Post #1 is here.

More preliminary results are now available from last October’s Russian-run census of Crimea, apparently having been dropped at a round table in Simferopol on the occasion of the first anniversary of the annexation of the peninsula.

Given the political implications of nationality in the Ukrainian conflict, as well as reports of an exodus of Crimean Tatars from the peninsula, I had been waiting for details about nationality – not included in the first round of preliminary figures – and these results do not disappoint. (Sorry, this is an image because I don’t know how to embed graphs in WordPress – if you want the Excel file, feel free to contact me. Click the image to make it bigger.)

Click to view larger!

Here I’ve compared four nationalities’ 2001 and 2014 Census numbers, lumping everyone else into “other” (although there are some interesting things to note among the less numerous nationalities as well, I’m short on time).  In the second column of numbers we see the share of population attributed to each ethnic group in the 2001 Ukrainian Census; the fourth column gives each group’s share in 2014. The share of Russians appears to have increased quite a bit, while the share of Ukrainians has declined even more substantially. But perhaps the most noteworthy thing here is that the share of Crimean Tatars has remained exactly the same.

The two rightmost columns show what we’d expect each nationality’s population to be if we took the overall 2014 population of 2.2 million and applied the 2001 nationality breakdown. (Note that this is illustrative only; I don’t know if we can reasonably expect each group’s fertility, mortality and migration patterns up until the Ukrainian/Russian crisis of 2014 to have been similar enough to make this a valid forecasting method). Here we can see that the actual number of Crimean Tatars in 2014 is only about 900 lower than, or less than a tenth of a percent off of, what it would have been if 2001 proportions had held. By contrast, there are over 200,000 fewer ethnic Ukrainians – and 113,000 more ethnic Russians – than 2001 proportions would lead us to expect.

It’s no surprise that these numbers were saved for release during #крымнаш week. These nationality results are very, very politically useful for Russia. The shifts in Ukrainian and Russian representation toward a Crimea that’s fully two-thirds Russian help provide further justification to the assertion that the annexation protects the interests of ethnic Russians. The stable Crimean Tatar numbers – especially when considered with the shocking more-than-tripling of the “other Tatar” population and the note from Head of the Department of Health and Population Statistics Svetlana Nikitina that “часть крымских татар назвали себя татарами, поэтому при финальном подсчёте эти группы будут суммироваться,” (“a portion of the Crimean Tatars identified themselves as [just] Tatars, so at final count these two groups will be summed[!!!!!]”) will almost certainly help the Russian state put to rest rumors of a massive Tatar exodus from Crimea and continuing mistreatment of the Tatars who remain.

Like many English-speaking Russia watchers, I first heard about this book via Masha Gessen’s NYRB review. You know, the one that sparked an absolutely insane feud over nothing, which I will not spend too much time on here because it is an absolutely insane feud over nothing. On one side we have someone who is not a demographer and writes perfectly adequate book reviews; on the other we have someone who is also not a demographer, but likes making graphs and using them to shout at people. Okay, moving on to my review.

I was really jazzed to find out that this book is an ethnography of the Russian mortality crisis of the 1990’s; the idea of combining ethnographic and quantitative methods is something that I find intellectually appealing (okay, thrilling), and the mortality crisis of the ’90’s is tragic and still not adequately explained by the data we have. But combining ethnography and quantitative methods is tough to do well – methodology aside, it’s hard to make two such fundamentally different ways of knowing about the world engage with each other. Unfortunately, I didn’t think Dying Unneeded really delivered; I put down the book feeling like Parsons didn’t make much effort to engage with quantitative data, and because of this, her ethnography suffered.

Her method was to conduct semi-structured interviews with pensioners around Moscow, focusing on their experiences of the Soviet Union’s collapse and ensuing transition to a market economy. She found consistent refrains about space, bounded and unbounded (prostor); limitlessness or lawlessness (bespredel, a hard word to translate), and, crucially, being needed/unneeded (nikomu ne nuzhny). Using a kind of discourse analysis or semiotics-lite (which, as an aside, made me long for Nancy Ries’ mastery of and deep commitment to these methods), she makes these three concepts the foundation of her argument: the collapse of Soviet life robbed the post-WWII generation of Russians of the social, political and economic structures within which and around which they operated for most of their lives, taking away not only their sense of control and freedom but also their ability to be ‘needed,’ or useful to others.

