One of the exchange scientists who spent a year on a Soviet base [in Antarctica] was glaciologist Charles Swithinbank. At Novolazarevskaya with the 1963–65 Ninth Soviet Antarctic Expedition, he lived a very different life than he used to in England. As Swithinbank relates in Vodka on Ice, he learned while sailing south on a Soviet ship that his diet would be impoverished in both quality and variety. “Apart from feast days,” he wrote bluntly, “the food was not good.” Cabbage soup (borscht or shchi, depending on the type of cabbage), ragout, and compote (“an insipid rust-colored liquid with a faint taste of boiled apples”) became distressingly familiar. The quality of the beef was quite poor, all gristle and bone. Soviet cattle, he learned, fed on sparse grass.
Although the meat was poor, the butter was excellent. So was the black bread. And those feast days really were exceptional. Swithinbank sobered up after a New Year’s celebration full of black and red caviar, pickled herring, pickled mushrooms, sausage, crabmeat, and more. A May Day feast included roast chicken, crab salad, ham, salmon, smoked salmon and sturgeon caviar, apples, oranges, champagne, brandy, and orange juice stoked with airplane de-icing fluid.
Toasts drunk with de-icing fluid, called “aerovodka” by the Russians, were not restricted to holidays. At Molodezhnaya base, where Swithinbank visited en route to Novolazarevskaya, he noted that there was a more frequent aviator’s tradition: “On landing back at base after a long flight, it was the duty of the navigator to drain a litre of fluid from the aircraft’s de-icing system. Unlike some de-icing fluids, this was pure alcohol (ethanol). Once indoors, it was served to the aircrew and passengers.” One observer of a similar U.S. Antartic Program habit—drinking a rocket fuel known as JATO (jet-fuel assisted take-off)—equated the practice to that of a “warrior culture drinking blood.”
At Novolazarevskaya, the dining room was the community social center. One long table fit them all. Here he spent his year of good company, good science, and terrible food. The cook, Ivan Miximovish Sharikov, had spent over thirteen years in the polar regions as a weather observer. “The oldest, tallest, baldest, and humblest man” on staff, Ivan took on the cook’s role at Novolazerevskaya when no weather job was available. For him, as for all Soviet Antarctic staff, the pay was irresistible, since he earned five times what he might make in Russia. Ivan was not much of a cook, though to be fair he had little to work with—much of the better meat left by the previous year’s crew had gone to rot. Ivan was stuck making borcht, shchi, fish soup with bones, boiled potatoes, and lots of ragout, to Swithinbank’s dismay. Ivan’s ragout, he wrote, consisted “of stewed gristle with chips of bone, generally served with macaroni. Aside from the gristle, far, and bone, the amount of lean meat remaining could be held on a teaspoon.”
Ivan at least made a reliable porridge to swallow with the bread and butter each morning. Occasional treats included caviar, sauerkraut, and cheese. Cucumbers and tomatoes grew in window boxes, and ice cream was made from milk powder and freshly drifted snow. Each Russian expedition member also received a monthly five-hundred-gram chocolate ration but married men saved it for their wives, whom they had left behind for a very long time.
After an end-of-year inventory revealed more than one hundred missing bottles of vodka, champagne, and eau de cologne from Novolazarevskaya’s liquor stock, Ivan the cook confessed. He had a habit of taking walks alone after dinner, but Swithinbank “had assumed that it was to get a breath of fresh air as an antidote to the heat of the kitchen.” The eau de cologne was, for some Russians, an “esteemed substitute” when they ran out of vodka.
When Swithinbank returned to England, he had trouble adjusting back to his old diet. Meat, fish, and cheese made him ill. He eventually found a doctor with a good memory of World War II who diagnosed him with prisoner-of-war syndrome. After a year of high-carb meals garnished with stringy meat, Swithinbank’s body could no longer absorb high-protein English food. “The solution,” he wrote, “was simply to wean me slowly from the Russian diet.”