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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Dinner at a Soviet factory cafeteria, 1963

Updated: May 26

The cafeteria at the "Mosstroytrans" Trucking Depot No. 1, Moscow c. 1979

A fascinating bit of Soviet social history, this article from the English language USSR magazine in May, 1963 looks at the workers' cafeteria at the Krasny Proletary Machine Tool plant in Moscow.

Factory, workplace and school canteens and cafeterias were very important across the USSR. They provided healthy, inexpensive, quick meals and they were greatly encouraged by trade unions, the party and the state. In the early 1960s General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev backed a successful campaign to improve the quality of and access to cafeterias as part of what was an era of tremendous growth, prosperity and social advances as the USSR underwent a remarkable recovery from the devastation of the war years. This continued under Brezhnev.

In this case we see the menu itself which was very affordable and included a variety of dishes from breakfast porridge, to vegetable and meat stews, soups and mains. The prices were low as, as the manager of the cafeteria said "We're not in business to make a profit. We don't have to. We're out to serve the best possible meals at the lowest possible prices."

One worker interviewed ate meals there regularly, often with a beer, and would spend 12 to 15 rubles a month versus a salary of 200 a month.

The cafeteria offered a separate menu for those with special dietary needs that was subsidized heavily by the factory trade union using the state social insurance fund. The special meals were considered a form of medical care, which was entirely free in the USSR.

There is considerable nostalgia for these canteens and cafeterias in many places in the former USSR. Enough so that restaurants have opened since the counter-revolution that use them as a theme, though they are no longer inexpensive or available to all of course.

We have also included a brief history of the factory itself taken from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia in 1979.

Article Text (by Soviet journalist Alexander Kolosov):

THE CAFETERIA of the Krasny Proletary Machine Tool plant in Moscow serves thou-sands of lunches, dinners, in-between snacks and sandwiches, and I don't know how many bottles of beer, lemonade and soft drinks, all at very modest prices.

"How do you manage to keep your prices so low?" I asked Ahmed Chanyshev, the manager. He has been working at the cafeteria for the past 25 years.

"We're not in business to make a profit," he answered. "We don't have to. We're out to serve the best possible meals at the lowest possible prices."

The amount of profit factory cafeterias can make, he explained, is strictly limited by the state. Gross receipts can be only slightly in excess of overhead. Factory cafeterias are not allowed to add more than 15 per cent to the cost of whatever they serve. "That's less than the markup other kinds of cafeterias and restaurants are permitted," Chanyshev said. "There are several other factors that keep our prices low. We don't have to pay any rent. Heat and light are free, and so are all re pairs and general maintenance. We get the equipment we need free, too. The factory management pays for all that."

During the dinner break I sat down at a table where three men were eating. One of them, a grinding machine operator by the name of Grigori Semyonov, told me he had been working at the factory for 25 years. "I've been eating at the cafeteria ever since my first day here as an apprentice," he said. "No, I'm not tired of it. It's handy, it's cheap. I like the cooking, and there are always plenty of dishes to choose from."

While Semyonov ate, I checked over the menu and did some simple arithmetic. The plate of borshch made with pork, which he had just finished, cost 24 kopecks. The price of his beef cutlet and macaroni was 30 kopecks, and his dessert, a glass of sweetened yoghurt, cost 7 kopecks. Total 61 kopecks.

"That's about what my dinners usually come to," Grigori said. "Yesterday I had fish, boiled sturgeon. That was 37 kopecks, and the whole meal, with a bottle of beer, was 85 kopecks. I like shashlik. It costs 43 kopecks. With shashlik a small portion of soup is enough, and so my dinner comes to between 55 and 60 kopecks."

"I figure you spend from 12 to 15 rubles a month for your dinners here?"

"More or less. That's not very much, considering I average 200 rubles a month in wages."

Afterward, in the cafeteria bookkeeping department, I looked up Semyonov's dinner in the cost accounting sheet. Fifteen ingredients had gone into his borshch, in proportions recommended by nutrition research institutes. The cost sheet listed, in fractions of an ounce, how much of each ingredient went into each dish, what the whole dish cost the cafeteria, and the price on the menu. The maximum addition to the cost price was 14 per cent.

The menu offered a pleasing variety of dishes.

Soups Cost in kopecks

Borshch, with pork and sour cream 24

Sour pickle soup with pork and barley 26

Rice and milk soup 19

Chicken noodle soup 27

Pea soup (mode with beet stock) 13


Hot cereal (made with milk

and served with butter) 7

Boiled sturgeon 37

Beef meat balls 19

Beef cutlet 24

Beef goulash 28

Stewed beef and prunes 38

Steak and vegetables 57

Fried beef with sauce and vegetables 54

Mutton shashlik 43

Pork chop with vegetables 46

Collage cheese pudding served

with sour cream 23

Ground steak, fried 32


Stewed cabbage 6

Buckwheat 6

Rice 6

Macaroni 6


Stewed fruit 6

Fruit jello 5

Coffee with milk 8

Yoghurt 7

Most of the soups and entrees are meat dishes. Looking through the menu for the four previous days. chosen at random, I found the same thing to be true. Seventeen of the 29 soups were made with beef, pork or chicken, and 50 of the 65 entrées were meat dishes.