She focuses particularly on ‘neededness,’ suggesting that it functions in a socialist context in much the same way social capital does in a capitalist one, and ultimately connecting it to a conception of ‘soul’ (dusha) as something that arises in the interaction between people, rather than a characteristic of an individual. Along the way, she questions the universality of American intellectual notions such as social capital and freedom, and, perhaps most valuably, provides a new and nicely nuanced interpretation of the data we have on the puzzling and not at all straightforward relationships between alcohol consumption, health, and death in the ’90’s.

It was this rereading of data that left me feeling so frustrated with the rest of the book. Connecting drinking not only with thwarted masculinity and powerlessness but with social connection and neededness was great; I was waiting for the next step, a concrete connection between neededness and what we know about who died and how. But such a connection remained tenuous, floating in the realm of generalization and stereotype – e.g., we know that more men died than women, and gender roles in Russia made the feeling of being unneeded more acute among men. But which men? What can we find out about the social connections, histories and practices of the dead versus the survivors? With a bit more specificity, her argument could be really powerful, but Parsons gets no more specific with the data, and also fails in her interviews to discuss death or dying, so that we actually do not have any stories of the victims of the mortality crisis. Ultimately, the book is much more about how Russians lived in the ’90’s than about how and why they died. Parsons herself acknowledges this; however, a deeper engagement with the data we do have on mortality in the ’90’s and a willingness to talk about death could have led to a better connection between her original research question and the answer she arrived at.

Structurally, the book suffered from the repetitiveness that plagues many academic works of this length; it felt like each chapter was written to stand on its own, so reading all of them at once and revisiting the thesis over and over got quite tedious. My other main complaint with the book’s style is that Parsons’ Russian-to-English translations tend toward word-for-word literalism. I can understand the basic appeal of this approach in ethnography, but while reading the quotations from her interviews, I found myself unconsciously rooting around to try to feel the original Russian structure under the often-mangled English facade.

Ultimately, though it falls short in some ways, this book is an ambitious work on a sprawling topic that gives us new ways of thinking about how the collapse of a society manifested itself in individual bodies and lives. I hope the attempt made here to cross disciplines and methods will inform future work in sociology and demography – I know it has helped me think about what I want my own research to look like.

After annexing Crimea in March of this year, the Russian Federation has gotten down to the business of governing its new federal subject. The Russian State Statistics Service conducted a census of Crimea in October, the first since the all-Ukrainian census of 2001 (itself the only census Ukraine has undertaken since independence).

Preliminary results of the census, which took place from October 14 to 25, were announced on Monday. No information on some of the really interesting stuff yet – ethnicity, language, migration, economics, age, household composition, etc. – but here are the basics, with comparison to past data, and some of my initial thoughts.

A note on geography: Both Russia and Ukraine divide Crimea into two administrative units – Sevastopol, designated as a federal city (like Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kyiv), and the Republic of Crimea. Russia lumps these two regions together into the Crimean Federal Okrug, a designation which (I believe) does not have an official equivalent in Ukraine.

Crimean and Ukrainian Population

All numbers shown are permanent resident population; 2014 data on population present (including non-residents) is available for Crimea as a whole – 2,293,300 people – but a breakdown of that number between the Republic and Sevastopol has not been given.

* Ukraine total for 2014 is not a census count; it’s this year’s March 1st monthly estimate from the Ukrainian State Statistics Service, and includes Crimea.

2013 estimates are year-end estimates from the Ukrainian State Statistics Service.

Two noteworthy things: Sevastopol’s relatively large increase in population and the Republic’s relatively large decrease. In its April estimate, the last one it conducted in the annexed territory, the Ukrainian State Statistics Service estimated a population of 386,000 for Sevastopol, of which 384,000 were permanent residents of the federal city. The average for 2013 was 384,700 total and 382,700 permanent population, with monthly counts about 2,000 above that average toward the end of the year. So the population was growing, but an increase of eleven thousand people since April 1 is noteworthy.

