What I initially thought about as a simple thousand-word article turned out to be a more complicated topic, which can not be covered in one go. As you all know, this blog mainly covers the Soviet Army, specifically the Afghan War topic. But to really understand and in some way replicate the catering system of the Soviet Armed Forces the matter needs to be studied deeper.
In this article, we will touch, briefly, on how the Soviet Army was fed during regular peace-time life in the regular regimental canteens. And while even this topic is wide enough to deserve its own history degree grade study, we will try to cover the basic, yet most interesting parts of this topic.
A brief history of food in the Soviet Army
As most of you know, the 20th century was not exactly an easy or prosperous period for
people who habited on the territories of the ex-Soviet Union. With natural and hand-made famines, poor organization, and overall stupidity, the nutrition of a regular Soviet citizen was mediocre in the best of years.
The situation in the Army usually tends to be slightly better. After all, you do not want to leave hundreds of armed men unfed - the Soviet government knew this from their own experience in 1917. So throughout the first half of the 20th century, it is generally agreed that the Armed Forces were well fed, even in the times of nationwide famine in the 1930s. It is also known for a fact, that internal security troops, such as NKVD and VV would usually get better products and higher calorie intake on daily bases.
Unfortunately, soldiers' memoirs from the pre-WW2 era are rare, and even less often they cover rations and catering. This means, that we have to rely mainly on documents from the era. While this would usually be the correct way of studying history, this case is different. Due to systematic corruption in the Soviet Army, the actual amount of food to be catered out to soldiers was, in most cases, drastically different from what was supposed to be given by the book.
Typical ration in Soviet Army
As was mentioned in the introduction, this article can not cover all the aspects of an incredibly broad and interesting topic of food in the Soviet Army. In this paragraph, we will discuss the rationing of food as it tends to happen in the later stages of the Cold War. Please note, that the rationing in the Soviet Armed Forces could have been very different.
It was all very dependent on the branch, geographical location, regimental officers, and other factors. The catering for air force officers was, in many cases, similar to a restaurant, while an infantry regiment somewhere close to Baikal Lake would be eating braised cabbage three times a day all year round. In this paragraph we will try to describe a very average type of catering a regular conscript would experience in his years of service.
Daily menu in the Soviet Army
Trying to imagine a typical day in the Soviet Army in the 1980s, we should start with the dinner - as this is what most of the new conscripts would eat first. A typical supper would consist of some sort of boiled potato - usually not very thoroughly mashed potato. The quality of the potato varied, but it was rarely plain - most likely it would have the sauce, which consisted of tomato paste with paprika and fried margarine. On top of that, the dinner would usually have some protein - most likely hake fish, which was common. For the desert, soldiers would get tea-like substances with two cubic centimeters of sugar.
For breakfast, conscripts would get carbohydrates in the form of porridge. In the absolute majority of regimental canteens, this would mean boiled pearl barley or millet porridge. It was universally disliked because of its taste and appearance - the steel-gray jelly substance was not very appealing. However, rice, macaroni, or buckwheat could be served instead - these meals were preferred by the young soldiers and some branches of service would actually get them on regular bases. Apart from that, conscripts would also get tea with sugar and more importantly - butter. By the book, everyone was supposed to get 20 grams of this praised produce, but in practice, it was rarely half of that. The butter was spread on white bread, which was also limited to two slices per person.
Lunch was supposed to be the most nutritious meal, but this was subject to local chefs and the quality of the products. As soldiers used to joke - "We get three meals per lunch: cabbage with water, cabbage without water, and water without cabbage". This was not far from the truth. The first meal was some sort of soup - in theory, it would be borsh or goulash, but with severe meat limitations it would actually be more like a vegetable soup. Sometimes pea soup was served and it was a big success among other ranks - for some reason, it was always well cooked and hence quite tasty. The second meal for lunch was more carbohydrates - porridge, macarons, or vegetable stew, consisting of cabbage and potatoes. The drink of choice for lunch would be compote - stewed fruits. The drink was supposed to be quite sweet, but in the Army, it usually was not.
You might notice that quite a lot of dishes revolved around cabbage. This was because it was the cheapest vegetable that could be preserved over winter. By mid-spring, the preserved cabbage was usually spoiling, meaning that the cabbage-based dishes were getting worse and worse with each day. However, by late summer and the new harvest, soldiers were lucky enough to enjoy fresh cabbage salads on daily bases.
Apart from the mentioned above, there were some bright days in the Army catering. First of all, in most regiments, soldiers would be getting one chicken egg on Sunday. It was a delicacy - the egg white was separated, while the yolk was spread on the bread on top of the butter. Some army bases would also give an apple to each soldier on Sunday, but this was more of an exception - fresh fruits and vegetables were very rare in the Soviet Army.
Sometimes soldiers would also get tined fish and less often - tined meat. These had much better taste than what was cooked daily, but such events were rare. Last but not least, on national holidays soldiers could get cacao, biscuits, and sweets - but again, this was subject to availability and many other factors.
The food in the Soviet Army was rather miserable for the majority of servicemen - both by modern standards and when compared to European Armies of the same time period.
The products were of bad quality, the food was not well cooked and big chunks of portions were actually stolen by the members of the kitchen staff. All these factors lead to poor nutrition, which was hard to accept for the young growing organisms of the conscripts. The feeling of hunger would not leave soldiers for two years of service.
Of course, it was natural for the young soldiers to find their own ways to deal with hunger. We will discuss how soldiers improved their nutrition in the next article covering food in the Soviet Army.