“STAND STILL. GLASSES OFF!” barks the blonde at passport control in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. She fingers my visa, peers at my face, then scowls back at my visa for a long, long minute, clearly relishing my mounting anxiety. “Anything wrong?” I squeak in a small voice, fighting a Soviet instinct to address her as “Comrade.” “Nah,” she finally sneers. “Just wondering why you look even worse in person than you do on your visa.”
I snatch my stamped papers and tramp off toward the airport train past gaggles of guys flogging overpriced taxi rides into Moscow. “Come with me,” one of them tugs at my sleeve. “Why ruin your not-so-young health, lady, with your not-so-beautiful luggage?”
Home. Or, more grandly, Rodina, Russian for homeland. An ideologically loaded and often overbearingly patriotic noun back in the Soviet days. With this Rodina my relationship has been extremely complicated, ever since the rainy day in September of 1974 when my mother and my 10-year-old self stood at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, stateless refugees stripped of our citizenship and the right of return after my mother decided to flee the despotic Soviet regime. We bade our existential farewells to the family we never expected to see again. But in the late ’80s, after Gorbachev opened the border, we did return, a miraculous rising from the dead. I remember our relatives’ tearful eyes as we reentered the same Sheremetyevo Airport; how they kept touching our American coats to assure themselves we weren’t a mirage.
I was in the Soviet Union again on December 26, 1991, when its scarlet empire ceased to exist and the entire nation became effectively sundered from its own “glorious socialist past.” I’ve since returned to Moscow many times—during Yeltsin’s lawless “crapocracy” and then Putin’s kleptocracy—but these homecomings never quite feel normal. I fret over the draconian visa application. I worry about the loss of identity, Moscow’s and mine, as the city changes so dramatically. In 2011 I spent a month in Moscow finishing my memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. And I got so fed up—with the bling, the inequality, the mistreatment of Central Asian migrants, the $12 espressos, that imperious Moscow Gaze, to say nothing of Putin’s authoritarianism—that I made no further plans to return. Much has transpired in Russia since then, most of it politically awful, from the war with Ukraine to the spectacular collapse of the ruble. Yet along with the usual intimations of doom, I was also hearing positive stories. That Moscow was becoming, at long last, a livable city. Cheaper. Friendlier. Normal! With $5 Uber rides and affordable Airbnbs, bike paths on the streets and Wi-Fi in the metro. Where the oligarchs once guzzled Château Pétrus, woolly hipsters were now apparently lolling over craft beers in the dim glow of Edison bulbs.
Finally, what drew me back were reports of Moscow’s incredible and improbable restaurant renaissance.
I’d always been fascinated with the flamboyance and the sheer theme-parkish strangeness of Moscow’s 21st-century dining scene, but it also seemed bafflingly inauthentic. Sushi had long replaced selyodka (herring) as Russia’s national dish. The onions at supermarkets were Dutch, the tomatoes from Turkey. On previous visits I kept puzzling why here, in one of the world’s richest agricultural countries, more than 40 percent of food was imported. Then in 2014 Putin, in retaliation against Western economic sanctions following the Ukraine-Russia crisis, issued a ban on most foreign foodstuffs. The embargo launched with all the drama of Stalin’s political show trials: truckloads of Polish apples crushed live on TV; wheels of Italian Parmesan tossed into vast public bonfires. Citizens were urged to inform on the comrades who secretly noshed on Camembert and Ibérico ham. And amidst this surreal political carnival, something exciting had happened: 25 years after the collapse of the USSR, Muscovites had finally begun rediscovering Mother Russia’s own cuisine and ingredients. This new food patriotism—stoked by Putin himself—had sparked Moscow’s current restaurant boomlet. And so, hungry for stroganina (Siberian shaved frozen fish), piroghi (Russian savory pies), grass-fed beef from the Volga region, and giant snow crabs from Vladivostok, I bought a ticket for Moscow. A deeper reason? Between meals, I was hoping to squeeze in nostalgic visits to familiar places in the hope of finding resonant fragments of my past and myself—of Home—amidst the espresso bars and locavore hangouts. And so my boyfriend, Barry, and I alight at Domodedovo Airport to that achingly Russian welcome of insults. (Who said Moscow got friendlier?) My 82-year-old mom, a fierce Putin-basher, had already arrived from New York and was staying with relatives.
Something exciting had happened: Muscovites had finally begun rediscovering Mother Russia’s own cuisine and ingredients.