In the Republic of Crimea, on the other hand, we see a 3% drop in the population from last year’s estimate. If all the numbers are correct, that means the Republic lost more people last year than the twelve previous years combined.

Obviously, the possibilities here are:

1. These large changes really happened. In Sevastopol, it’s possible that members of the Russian Black Sea Fleet were previously uncounted, and are now considered permanent residents of Sevastopol. That would account for much of the increase, as the Black Sea Fleet is several thousand strong. As for the Republic of Crimea, while reports of (Russian) refugees from Donetsk and Luhansk are more common, it’s possible that refugees fleeing to mainland Ukraine, including Crimean Tatars, account for some of the drop. Or maybe a lot of people moved from the Republic of Crimea to Sevastopol.

2. The Ukrainian State Statistics Service estimates were wrong. I don’t know much about Ukraine’s record-keeping, but if these estimates are calculated by accounting for births, deaths, and migration since the last census (which they usually are), there’s been thirteen years for them to drift, so this is certainly a possible factor.

3. The census is wrong. Rosstat claims a very low refusal rate of 0.6%, and they spent almost 400 million rubles on this census. I don’t know anything about Russian census methodology, though. Hopefully when the full results come out, the picture will be clearer.

Georgian Eggplant-Walnut Rolls

Vegan, gluten-free, kosher for Passover – the only thing these rolls aren’t is nut-free (or low-fat, ha). But they are delicious, and everyone, even people who hate eggplant, will love you for them. The following is an approximate recipe for how I make them. I picked up techniques and ingredients from a bunch of places, so these are a little more complex than most versions. If you are interested, there are many other versions online, both in English and Russian. There’s also an Armenian version – which apparently includes dairy – that I’ve never looked into.

Jenny’s recipe

Southern Living did one

Gotovim-doma (RU)

Armenian eggplant



  • Walnuts (I use about 2-3 cups, ideally on the higher side of that)
  • An onion
  • Some garlic to taste (I use 3-5 cloves)
  • Oil for frying
  • Fresh herbs: definitely cilantro, optionally also flat-leaf parsley, chives
  • Spices: Use a variety, including paprika, cayenne pepper, coriander, cumin, maybe a little turmeric. Fenugreek, summer savory and marigold are great if you have them; if not, some nice fresh curry powder actually makes a good substitute. If you’ve been to Georgia recently (which you probably have if you have summer savory or marigold on you), whatever spice blend you have from there is good to add too – particularly the yellow one.
  • Fruity/sour component: I’ve used lemon juice, red wine vinegar, pomegranate molasses, and (in a pinch) Thai tamarind paste. Pomegranate molasses is my preference, if you have it. If you don’t have it, check at Middle Eastern or Persian grocers in your area.
  • Salt
  • Water


  • Eggplants – I like the smaller, somewhat thinner ones best because they make the best-shaped wrappers. (But not Chinese or Thai varieties, which are too thin and too small, respectively.) But really, whatever you can get is probably fine. The eggplant is just a vehicle.
  • Salt
  • Oil


  • A food processor or other way of turning the filling to paste.


A note about quantities: I have never successfully made this and had the right ratio of filling to eggplant. You generally need fewer eggplants than you think, is all I can say – often I buy 3 and find that after slicing 2 I have enough for, like, 30 rolls and am going to be out of filling before that. Also, having extra filling is great because it’s outrageously delicious. So maybe buy 2 eggplants.


Okay so: toast your walnuts in a dry pan. Set them aside. Fry up your onion in a little oil to a nice golden color – don’t worry too much about whether it’s sliced or diced or chopped, since you’ll be food processing it later anyway. Either add the garlic, chopped, to the pan at the end of this step (this is what I do) OR leave the garlic raw. I think that is more traditional, but I’ve never made it that way because raw garlic, gross. If you’re using curry powder you can add that to the pan at this point, too, as parts of it are oil-soluble. Remove from heat and add all the other spices.

