own contradictory policies. Socialized forms of dining had to be made to fit with increasing numbers of private kitchens. Refrigerators had to make an appearance in every household, even as they were not yet produced in sufficient quantities to realize this goal. The struggle against the domestic kitchen was riddled with such contradictive policies, causing situations in Soviet daily life that did not fit well with the regime’s ideal vision of the communist way of life.

Although the Soviets never succeeded to banish domestic cooking to the dustbin of history, their struggle against domestic cookery remains an interesting subject of study. Studying it can help us to understand just how problematic the governance of daily life could be for an ideologically inspired totalitarian regime.

Olav Hofland studied Russian and Eurasian Studies at Leiden University. During and after his studies he has been an intern at the Netherlands’ Embassy in Tbilisi, the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, and the Netherlands’ Institute in Saint Petersburg.

His master’s thesis has been awarded the Volkskrant-IISH Prize 2017. This is a summary. Here the complete thesis of Olav Hofland.