«Худо, брат, жить в Париже: есть нечего; черного хлеба не допросишься» - Пётр Васильевич Шереметев[i]

Black bread is a ubiquitous cultural force in Russian history. Historically, black (rye) bread has been more prevalent than white (wheat) bread in Russia because rye grows better in the colder Russian climes.[ii] While the elite preferred the taste of wheat bread, it was far more expensive and difficult to obtain, and the masses subsisted on black bread. Even kings and generals like Kutuzov were more than happy to subsist on black bread. In part this may have been because of black bread’s associations with the Russian peasantry.

While it seems this association of black bread with the peasantry rose out of economic necessity, the effects of this association have been wide in their scope. The immediate consequence is the health of the Russian people. Some people claim that black bread is more nutritious than white bread, and particularly it prevents such diseases of malnutrition as beriberi. Although it is more acidic than white bread, black bread does have 30% more iron and 1.5-2 times as much magnesium and potassium as white bread.[iii]

Russia has historically viewed her strength as the wholeness of the peasantry. A Russian might claim, then, that black bread led to the strength of her peasantry and the strength of her army. Perhaps these were the allusions intended by the Soviet marketers of the Borodino variety of black bread. The etymology of the name Borodino is perhaps the word for fermentation (брожение), or perhaps after a Russian chemist named Borodin, and probably not after the famous battle. Still, the 1930s-era Soviet marketers may have intended to portray the strength of the Russian army in the battle as a direct consequence of the strength of the bread.[iv]

Black bread was considered so integral to the Russian peasantry that they could not think of replacing it with white bread. In times of famine, Russians starved because they could not replace black bread in their diets with the abundant meat and fish resources of their countryside.[v]

Black bread was considered integral to the Russian peasantry, but so was Christianity, even to the very words (крестьянин, христианин). Then, it is only natural that Russian peasants partook of the Eucharist using black bread. While the earliest Christian customs seem to have permitted either unleavened or leavened bread to be used in the Eucharist, over time different regions came to prefer one or the other. Latin Christianity came to use unleavened bread, while Greek and Byzantine Christianity came to use leavened bread. Russian Orthodox Christians, in particular, always partook of the Eucharist using their ubiquitous black bread.

Although the Great Schism in 1054 was primarily a dispute over questions such as the filioque and the authority of the pope, cultural differences such as the use of leavened or unleavened Eucharist also drove the separation. Potential for unification in the 11th and 12th centuries was continually destroyed by dispute over this issue. Russia was a very important constituent of the Byzantine Christian block, and Constantinople was afraid to alienate Russia by prohibiting the Russian custom of using black bread. The Russians held onto their tradition of black bread so tightly that, arguably, the command to be unified was broken.[vi]

When Russia began to become connected to the rest of the world, one of the big differences noted was the Russian reliance on black bread as opposed to Western consumption of wheat bread. Sheremetev, in his travels in the West and in Paris, was struck by the lack of black bread. Despite the fact that black bread’s origins were in its cheapness, Sheremetev’s cultural background led him to consider that the Western white bread was a terrible equivalent for black bread.[vii] Likewise, the Turkish prisoners tasked with building the Georgian military highway were used to white bread and could not get used to the otherwise satisfactory Russian provisions of black bread.[viii]

In 1736, 54,000 Russian soldiers invaded the Turkish territory of Crimea. One of the major issues that they faced was a lack of black bread, because the caravans of rye bread were lost somewhere on the steppe. They were instead forced to use the white bread that was the Crimean regional custom. Some historians claim that this is the reason why the Russian army suffered several times more casualties from disease and malnutrition from battle against the Turks. Likewise, in the 1722 campaign against the Persians, the lack of good black bread was blamed for the outbreak of спорыньи (ergot).

The same ergot, arguably, was the cause of medieval sightings of witches in Europe. Ergot grows more easily on rye and then black bread than on white bread. The reason why the witch crazes that rocked the West were not so prevalent in Russia, despite the Russian use of black bread, was that powerful Russian monasteries left bread for long enough in the proper conditions so as to kill the ergot fungus.[ix]

Black bread was ubiquitous in Tsarist Russia, making up 60% of bread consumption at the turn of the 20th century.[x] So too, black bread was prominent in the Soviet Union. Since it was so cheap, it was the crucial food that led to survival during the famines sieges of World War II. But as the Russian economy began to become more integrated with the world economy later in the century, it began to become more possible to obtain wheat bread at lower prices. Climate change was also a part of this puzzle: the Volga region, traditionally the core of black bread growth, has become hotter and drier and thus less amenable to growing rye.[xi]

The cultural ties to black bread had been stronger than the religious imperatives to unity in the 11th and 12th centuries. However, these cultural ties to black bread were not strong enough to overpower the preferences shown to taste, price, and convenience. By the turn of the 21st century, consumption of black bread was down to 10-13%.[xii] While before the war 70% of bread made in Russia had rye flour, now it is down to 30%.[xiii] Russian black bread is famous around the world as a delicious brand of bread, except, one could argue, in Russia.

Only the most conservative Russian institutions still emphasize black bread. Eastern Orthodox Christians have the rule of taking very severe fasts during Lent, the period of 40 days leading up to Easter. Particularly, there are some days of the week and of the fast when it is only permitted to eat bread and water. To this day, the Russian Orthodox fasting rules only permit eating black bread on these days.[xiv]

Black bread has been an important shaping force in Russia, tied intimately to the idea of the Russian peasantry. Black bread even played an important role in the biggest European theological controversies. This bread was also responsible for the traditional Russian peasant health and strength of arms. Although for many years black bread had been crucial to survival during famines, in the end black bread could not survive the globalization that made white bread so much cheaper and more convenient. While black bread is still important in pockets of traditionalism such as the Russian Orthodox Church, in Russian society at large black bread is no longer nearly as prevalent as it once was.

[i] «Дары Святого Причастия – Хлеб.» Accessed 31 March 2014 < http://reforthodox.ucoz.ru/index/khleb/0-37.>

[ii] «Ржаной хлеб.» 2013. Accessed 31 March 2014 < http://hlebopechka.ru/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=209&Itemid=35.>

[iii] Виннер, Анна. «Ржаной хлеб.» 7 June 2012. Accessed 31 March 2014 <http://www.kraushka.ru/rjanoy.html>.

[iv] «Бородинский хлеб.»Accessed 31 March 2014 < http://mexanik.net/recepty/borodinskij-xleb/>.

[v] Timokhina, Olga. “Russian bread is everything head.” 2014. Accessed 1 April 2014 < http://www.ruscuisine.com/stories/cooking/n--31/.>

[vi] «Дары Святого Причастия – Хлеб.»

[vii][vii] Абсентис, Денис. «Христианство и спорынья.» Accessed 31 March 2014 <http://www.litmir.net/br/?b=104608&p=65.>

[viii] «О настоящем ржаном хлебе.» Accessed 31 March 2014 < http://www.tominhleb.ru/rzhanoe_chudo/.>

[ix] Абсентис, Денис. «Христианство и спорынья.»

[x] Виннер, «Ржаной хлеб.»

[xi] Аронов, Алексей. «Почему в России исчезает ржаной хлеб?» 2 November 2010. Accessed 31 March 2014 < http://www.meta.kz/686195-pochemu-v-rossii-ischezaet-rzhanoy-hleb.html.>

[xii] Виннер, «Ржаной хлеб.»

[xiii] Аронов, Алексей. «Почему в России исчезает ржаной хлеб?»

[xiv] «У православых христиан начался Великий пост.» 4 March 2014. Accessed 31 March 2014 < http://kolomna-spravka.ru/news/11413/>