Put the onion-garlic-spices into the bowl with the walnuts. Drizzle over some of the sour component, maybe 3 tablespoons. Throw on the herbs, roughly chopped. Don’t be afraid to use a couple handfuls of herbs. Put in some salt – don’t go crazy, but definitely don’t skimp. Now, food process it. You’ll get a sort of meal at first – once you get that, add a few tablespoons of water. That should help the mixture turn a sort of weird light gray color and become more paste-like. Lightly chunky, cohesive, not crumbly but definitely not sopping wet – that’s what we’re going for. Like a spread. Once you get there, taste it and adjust the salt and sour if you need to. Don’t be afraid to make it bold – remember, people are eating 1-2 bites of this at once, so assertive and super flavorful is good. Try not to eat the whole batch while tasting.

So next, put all that in the fridge, well covered. Weirdly, it doesn’t handle being unrefrigerated that well. It goes kind of limp and the top gets dried out. I don’t have empirical data to back this up, but I believe letting it sit in the fridge for a while so the flavors can marry makes it better. So this could be a two-day recipe if you want.

While that’s in the fridge, make the eggplant. Slice it lengthwise as thin as you can – if using a mandoline slicer, the 3/16” setting is recommended. Here I must admit I have not decided what works best. I’ve tried brushing the slices with oil and baking them, which leads to a less heavy, greasy wrapper but  sometimes involves stickage and ruined eggplant and also tends to make the skin brittle and hard to roll up. I usually just pan-fry, which is fine but uses many paper towels (you’ll want to put the slices on paper towels to absorb the grease). Sometimes I salt beforehand to make the slices absorb less oil, and sometimes I don’t. Frankly, I haven’t noticed much difference in oil absorption either way, and I prefer unsalted, to up the flavor contrast between the eggplant and the filling. Anyway, bottom line, no one will complain about the eggplant no matter what you do to it. So cook up a bunch of slices, done but not crispy, and let it cool.

After that, take the filling out of the fridge, use spoons to place portions of it on the eggplant slices, and roll or fold up the eggplant end-over-end. Arrange nicely on a serving plate, garnish with pomegranate seeds if you want to be real fancy, and prepare for everyone to love you.


…originally posted as a Facebook comment. Yeah. Edited a bit, paragraph break added.

I find the whole Olympic boycott business, while well-intentioned, pretty obnoxious. I do agree that it’s important for countries and their athletes to consider their safety in-country before going to any international sporting event, but the idea of boycotting just because we’re mad at Russia seems a little uninformed and silly. It doesn’t send Russia a “powerful signal,” because Russians already think (with a certain degree of truth and a certain degree of paranoia) that the West unjustifiably picks on them. Why not boycott Olympics in the U.S. over Guantanamo? Why didn’t we boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics? China’s got at least as many human rights problems as Russia, if not specifically against LGBT people.

Taking another tack, if you’re going to boycott, why not align with the Circassians, who have been protesting since Sochi was chosen that the Olympics are taking place on their ancestral land on the 150th anniversary of their genocidal expulsion from the Russian Empire, with zero acknowledgment from the Olympic organizers that Sochi is anything but an ethnically Russian city? Or with the Sochi residents who have had their homes demolished for the corruption-riddled Olympic construction projects? Finally, I’d argue that a boycott and international outcry against the Russian government are, in this case, unlikely to build significant pressure. The vast majority of Russians – over 80% – support this legislation, and popular support is a powerful thing.

There are several important questions we can ask after last week’s news from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs that Russia’s population is “old.” As Sociological Images reminds us, there are a lot of numbers we should know, or at least know to ask about, when we’re interpreting statistics like this.

1. Who counts as old? The Moscow Times says that 13% of the population is 65 or above, and then quotes a figure of 22.7% over the age of retirement later on. It fails to clarify that the age of retirement in Russia is not 65 – it’s 60 for men and 55 for women. So men ages 60-64 and women ages 55-64 make up nearly 10% of the population? Yep – according to the U.S. Census Bureau data, they actually make up 10.2%.This significantly changes the picture from a place like, for example, the U.S., where the demographic age cohort delineation of 65 is also the retirement age.