"Dairy, fish and vegetable dinners are popular too." the cafeteria manager told me, "but most people prefer meat. Between 75 and 80 per cent of the dinners we serve daily are meat dishes."

About six years ago Mikhail Karamnov, a designer employed at the factory, began to complain of abdominal pain. The doctors at the factory clinic diagnosed it as duodenal ulcer. After a stay at a sanatorium he was "discharged" to the factory cafeteria.

Karamnov grinned as he told me the story. "Yes that's what my doctor told me. 'Take your meals in the dietetic room of our factory cafeteria,' he said, 'and I guarantee you'll do fine.' He was so right."

The dietetic room caters to workers with gastrointestinal disorders, food allergies, etc.

The menu carries a full range of dinners grouped according to the different diets and pre-pared under the supervision of a dietician. The day I was there, Karamnov, who is on diet No. 5, had a dinner of borshch with sour cream, a chicken cutlet with rice, a pat of butter, and a dish of apple jello. The meal cost him 55 kopecks.

One of the factory Trade Union Committee members told me about the system of subsidies for dietetic meals. Since dietetic nutrition is considered a form of medical care -- and all medical care in the Soviet Union is free -- the trade unions allocate substantial sums from the state social insurance fund for the purpose. They are used to cover part of the cost of the dietetic meals ordered by those for whom these diets are prescribed. How much it covers depends on the person's earnings and is determined by the Trade Union Committee. At the Krasny Proletary Plant, for instance, in 1962 more than 200 workers paid from 25 to 75 per cent less than the actual cost of their dietetic meals.

"I think the committee will be able to appropriate a still larger sum for dietetic meals this year," Klavdia Victorova, a member of the factory's Social Insurance Council, told me. "Why? Because the factory will produce more machine tools and will make a bigger profit. It will have more money to allot to the social insurance fund, part of which is spent on subsidies for dietetic feeding."

Workers at the Krasny Proletary Machine Tool plant cafeteria in Moscow, 1963

From the Great Soviet Encyclopedia 1979: Krasnyi Proletarii Moscow Machine-Tool Plant:

(full name, A. I. Efremov Krasnyi Proletarii Moscow Machine-tool Plant), one of the oldest and most important machine-tool enterprises in the USSR; it is unique in the magnitude of production and the degree to which specialized high-production equipment is provided for in the production process. It has played a significant role in the development of machine-tool building in the USSR. It produces universal screw-cutting machines and special lathes. In 1951 it was named in honor of A. I. Efremov, who was the minister of machine-tool building of the USSR from 1941 to 1949. It was founded in 1857 by the Bromley brothers, who were French entrepreneurs. In 1870 it began the production of planes for its own machine shops; it later produced metalworking and woodworking machine tools and other products.

The plant’s workers took an active part in the revolutionary movement; they went on strike repeatedly; participated in the funeral of N. E. Bauman in 1905, which grew into a protest demonstration; and fought on the barricades during the December uprising. In October 1917 the Red Guards of the plant conducted an armed struggle against the Junkers on Ostozhenka (now Metrostroevskaia Street) in the vicinity of the Kamennyi and Krymskii bridges. The plant was nationalized in 1918. In 1922, at the request of the workers, it received the name Krasnyi Proletarii (Red Proletariat); it specialized in the production of metalworking lathes and internal-combustion engines. The DIP lathe (from dognat’ i peregnat’, “to overtake and surpass [the capitalist countries]”) was designed at the plant during the first five-year plan (1929–32).

During the Great Patriotic War (1939–45) the plant made products for the front, while continuing to produce machine tools. In 1944 the world’s first machine-tool assembly line was installed at the plant. The changeover to flow production of the 1A62 lathe was accomplished in 1949 without interruption. In addition to series machine-tool production, the workers at the plant mastered the production of precision machine tools and semiautomatic vertical multiple drilling machines. In 1956 the plant was changed over to long-run manufacture of the new 1K62 lathe. Between 1966 and 1970, series production of the 1K282 semiautomatic eight-spindle vertical drilling machine was begun, a number of fundamentally new special machine tools were manufactured, and series production of machine tools with digital programmed control was started. In 1972 and 1973 the plant was retooled for production of the new 16K20 machine tool.

There are three kinds of production at the Krasnyi Proletarii Moscow Machine-tool Plant: long-run (universal and precision lathes, and also machine tools with digital programmed control), series production (semiautomatic vertical multiple drilling machines), and short-run or unit production (special machine tools of various types, mainly for the automotive and tractor industries). Electronic computers are used in the plant for various technical and economic computations and sociological research; high-precision and high-productivity equipment is also used. The volume of production achieved in 1973 was almost triple that of 1960. A substantial number of machine tools are exported to socialist and capitalist countries. The plant participates in international exhibitions and has received certificates and medals. It was awarded the Order of Lenin in 1939, the Order of the Red Banner of Labor in 1957, and the Order of the October Revolution in 1971.

Stamp in honour of the 100th anniversary of the plant

1 Comment

May 26, 2022

the food in the factory canteen was SOLD FOR MONEY! wow that's terrible, but not surprising! money is a ration ticket - that's obvious! it certainly is evidence that the USSR was the result of the capitalist (bourgeois) revolution that won out in the former Tsarist Empire with the failure of The Spark [iskra] to catch fire, looks like No Discussion here 😴

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