After checking into the Metropol, a fragrantly historic hotel near the Kremlin, I leave Barry to admire its art nouveau murals and stroll over to Bogoyavlensky Lane nearby. On this street I was born in a Brezhnevian communal apartment where 18 families shared one bare-bones kitchen, where alcoholics slumped in the cavernous hallway, and a larcenous little babushka would burgle soup meat from neighbors’ pots. I come to this street not expecting any Proustian savor, though. This corner of Moscow, a few yards from the Kremlin, has become real estate so exclusive my former building now stands half gutted and clumsily padlocked—no more than a forlorn shell of a facade, awaiting its upscaled fate.
“I used to live here,” I confess to a passerby, overcome with sudden emotion.
“Nobody lived that close to the Kremlin,” she snaps and walks off. I console myself nearby at Alyonka, a new sweets emporium, named for the iconic Soviet brand of chocolate with a mirthful kerchiefed girl on the wrapper. Alyonka sits on handsome Nikolskaya Street, which I barely recognize; it’s been pedestrianized and outfitted with benches and flowerpots as part of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s ambitious Moscow beautification program. Alyonka itself beautifies—and commodifies—our Soviet past with its cheerful bounty of retro confections. Proustian-enough moment achieved: I feel a childish thrill now, sifting through bins of these socialist madeleines in bright wrappers designed by the Red October chocolate factory. Here are Crayfish Tails, caramels that tormented the dental fillings of the proletariat; here are the prestigious Mishka the Clumsy Bear chocolates with brown Mishkas climbing trees on icy-blue wrappers. I load up my shopping cart and stand in a line so long it nearly catapults me back to the USSR. “You gonna eat all that?” demands a women behind me. “No, they’re presents,” I assure her. “Phew,” she exhales, “ ’cause you sure don’t look like you need any more calories.”
Nobody insults me that evening at Grand Café Dr. Zhivago. This new venture from Moscow’s current restaurant czar, Alexander Rappaport, sits inside the landmark Hotel National across the way from Red Square. As a nine-year-old obsessed with the mythical and unattainable West, I would loiter by the National’s door in the hope that some friendly foreigner might toss me a ballpoint pen or a packet of capitalist chewing gum. Now I feel secret triumph marching past the young maître d’, myself a foreigner. Zhivago is yet another vessel riding the wave of Soviet Nostalgia that keeps washing over Moscow and now, to my utter surprise, seems to be cresting. The striking room is all neoclassical whiteness framing scarlet accents a sexy shade pinker than the orangy red of the USSR. Snow-white statues of Young Pioneers stand impishly blindfolded with crimson kerchiefs—as if they’d lost their path to the Radiant Future and were abducted into a decadently capitalist neo-Soviet pastiche. “Foo, yuk,” my mother grumbles about the decor. “They are literally whitewashing the Soviet past.” She also foo’s at the restaurant’s blithe appropriation of the title of the epic dissident 1957 novel by Boris Pasternak. “Zhivago changed my life,” she declares solemnly. “I read it in manuscript fresh from Pasternak’s typewriter.”
Our dining companions are Bo Bech, a Copenhagen celebrity chef who is guest-stinting in Moscow, and Brian McGinn, producer of the Netflix series Chef’s Table, in town filming an episode—all meeting here in Russia by a happy coincidence. They nod politely and slather their blini with caviar. “Russians went from shit to bullshit,” says Bo, agreeing with Mom. Our host, Gennady Jozefavichus, bon vivant, travel writer, and uber-hipster, snaps imperious fingers at waitresses dressed in retro chambermaid outfits. Out come frosty carafes of interesting vodkas, along with the wildest of wild pickled mushrooms and herring more buttery than Japanese toro. Pelmeni, the iconic Siberian dumplings, here sport a filling of Kamchatka crab; the Salat Olivier, a mayonnaise-laden USSR New Year staple, is returned to its original 19th-century version, with crayfish tails. This is food from Soviet communal apartments—glamorized and locavorized with Siberian fish, artisanal lardo, and heirloom millet and buckwheat. “True Soviet food was never meant to taste this delicious,” my mother protests before surrendering to the inauthentic deliciousness of the solyanka soup loaded with smoked meats and sausages. “The hookers aren’t here tonight,” whispers Gennady. “Aren’t hookers so ’90s?” asks Barry. “Moscow hookers,” declares Gennady philosophically, “are eternal.” The next evening, we’re perched at the dining counter of the WR Lab, a small slate-clad space where 34-year-old wunderkind chef Vladimir Mukhin, the culinary force behind an 18-restaurant empire, previews the tasting menus for his flagship White Rabbit restaurant. An unstoppably creative fifth-generation chef born in a provincial town in the northern Caucasus, Mukhin is applying futuristic techniques to old Russian dishes, decoding food clues from Slavic folk tales, searching in remote villages for forgotten traditions. His latest obsession is Domostroi, a 17th-century bible of Slavic domestic advice and recipes.