2. Mark Adomanis at Forbes, clearly a demographic crisis skeptic, asks how different Russia’s age structure actually is from neighboring countries’. (Answer: not that different – although the countries he picked are a bit of a hodgepodge.) I didn’t find his population pyramids very easy to read, so I put the data together another way:

Percentage of Population by Age Group



Czech Republic






























To further contextualize, in the good ol’ U.S., adults 65 and over make up 12.8% of the population, but we have a much larger youth cohort – 20.2% of us are under 16. Our birth rate also almost matches Russia’s, at 13.5 births/1,000 U.S. population vs. 13.3 births/1,000 Russian population, but our death rate is lower, at 8.38/1000 vs. 13.3/1000.

3. What problems might an aging population cause for Russia? Of course, workforce and the pension system come to mind immediately (well, immediately after the specter of demographic crisis and the gradual erasure of Russia, Russian language and Russian culture from the face of the earth, depending on how much of an alarmist you are); and indeed, the possibility of raising Russia’s very low age of retirement has been under discussion for quite some time. I’m interested in something else, though – in its unit on mortality, the demography textbook I’m reading through mentioned something interesting: rising death rates in Russia and neighboring countries in the past few decades, while caused in large part by social upheaval, also reflect the Soviet medical system’s inability to make the shift from curing contagious diseases (which it did, and does, fairly well) to adequately managing degenerative diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. In terms of Russia’s aging population, this is problematic both because it suppresses life expectancy overall and because it decreases the aging population’s quality of life and productivity. In addition to many people’s end-of-life care, more and more pensioners will need years of medication and management of diseases such as diabetes and congestive heart failure. The silent AIDS crisis (you should definitely click that link) and the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis add to the number of Russians who need chronic medical treatment. How will the Russian medical system respond to these changing needs?

Those are my three questions (and answers, sort of) about Russia’s shifting demographics. Anything you’d add?

I can’t help but chuckle at this Onion article on the Miami Heat’s biggest fans, as a native Ohioan and, of course, as someone who enjoys mocking dictators. As I’m also currently in the thrall of Timothy Snyder’s excellent Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (brief review: read it if you want to be sadder about Poland than ever before), I appreciated that the crime they called Stalin on was the Ukrainian genocide, or Holodomor. Compared to his other crimes – the Great Terror and the GULAG chief among them – the Holodomor is relatively unknown and even contested, both among the Onion’s American readership and within the former Soviet Union (Ukraine excepted). Genocide recognition campaigns are a whole other ball of wax, but it is tragic when the popular historical memory omits such a huge catastrophe altogether. And it is, uh, nice to see a broader treatment of Stalin as the evil mastermind he was.

Strange things are afoot in Kyrgyzstan. News broke on Wednesday that Jogorku Kengesh, the small Central Asian state’s parliament, passed a resolution that would require young women wishing to travel abroad to supply a written note from their parents. Concerns cited by the resolution’s initiator, MP Yrgal Kadyralieva, include curbing human trafficking, protecting the girls’ honor, and preventing a demographic crisis by preserving the Kyrgyz gene pool. For good measure, she throws in a moral-panic reference to Kyrgyz girls going abroad, giving birth and abandoning their babies in the street.

I’m never a fan of demographic excuses for restricting women’s rights, but I’m always especially baffled in situations where there is no demographic crisis to fix. The fertility rate in Kyrgyzstan is 2.73 children per woman, with rates among ethnic Kyrgyz women likely higher, and the population has been growing fairly steadily for nearly two decades. On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan does have a brain drain problem – an estimated 2000 college graduates, over 5% of the country’s graduating class, emigrates each year. Perhaps this legislation was proposed under the assumption that restricting young women’s movements would be culturally acceptable to the majority of Kyrgyzstanis, and would thus be a good way to stem the tide of brain drain without discouraging economically important labor migration by young men. (Remittances from labor migration make up an estimated 15% of the country’s GDP.)

However, it did not turn out to be as culturally acceptable as was, perhaps, expected. There was an immediate outcry by human rights ombudsman Tursunbek Akun, the Bishkek feminist collective SQ, and Kyrgyzstani citizens living abroad. Strangely, when the dust settled on Thursday evening, it turned out that the reported-on resolution text was never passed. Kadyralieva seems to have clearly mentioned the travel restriction to the media, and the resolution was passed in committee with the restriction in place in March of this year – but in the version of the resolution ultimately passed by parliament at large and posted on Jogorku Kengesh’s website, there’s no travel restriction to be found. No one seems to know whether it was removed before the resolution (which now only mentions general measures for counting and protecting emigrants) was passed, or ex post facto in reaction to the public outcry.

