Working In A Russian Soup Kitchen
By Alexander Schmemann
At lunch time, during the summer of 1992, I frequently joined other volunteers at the Lubyianskaya Boulevard Soup Kitchen to help feed indigent Russians. Essentially, we served free meals to retired, disabled and orphaned Russians in an old stolovaya, or cafeteria. We regulated and distributed meal tickets and performed a host of basic dining hall duties such as preparing and serving food, refilling tea mugs, and cleaning-up. This soup kitchen was one of three in Moscow that was organized and run by the Protestant Church.
During the early years of the post Soviet turmoil that began in 1991, quite a few churches and organizations sponsored soup kitchens throughout Moscow and the former Republics. These canteens furnished valuable meals during this unsettled period to those whose support system had completely collapsed. These people could not adequately struggle in the long lines at stores, and moreover, they could hardly afford the products offered. Their pensions quickly amounted to mere pennies as inflation worsened.
The situation was indeed difficult for the above mentioned Muscovites and the relief that was provided by charitable organizations, such as the Protestant Church, was extremely helpful. But, I must emphasize that although the general situation in Moscow was deteriorating, it was not abominable. Pantries had basics, and simple foods could be bought even though there were always long lines. Produce quantities fluctuated drastically. One day a large store could be full of potatoes and milk, the next day it could have chopped meat, and then for one week it might have nothing but Mars bars and a few pairs of expensive Finnish boots. The reactionary atmosphere of joy that accompanied the shedding of communism (for most people) was reason enough to transcend creature comfort. In short, people were not “starving in the streets,” and the positive mood which prevailed during these summer months held serious problems in check. These problems surfaced with increasing vigor as winter approached and conditions did not change for the better as everyone had thought.
STRICT SERVING PROGRAMS
Regardless of the supply and demand abnormalities, food could be found, and it is for this reason that the soup kitchens in Moscow had strict serving programs. The soup kitchen was not open to the public. The kitchen served a specific area of local people. It was not a ‘come-right-on-in-and-we’ll-feed-you’ type of place. Only people who had been designated as ‘really in need’ received meal tickets. The place was not overcrowded, but it did become full at midday. The atmosphere was civilized and everyone had a seat. The patrons came and seated themselves at the flimsy tables, caught their breaths, hardly talked, and waited for their meal tickets to be taken (they waved them in the air when we passed). We collected their tickets and brought them their meals. There was actually a price for the daily meal and sometimes a group of grubby soldiers would pay for lunch.
I learned about the soup kitchens through my mother who was a friend of the pastor of the Protestant Church. I was told that my help would be greatly appreciated, especially at the Lubyianskaya soup kitchen which was understaffed. If I had the time I was to show up at lunch-time at this kitchen and ‘just start helping.’ Sometimes I went for a whole week not missing a day, and sometimes I skipped periods of time due to other responsibilities. Whenever I went, no questions were asked. Everyone was kind, and I simply jumped into the work.
The kitchens only served lunch Monday through Saturday. The church had rented old soviet restaurants and hired cooks to make simple meals of soup, bread, meat or chicken, cabbage, etc. The people who made up the kitchen staff were probably the same people that had worked there before. My feeling was that the food prepared and served in these ruggedly functional places was never ‘first class’ to begin with. At Lubyianskaya, the mood was tough but friendly. The kitchen was loud; people talked, kids came and left, cats wandered in. Food was roughly prepared; an old man’s hand was slapped if it grabbed too many slices of bread, a young girl was given a couple extra slices. It was a real-life, down to earth cafeteria, where charity was the name of the game, but in Russian style-rough and tough, like the hands of the people who came in for nourishment. The sentiment behind the counter was, ‘Here’s some hearty, warm, free food, but you better be grateful to us cooks, and these hard-working volunteers, and America for paying for all this.’
Tea was the only self-serve item. The volunteers were needed to check people in (collect meal tickets), serve food, and clear tables. Many of the people could hardly walk either because of old age or a disability. They would have found it difficult to serve themselves and they would have taken too much time (and too much food). Besides, there were only a handful of trays.
A TYPICAL DAY
A typical day for me would consist of: arriving, briefly greeting the kind Nigerian volunteer/manager, and heading straight for the kitchen. I would load a tray with mismatched cracked bowls and mugs (and a handful of assorted spoons) and dispense the items to people at the tables for their tickets. Most of the people were old women. Some were nice and others were not, but they were all grateful. Some immediately put their food into glass containers that they fished out of bags, maybe eating a little something there in the stolovaya. Some even took the tea with them. This was done by carefully pouring it into special, tight-closing, glass jars. They packed the food away, I figured, to save it for later or to give it to someone else.
Over time, I could tell some of patrons recognized me and often mumbled oy, spaceeba, spaceeba in a kind way when I helped them. But I never really became acquainted with these people. I did become quite close with a few of the volunteers. I remember going home each day and thinking. “Wow, these people are really amazing!” They were so kind and steadfast, especially the Russian volunteers. I can see them now, a young man with a beard and a young woman with a shawl over her head, quietly helping and serving every single day. I met a young man, a student, who was very humble and kind, and I remember clearly once, when I gave him a ride home, how we discussed books and movies (these were just beginning to be circulated in Moscow) and he told me he liked Sylvester Stallone. He had many responsibilities, but he always made time to help. These Russian volunteers were indeed real Christians. Their generosity in that heavy-smelling soup kitchen during that time of complete societal upheaval (with its fresh temptations and flourishing of greed and capitalization) was genuinely admirable.
THE NEED FOR GOOD CHEER
All of us volunteers felt the need to be positive. The lunch outing for these people was probably their sole daily outing. Some good cheer was in need as much as the food. It was not easy to be consistently happy. We worked very hard there. And, after all, this was our lunch break from work. I always left sweating and smelling strongly of grease and oils. The doors and windows were usually kept shut to keep drafts out. It was a hot, grimy, and run-down place. But I did not mind. I cheerfully ran between tables, exchanging meal tickets for bowls of food, hurrying to the kitchen, slicing more bread, and whisking away used bowls and spoons (by the armful) to the lopsided dish-room.
I was drawn back to work there because of the charitable and inspiring mentality of the other volunteers. It was also the feeling of being needed, the feeling of ‘doing good’. I experienced an awareness that I was a privileged person not because I was American or had money in my wallet (or anything of the like), but because I was young and healthy and ablesomething these people were not.
Being hungry when I worked in the soup kitchen, I found some of the food appealing. I had the soup many times, hastily dipping my slices of Russian white and dark bread into it. That summer, I worked long mornings and then drove 30 minutes to the soup kitchen in my mother’s old Volkswagen (sometimes I took the Metro and then a bus). As I went through the heavy double doors, I was greeted by the familiar scent of Russian cooking, the sounds of clinking spoons and of tea being slurped. I became instantly hungry. This feeling of hunger that I experienced there, at those moments, connected me with the temper and timbre of that feeble crowd. It made me really appreciate simple, hot food and the generosity of people who provide charity.
Questions For Discussion:
1. Though this experience took place in Moscow, soup kitchens are found in many communities in the United States. Where is the soup kitchen closest to your location? What do you know about how it works? If you don’t know, you may want to do some research and discuss your findings.
2. What do you see as the benefits, the concerns of volunteering to work in a soup kitchen?
3. In this article, the soup kitchen was run by the Protestant Church. What conditions do you think would need to be met to set up a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox Church? What do you see as the value of inter-Orthodox or ecumenical cooperation in such an endeavor?