Mom, a passionate amateur food historian, bounces up in excitement at the opening dish. Called Scarlet Flower after an old Russian fairy tale, it’s a tart juicy begonia blazing red on a picturesque nest of twigs, its petals filled with May honey fermented inside a hollowed-out radish. Folklore imbued flowers with magic, Mukhin explains, because they could heal: Begonia, it was believed, would treat stuttering and allergies. From here we’re off deeper into archaic Russia, with birch bread made from the tree’s ground inner core. The flavor invokes morning walks in some primordial forest. “Ecologically pure and gluten free,” notes Mukhin, grinning, “this bread is our past and our future.” We also taste ryazhenka (a kind of baked yogurt) concealing a mousse of swan liver (Slavic foie gras of yore); white caviar of an albino sturgeon; and kundyumi, centuries-old dumplings black from the flour of dried bird-cherry buds. Mukhin spins his ingredients into a narrative that in the course of the meal helps explain our cultural DNA. At the end Mom poses for selfies with Mukhin and demands that I post them on Facebook immediately.
Over the next few days my plans for nostalgic strolls down memory lanes along Moscow’s winding streets and flowering boulevards keep crashing against Mayor Sobyanin’s pharaonic $2 billion “My Street” program. Under Sobyanin, each summer the historic center turns into a muddy construction zone as facades are overhauled, sidewalks widened, and streets often pedestrianized. Mom complains that not since the Stalinist ’30s, when vast swaths of the city were bulldozed and churches destroyed, has Moscow seen anything like this. “Frigging pedestrians, they’ll now own the city,” Uber drivers lament, before launching into their usual tirades against America’s hand in everything from common colds to bad weather. Strolling up the wide central avenue of VDNKh, I once again recognize things, yet don’t. Gone are the tacky kebab stalls. The towering 82-foot-tall Worker and Collective Woman statue has been moved to its own chichi museum. The Stalinist Empire-style colonnades of restored pavilions gleam in the June sun under a fresh coat of that New Moscow whiteness. Spruced-up hammers, sickles, stars, and socialist realist murals and statuary, so familiar to me from my childhood, now resemble some gigantic fantastical restaurant decor. The park offers yoga classes, edgy art shows, food trucks, even a farmers’ market. “Hipster Stalinism” is what some commentators call this repurposing of totalitarian public spaces into playgrounds for the iPhone generation.
To escape Sobyanin’s apocalyptic beautification-in-progress, Barry and I take the metro out to VDNKh in northeastern Moscow. Inaugurated in 1939, this 600-acre Stalinist theme park glorified Soviet industry and the agricultural might of the Soviet republics (never mind that by the start of that tragic decade millions of peasants had perished from famine). On my last visit, the park’s propaganda-kitsch sprawl resembled a morose ruin of a fallen civilization. Its decrepit ornate pavilions, which Federico Fellini once called the “hallucination of a drunken pastry chef,” advertised shabby fur coat fairs and cat exhibits. Now, with Putin’s personal blessing, VDNKh is getting a makeover by the same savvy team that turned the derelict Gorky Park, another Stalinist relic, into a multimillion-dollar hipster arcadia featuring the Rem Koolhaas-designed Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.
As a Moscow kid I was mesmerized by VDNKh’s “People’s Friendship” fountain: a gilded 1950s extravaganza of 16 monumental maidens in the national garbs of the Soviet republics encircling a vast sheaf of wheat. When I was a girl in Moscow, most republics had representative restaurants in Moscow, the empire’s capital. The oldest and most famous of these was Aragvi, a Georgian landmark on Gorky Street. Opened in 1938, Aragvi offered an oasis of hedonism in that terror-filled era of purges and gulags. Here my father blew an inheritance left by his grandmother (who perished in the gulag) on sizzling lamb riblets and chicken in walnut sauce. Here Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s bloodstained chief of secret police, had his own dining room, with a small balcony from which he spied on the customers. In Aragvi’s private rooms the lyrics of the Soviet anthem—celebrating “the Unbreakable Union of freeborn Republics”—were penned; airplane designs were sketched; and visiting celebs such as Yves Montand and John Steinbeck smacked their lips over spicy Georgian specialties. Privatized during the Wild East Yeltsin years, Aragvi by the end of the ’90s had become a notorious mafiya hangout, and it was finally shuttered in 2003 after the attempted murder of one of its owners. Now, like many Soviet icons, it has made a kambek (that’s Russian for comeback) after a $20 million makeover.