An even more fascinating twist to this story is that such a rule is already in force in Uzbekistan. My attention was drawn to this by a commenter on, who recounts the hoops she had to jump through the last time she tried to leave Uzbekistan. Ultimately, she had to get her younger brother to write the letter permitting her to leave, as her father is deceased and she has no older brother or husband. (She has been joined in the comments there by another Uzbekistani woman telling a similar story; I recommend reading both.)

There’s not a ton of information on the Uzbek law out there, and a particular dearth of English-language sources, but, quoting opposition news site, reports that it came into force in early 2011. In clear violation of Uzbekistan’s constitution, it requires young women ages 18-35(!) traveling to countries requiring a visa to submit verification, signed by their parents or husband, that they will not engage in prostitution abroad. Additionally, the responsible (read: male) parties assume responsibility for the traveler’s safe passage out of and back into Uzbekistan. Ostensibly, travelers with an invitation from a place of work or study do not need to submit this letter, but the comments linked above indicate that the law is poorly understood, unevenly enforced, and generally a great excuse for officials to extort lunch out of you. And, one assumes, a way to use the power of suggestion to subtly discourage paternalistic families from letting their young female members travel abroad. Very clever, Uzbekistan.

In the end, say what you will about Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to democratic ideals – at least the lawmakers discussed this resolution with the press before its passage, and ultimately removed the section that was in violation of the constitution that some of them probably helped to draft. For now I’ll call it a near miss, but as the resolution that ultimately passed does call for Kyrgyzstan to actively develop a demographic and migration policy, young Kyrgyzstani women may not be out of the woods just yet.

I’m not usually much of one for the quotation, “people get the government they deserve,” but this Vedomosti piece covering the passage of a bill banning some discussions of “nontraditional family values” (a.k.a. homosexuality, and anything else that’s not “mama-papa” sex, as Echo of Moscow’s Anton Orekh so evocatively calls it) in the lower house of the Russian Duma is maybe causing me to reevaluate that. As Duma Deputy Elena Mizulina, chair of the parliamentary Committee on the Family, Women and Children – and possibly my least favorite Russian lawmaker – gleefully points out, the Duma received an alleged 350,000 signatures in favor of the law’s passage, and a paltry 911 against, mostly “from foreigners.” Both VTsIOM and Levada have found that about 88% of Russians support the law, while only 7% are against it.

Nothing about this should surprise me – in fact, when St. Petersburg passed a similar law, I wrote,

I think it’s important to understand that a “small minority” is not actually what we’re up against. The bill passed 29 to 5. Fear and disgust around LGBT and queer issues is the cultural norm in Russia, and most Russians – especially those who live outside major cities and outside the relatively young, well-educated internet-using class – aren’t presented with any alternative ways of understanding gender and sexuality. In that cultural context, it makes sense to pass a law to protect innocent children from exposure to the perversion of homosexuality. Many Russians see this as a no-brainer, like laws imposing steeper penalties for dealing drugs near a school.

But it is disheartening. It’s hard not to see the overwhelming support for these measures as being of a piece with Russian liberalism’s anti-immigrant streak, or the overwhelming support for punishments for the members of Pussy Riot. Or Russians’ distrust of feminism, for that matter. The way I see it, xenophobia and homophobia are both symptoms of a fearfulness and a misguided nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent, more authentically Russian past that Russians have been fed with their kasha, and that have been detrimental to Russia’s development into a 21st-century Western society — even as the educated urban population has started to show political will.

Given said xenophobia, I don’t think pressure from abroad can do anything to change this law, which is expected to pass the upper house of the Duma and be signed by Putin. Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch and other groups are (rightly) on it, some are petitioning for the names of the lawmakers who voted for it to be added to the Magnitsky List – no mean feat, as it passed 308-3 – and there’s likely more outcry to come. The best we can hope for, I think, is that it causes a minimum of pain, suffering, and homophobic violence before it finally makes it into the dustbin of history.

