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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Give Us This Day Our Daily Rye

Nikolai Vachevsky fingered his soiled rubles and gazed longingly at the glass-encased bricks of Russian rye bread. He had traveled a long way into the center of Moscow just to buy two loaves of fragrant, sturdy, sour Russian rye. Around him beckoned fancy Western-style round loaves of white bread, French baguettes, even American jelly doughnuts. But Vachevsky, 69, a pensioner, was tempted by nothing but the darkest and, in Russian life, most plebeian of breads -- the heavy ingot made from only rye flour.

"I have never bought white bread,'' he said, dismissively. "Not even once."

For about $1, Vachevsky got more than a few days' sustenance. He also got an aromatic reminder of bygone days, a powerful symbol of Russian endurance, a timeless metaphor of survival.

At a time of great change and uncertainty for Russia, its rye bread remains the same. Especially for peasants and poor urban pensioners, Russian dark bread is still reasonably affordable and deeply evocative. It is nothing like the light American rye. Russian rye bread is the stuff of foundations -- thick, fortifying, indestructible.

For many, it is a central part of everyday life and, in some mystical way, it is one of those things that binds Russian society when everything else seems to be flying apart. Perhaps it is the sticky darkness of it, perhaps the pungent, yeasty aroma, perhaps the sheer heft. But wrapped up inside Russian bread -- especially the traditional dark bread -- is nothing less than a piece of the national identity.

"Bread is central in our mentality," Russian ethnologist Yan Chesnov said. "If Russians have bread, they feel safe and secure. It is deep in our consciousness. There were periods in our history when ... people had to change to something different -- when crops were poor, and during wars or the revolution. ... But it was just a surrogate for the basic food -- bread."

Bread was a symbol of Stalin's mass terror. Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others have written gripping accounts of the value prisoners attached to a crust of bread in prison camps. In the pantheon of Communist Party symbols, bread was hoisted high. It was cheap, subsidized and plentiful. Yury Chernichenko, a Russia commentator on agricultural affairs, said that in Soviet days, bread was so plentiful it was wasted -- often fed to cattle. "In Moscow, there were a million crows and rats because there was so much bread in the garbage. It was our social politics; bread was almost free."

Today, it is no longer as cheap, but Chernichenko said a strong nostalgia remains for the dark rye.

"It reminds me of my mother's home, my school days, my youth," Chernichenko said. When traveling abroad, he said he often has packed loaves in his suitcase for friends.

In his book "Bread," Chernichenko traced the popularity of dark Russian rye to its utility. The grain tolerates frost and drought, he said, and makes only modest demands on the soil. The bread is associated with hard work. "Black bread is the bread for a person who works physically hard," he said, adding disdainfully: "White bread is just cotton wool."

Prices are still held down by the government, and a half-loaf of black bread costs about 25 cents in central Moscow, less than an American-style jelly doughnut.

Anna Ovsyannikova, director of a large Moscow bread store where she has worked since 1967, said, "Ever since I have been working here, people have bought the same thing -- two loaves of white bread and a half-loaf of black bread," she said. "This is a basic essential. For Russians, bread is sacred."

Through the generations, bread has been an important political symbol in Russian history -- of famine, revolution and the failed social experiment of communism.

Russians recall even now the exact, fixed prices: A loaf of white bread cost 13 kopeks; a two-pound loaf of rye 18 and the best quality white bread 25, out of an average monthly salary of 100 rubles, or 10,000 kopeks. People bought a lot of bread -- and wasted a lot.

"We used to compare Russia and America, and we'd say a loaf in America costs $1 a kilo, but in Russia it is only 25 kopeks!" recalled

Russian agriculture stagnated at the end of the 19th century, and the discontent of the peasants became a chief cause of the social explosions that followed. Hunger and bread riots were a common backdrop of the 1917 revolutions and their aftermath. The year after the Bolsheviks seized power, the daily bread ration per person in St. Petersburg was four ounces, adulterated with straw, according to American historian Richard Pipes.

Later came famine, the brutal collectivization of the countryside and the deprivations of World War II. During the siege of Leningrad, the daily bread ration was as little as two slices a day per person.

Now, all kinds of exotic Western breads are made and imported. One Moscow bakery has stores selling Australian, German and French breads. But in the Australian store recently, there was a brisk demand for loaves of dark Russian rye. "It's still very popular," director Nina Gerasimenko said. "Those who love rye still love it."