Soviet frozen desserts are a hot topic. Whether it's producing, marketing or eating them, everyone in Russia wants a piece of the famous ice creams: big companies, smallish firms and hipsters in Gorky Park. Some people even use the sweet treats as an argument for bringing back the USSR.
It would be wrong to say that Soviet ice cream is back in style — in fact it has never been unpopular. From flavours and shapes to package design, it has been a safe bet from the communist era to the overstocked chill cabinets of the post-Soviet supermarket. There is stakanchik, a cup-shaped wafer filled with vanilla or chocolate ice cream or fruit and berry sorbet, sold in paper cups and handy to eat while you walk. A bit more challenging to consume without making a mess is eskimo, vanilla ice cream in a thin chocolate shell that comes on a stick, and lakomka, a barrel-shaped piece of vanilla ice cream wrapped in a thick layer of frozen whipped chocolate cream, melting and dripping everywhere on a hot summer day. The slab-like briket, usually a single-flavoured ice cream like vanilla or chocolate, wrapped in paper, was meant to be eaten at home. Sakharniy rojok, a Cornetto-like cone, was another Soviet favourite, slightly less popular now thanks to the abundance of fancier brands with different flavours and fillings.
The only problem with the ice creams was that most of them were not widely available outside Moscow and St Petersburg, and even there you had to queue up for your rojok for a long time. Lakomka was sold exclusively in Moscow, and those lucky enough to try it composed elaborately detailed accounts of what it tasted like, that spread like urban legends.
In fact taste was a matter of exacting Soviet gastronomic science. Ice cream in the USSR was made according to GOST, a state standard for food manufacturers that specified ingredients and production for certain food brands: molochnoye (milk) had the lowest fat count, the fro-yo of the Soviet days; slivochnoye (cream) was made with cream as well as milk, and was a bit heavier; and the richest was plombir, the holy grail of Soviet food nostalgia, made from the heaviest cream and egg yolks, fluffy and soft even straight out of the freezer.
Today the cult of plombir and stakanchik is as strong as ever, with nearly every big manufacturer producing at least one of these nostalgia-inducing confectionaries. Ice cream stands in Moscow's trendy Gorky Park sell traditional stakanchiks packaged in Soviet style paper for 80 roubles, twice the average retail price of a stakanchik, prompting accusations and jokes about hipsters, the social group typically least prone to Soviet nostalgia, cashing in on the populations' soft spot for icy retro desserts.
Established brands like 48 Kopeyek (48 kopeks, owned by Nestle and so named for the price of a briket back in the day) consciously evoke Soviet nostalgia in ads, with smiling grandparents and children and tag lines like “our delicious tradition”. Petroholod, a large St Petersburg-based frozen food manufacturer has a line of eskimos called "Kak Ranshe" — Russian for “as it used to be”. Smaller brands like Moscow region-based Chistaya Liniya (universally hailed for the best vanilla stakanchik) offer slightly altered but still recognisable Soviet package designs.
Ice cream is often martialled into service as key evidence in a pro-USSR polemic when people want to recollect all the types of food that they claim tasted better in the old days (sausages and dairy products are also frequently cited). The argument usually stretches from food technology (“they knew how to make good ice cream back then”), to food purism (“the ice cream back then tasted so good because they made it from real milk, none of the milk powder and palm oil they use now”), to wild generalisation (“the Soviet Union was so good, even the ice cream tasted better”). Some people insist the ice cream tasted better because of the strict GOST regulations that manufacturers are no longer obliged to follow. Others recall that they were only ever delicious in comparison with the appalling quality of other Soviet foods.
Despite the nostalgia that surrounds it, Soviet ice cream still has its critics. There are those with few kind words for the taste and consistency of some of the more affordable varieties: the berry sorbet and the molochnoye, for instance, which, critics say, are “frozen into a solid tasteless icicle” and “smell like a wet paper cup”. The ice creams that escape criticism, the lakomkas and plombirs that are still praised by the majority, were nevertheless the unicorns of the Soviet ice cream industry — extremely rare and difficult to encounter in the wild. Even more widely available types were still only eaten on special occasions or in situations of unexpected luck. In a way, this explains the powerful nostalgia that continues to clings to them. Ultimately the pleasure of Soviet ice cream is rooted less in taste, quality or the technology of production than in the childhood memories of carefree summer days and festive walks in the park on public holidays.
Today Soviet ice creams which have remained largely unchanged in packaging and taste since the Cold War, sit next to pricy Movenpicks and Haagen Dazs in shiny capitalist refrigerators. Yet they still manage to out-sell those western brands. The nostalgia-driven affection for the old deserts doesn’t look like fading anytime soon. In fact it might actually expand if EU sanctions and the Russian government’s import restrictions and push for patriotic food continues. Should that be the case, ice cream might not be the only thing from the Soviet era that’s back on the menu.
Text: Sasha Raspopina