Hello, faithful readers! It’s been a while. Today we turn from social and political analysis to two of my favorite hobbies, which are etymological research and eating (it’s always a party around here).

One of my favorite things about exploring the cultures of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Eurasia has been learning just how extensive a Sprachbund of food-based vocabulary they have. The same staple dishes can be found from the Levant through Persia to Central Asia, under names that are borrowed or calqued; fruits and vegetables carry their names, sometimes with shifting vowels or consonants, from India north through Eurasia to Russia; and food traditions are shared from the Balkans to the Caucasus and beyond. (As a side note, this is why it is ridiculous that UNESCO enters foods onto its Intangible Heritage list by country.) While studying in Turkey, I was delighted to learn that my host mother’s mother, a native of the eastern Anatolian city of Erzurum, called a drinking glass – usually a bardak in Turkish – an istakan. I related this story to a friend – hey, people in Erzurum, which was once under Russian control, use the same word for “drinking glass” that Russians use! – and was even more delighted when he, a Persian speaker, informed me that this word is almost the same in Persian, and probably was borrowed from there. Well, maybe – it appears to have been an old Turkic word originally, borrowed into Russian and from there into Persian. It could have then been reborrowed from Persian into some dialects of Turkish. Or from Russian into Turkish.

So yesterday, overcome by the plump, tender piles of new summer squash at my local farmer’s market, I attempted my first-ever batch of Russian икра из кабачков, ikra iz kabachkov  – literally “caviar made from summer squash,” sister to the somewhat richer баклажанная икра, or eggplant caviar. This morning, while nursing a summer cold and reveling in the deliciousness of this spread served cold over rye toast, I was poking around the internet reading about the various similar recipes for eggplant- and pepper-based spreads from the Balkans (which are incidentally available at Trader Joe’s). It turns out that ajvar, the Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian and Macedonian name for this type of spread, like the Russian ikra, means “caviar,” from the Turkish word havyar, which is the ultimate source of English caviar, as well. The English Wikipedia entry explains that the spreads were given this moniker with a bit of a sly wink, after home production of actual caviar was outlawed in the Balkans in the 1890’s. The story I have always heard in Russia is that vegetable spreads are called caviars because they are the poor man’s substitute for fish roe – as illustrated by a sight gag in the classic Soviet comedy Ivan Vasil’evich Changes His Profession, where a feast at Ivan the Terrible’s court features huge piles of actual red and black caviar and a tiny dish of eggplant caviar

So, did the South Slavs and the East Slavs come up with the fish roe/vegetable spread connection independently? My guess would be that the Russians borrowed this dish from points south, and calqued the name from BSC or Macedonian when they did so. But has it really only been around, and referred to as ajvar/ikra, since the 1890’s? Well, my copy of Elena Molokhovets’ A Gift to Young Housewivesthe 19th-century classic of Russian cookery, makes no mention of vegetable caviar, so it seems possible. Darra Goldstein thinks the dish came to Russia from the Caucasus – but she also makes a specious connection between the Russian kabak, tavern, and kabachok, squash (the latter comes from Turkish kabak, squash, while the former is an unrelated 17th-century Germanic borrowing), so it’s possible her book, which is full of great recipes, is not the best-researched. Lynn Visson’s The Russian Heritage Cookbook gives six vegetable caviar recipes, some sourced from emigres who left Russia around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution – so the dish must have been known to Russian cooks by then. I would love to research this question farther, but I think the internet has taken me as far as it can, and I would need to read more old Russian cookbooks to find a clearer answer. In any case, vegetable caviar is now a staple of appetizer tables in both the Balkans and Russia – and also a great way to put up several kilos of the eggplant or squash you’ve grown at your dacha for the winter.


PS: The Bulgarian word for at least one of these vegetable spreads, kyopoolu, totally baffled me until I realized it’s from the Turkish köpoğlu, a yogurt and eggplant appetizer whose name literally means “son of a dog” (and yes, its meaning is similar to the English expression S.O.B. – though with additional shades of craftiness, deceit or cunning). Figure that one out!


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