In Wartime Russia, a Farm-to-Table Evangelist Finds Refuge in a Village

Photo for The Washington Post
Olga Strizhibikova prepares food for guests of Knyazhevo Food and Farm, a locavore restaurant she and her husband, Boris Akimov, opened in the tiny village of Knyazhevo in 2018.

KNYAZHEVO, Russia – Russia’s season of war brought a harvest of bad news, as the nation launched a bloody invasion of Ukraine, slammed its door on the West, and tens of thousands of people fled the country. But while many of his artistic Moscow friends emigrated in droves, farm-to-table producer Boris Akimov has stayed, escaping into the peace of a tiny Russian village, reviving old culinary traditions and building up his small country restaurant.

For Akimov and his family, who are now based outside Pereslavl-Zalessky, a town northeast of Moscow founded in the 12th century, it is still the season when soft, young nettle and dandelion leaves are collected for the table, delicate clusters of morel mushrooms are found in the forest, and goats on the farm are birthing kids.

In Russia, the war has brought opportunities to small farmers, agricultural producers and local tour operators, as Moscow doubled down on President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 ban on imports of Western food and produce, in response to sanctions over Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula.

Akimov and his wife, Olga Strizhibikova, opened their Knyazhevo Food and Farm locavore restaurant in the tiny village of Knyazhevo in 2018, after leaving Moscow where he had founded one of the city’s best-known farm-to-table restaurants and also managed procurement of high-quality cheese, meat and vegetables from small producers for a major supermarket chain.

Full of hope and trepidation, the family swapped Moscow for a rural life, rediscovering bucolic traditions and slow food cooked over a traditional Russian wood-fired clay stove, called a pechka, using only sustainable products that they grow or source from other artisanal farmers and producers. There are cows to be milked, livestock to be fed, an elderly donkey to be petted, a garden to tend, firewood to be gathered, cheese to be made, and menus to prepare.

Like many Russians, Akimov sees the war as terrible, but also something which is beyond his influence. He avoids the news, which he regards as useless manipulation.

“Of course, I don’t like it that my friends, maybe some very good writers or actors leave and live somewhere else,” he said. “But what can I do about it? Nothing.”

Such fatalism is common in Russia, and also fuels criticism – heard in Ukraine and elsewhere – that all of Russian society is culpable for the war, if only because of the collective complacency that has kept Putin in power.

While Akimov’s life as a small farmer, producer and restaurateur blossoms, Russia’s war has desecrated Ukrainian villages and towns in the east and destroyed thousands of farms and livelihoods there. Grain shipments have been blocked, and many Ukrainian farmers face danger trying to plant fields now sown with land mines and other unexploded ordnance.

Russia’s war, often referred to euphemistically by Russians as “the current situation,” may mean more customers for people like Akimov. But it also threatens to stifle Russia’s cross-fertilization with Western ideas that helped to build Russian interest in ecology, farm-to-table cuisine and the slow food movement that sprang up in Italy in the 1980s.

Levels of support for the war are still high, but many Russians do not want to think about it, escaping into their daily lives and passions, shutting out reality. Even talking about the war is dangerous. Public opposition to it – even in private conversation – is illegal, and posting criticisms on social media risks a long jail term. Akimov, like most Russians, treads carefully.

“Of course, it’s a psychological stress,” he said, referring to the war. “I’m thick-skinned. But I see people around me are nervous. All my friends and sisters and brothers, they’re really stressed and sad about it. I see that some people in the community are afraid for the future.”

Before the full-scale invasion, flitting to France or Italy for a long weekend was an easy option for wealthy Russians. With last year’s closure of European airspace to Russian flights, making such trips long and expensive, many Russians are vacationing in their own country, while well-to-do Muscovites seek weekend culinary adventures within easy reach of the capital.

Russian domestic tourism is predicted to rise by 5 percent in 2023 up to 72 million people, Ilya Umansky, president of the Russian Union of Travel Industry told journalists last month, aided by government steps to exempt domestic tourism from sales tax.

“I remember at one time everyone thought, ‘We need to go to Paris, or we need to go to New York or Mexico or somewhere else because very interesting things are happening there. Let’s go there,'” Akimov said. “Now obviously you think, ‘Oh. We can’t go there. Where to go? We live in the biggest country in the world. Maybe I can go to see some of Russia.'”

For some, he said, a visit to the Russian countryside is a revelation. “And then you go somewhere and think, ‘Yes, it’s interesting. I didn’t even think that such people, such situations, such culture could be found here,'” he said.

Living off the land in a small Russian village is not always carefree. The work is hard, the hours long and farm employees sometimes go on alcohol binges for days or disappear permanently without giving notice or reason, Akimov said. The war seems distant. Local people don’t talk or think about it much, he admitted.

“My friends in Moscow, every day they’re talking just about it,” he said. But in his village, he said, “we’re discussing, ‘What about your farm? How’s your business? What are our common thoughts about how to develop this community?'”

Seasons govern the Russian farm-to-table tradition that he has revived with Strizhibikova, who wrote a cookbook of Russian recipes for the pechka stove. Winter’s knee-deep snow in the forest near Knyazhevo village has retreated and with it the early nightfall. Now, the evening light lingers softly and shadows are long.

Summer will bring luscious berries, tomatoes and cucumbers and later, toward fall, people will forage in the forest for prized white boletus mushrooms and vivid orange chanterelles.

A typical menu at Akimov’s restaurant includes a curd mousse with greens, salad of foraged wild leaves with a fresh farm egg and homemade sour cream, home-cured ham served with his own year-old cheese, wood-roasted lamb and vegetables, and a pastry filled with fruit and sour cream. There is wine made from sour black bread, and locally distilled samogon, a form of moonshine.

Akimov said the 2014 Russian embargo on Western food imports and state support for farmers helped foster the farm-to-table industry. He is constructing a bigger restaurant in the forest for his expanding clientele.

But most of the growth, he said, comes because some city business executives and managers – like him – wanted to leave their jobs and set up small rural farms or businesses with no ambition to get rich or to be famous beyond their own small community.

“The main reason is that a post-Soviet generation grew up, who wanted to change their lives, and some of them wanted to be farmers,” he said. “It’s not that they think, ‘It’s a very good business, I want to earn money.’ I don’t know anyone like that. The main thing is your way of life: You live a life that you love.”

Akimov’s dream for a better Russian future lies not in politics, protest or struggle, but in an idealistic and perhaps vain hope that people will follow his example, setting up farms, businesses or schools in rural regions, sacrificing materialistic values, and enriching local communities. He believes his family’s restaurant can attract new people to the tiny village and help revive it.

“Now farmers choose this life: They want to produce some interesting, high-quality food,” he said. ” If one of my neighbors is growing different vegetables and another is doing cheese and another bread, it makes our little local world here more interesting, tasty and happier.”

Akimov said he believes Russians lost their old traditions of music and “real Russian food” in the crushing mass-produced uniformity of Soviet times, and that now is a moment for introspection and a rekindling of values of mutual care.

“I think that something bad happened,” he said, referring to the war, “but it’s a chance to look at ourselves – inside of ourselves – and to open ourselves and understand ourselves. And I hope that Russian society will be able to look inside of itself. But I’m not sure it’s happening.”