My heart races as Mom, Barry, and I trudge through the puddles (it’s been raining relentlessly) and the construction scaffolding on Tverskaya (formerly Gorky) Street toward Aragvi. The restaurant is Moscow’s history—my own family’s history! Yet another sudden downpour sends us ducking into a huge bookstore. Where I gasp and feel simultaneously proud and utterly mortified to see my Soviet memoir, recently translated into Russian, featured in a cheesy crimson display of USSR-kitsch memorabilia. Once inside Aragvi, we’re offered a tour that includes Beria’s dining room, now all blinding white (that whitewashing again) brightened with murals of happy collective farm workers. For me, the reconstruction lacks coherence, but the Georgian food truly shines, from the cheesy khachapuri pies crowned with a sunny baked egg to the fist-size khinkali (meat dumplings). I understand now why six generation of Muscovites raved about Aragvi’s signature chicken tabaka (crisp-fried under a press) and those succulent lamb riblets. A huge hallway mirror is about the only artifact left from the restaurant’s original decor. “Beria,” my mother whispers, with a shudder. “I swear I can see that monster’s bald head and his pince-nez in this mirror.”
The Kremlin’s recent truce with the Republic of Georgia assured the return of sun-kissed Georgian food imports to Moscow. Ukraine? A different story entirely, given the ongoing krizis. In this heated political context, the extravagant 1950s mosaics at Kievskaya station of the Moscow metro glorifying the indomitable Russo-Ukrainian friendship seem like a particularly cruel political joke. Emerging from the station the next evening, Barry and I pass under the Stalinist hulk of the former Hotel Ukraine—loudly rebranded as Radisson Royal—then parse the ironies over contraband fish smuggled from Ukraine itself at the restaurant Barkas, a new riverside hot spot dedicated to the garlicky Jewish cuisine of Odessa, Ukraine’s buoyant port city. Sharing the ironies—and the potent horseradish vodka—is our New York friend Masha Gessen, who’s in town researching a book on historical memory. Masha, a writer and a courageous critic of Putin, emigrated, as I did, as a kid, then moved back to Moscow in the ’90s, then recently re-emigrated. Mouth full of crisp latke and fluffy chopped herring, I talk about the de-ideologizing and aestheticizing of the Stalinist past at the city’s reclaimed public spaces. “Not just aestheticizing,” snaps Masha. “They [the Putin regime] are resurrecting it wholesale: restoring the Soviet imperialist values.”
Masha, my mom...I envy their political clarity. Myself, I’m caught in a perpetual moral bind of falling—hard!—for the scarlet “Planet USSR” with its rebranded Soviet theme parks and chocolates, then feeling pangs of guilt for my glee. During my week in Moscow, the Metropol Hotel becomes my refuge from the construction, insistent rains, and conflicting emotions. With its iconic art nouveau look, the Metropol served as a hostel for the new Bolshevik government members after the 1917 Revolution. I love the view of the Bolshoi Theater from our old-fashioned suite, love the harpist tinkling under a stained glass dome in the breakfast hall where Lenin and Trotsky orated and schemed. Love the inspired New Russian cooking—that borscht!—at the Metropol’s Savva restaurant. One day, the hotel’s resident historian gives us a tour of the three-room suite where Nikolai Bukharin, Lenin’s favorite Bolshevik, lived with a menagerie that included an eagle, a bear cub, and a monkey. In 1938 Bukharin was executed after one of Stalin’s notorious show trials.
On our last day in Moscow, Barry and I share enameled metal bowls of pelmeni, Siberian dumplings, around the wooden communal table of a “dumpling boutique” called Lepim i Varim, or “Shape and Boil.” This sweet lokavorosky (locavore) spot run by three young dudes, two of whom are hosts at Moscow’s Comedy Radio, aims to hook Muscovites on Russian fast food. Outside, the peeping Moscow sun glints on the pedestrianized Stoleshnikov Lane (Moscow’s “it” shopping street), where 19th-century facades preen in new coats of buttercream and pistachio. The gazelles strutting out of Chanel and Louis Vuitton stores most likely have no idea that journalist Vladimir Gilyarovsky, a legendary chronicler of Moscow’s late 19th-century restaurant scene, lived on this street. Suddenly I recall the days of Brezhnev-era stagnation when my parents were still together and mom, dad, and I ate frugal borscht and stale sausage while reading Gilyarovsky’s orgiastic descriptions of suckling pigs and tall sturgeon pies at Moscow’s fin de siècle taverns. How preposterous, it dawns on me now, how completely improbable it would have seemed to us then, the idea of me flying in from New York to report on Moscow’s 2016 revolution in dining. I call up my mom to share these thoughts with her. She’s having lunch with her octogenarian school friends.
“Da, da, isn’t life strange?” she chuckles. And then demands: “Did you post my photos with chef Mukhin on Facebook? How many Likes did it get?”