Chinese Hungry for Russian Culture. FROM BORSCH TO THE BOLSHOI
BEIJING — FOR 35 years, the Moscow Restaurant has gained distinction in Beijing with the maxim ``Russian food served the Chinese way.'' Yet to observers of China's foreign policy, a more accurate motto for the restaurant would be ``Russia's diplomatic standing revealed the Chinese way.''
Ever since the late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai opened the restaurant in 1954, its official status been a good indicator of Beijing's view toward its massive northern neighbor.
Chinese cooks at the Moscow have struggled to turn beets into borsch Russian-style since 1960, when China and the Soviet Union had a falling out and Moscow recalled the Communist Party liaisons, industrial advisers, and chefs it had sent to China.
Now, those Chinese cooks expect the return of ``salad days'' as Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping prepare for a May summit, the first top-level Soviet-Chinese meeting in 30 years. Restaurant manager Shu Jun expects the Moscow city government will offer his restaurant $10 million and 30 cooks, pastry chefs, and head waiters in a joint venture with the Beijing municipality.
The link-up is just one of several planned Sino-Soviet cultural contacts inspired by the summit and ranging beyond gastronomy into the more sublime arts.
The Bolshoi Ballet plans to tour China in September, its first visit in 30 years. The two countries also plan exchanges in museum displays, art exhibits, movies, literature, and radio and television shows. And they hope to open libraries and cultural centers in each others capitals, says Viatcheslav Duhin, cultural counselor at the Soviet Embassy here.
``We expect these contacts to be fruitful because it is now a period where the two countries understand each other and are not afraid of each other,'' he says.
After being deprived of many things Russian for three decades, Russian culture appears to be particulary piquant to Chinese sensibilities. Commenting on a performance in Beijing of the Soviet Kuban Cossack Choir last November, the official newspaper China Daily said, ``The bright rich colors of the Cossacks' homeland, the fragrance of its sun-baked fruits, the spirit of freedom, all so well evoked by the performance, are still so exotic to the Chinese audience.''
YET cultural contact is limited by the tendency of both countries to engage in ``culture-by-barter.'' Jealously holding onto their hard currencies, Moscow and Beijing usually agree to only strictly reciprocal exchanges, discouraging a rapid and spontaneous flow of art, Mr. Duhin says.
In this period of socialist reform, the tendency of Moscow and Beijing to subordinate Marxist ideological imperatives to the demands of austerity threatens the dream of renewed culinary glory among chefs at the Moscow.
In the 1950s, when the two countries pledged to spark Marxist revolutions abroad in a ``lasting, unbreakable, and invincible'' alliance, the Soviets would readily spend $10 million on a cooperative restaurant, Mr. Shu says.
Today, however, the hard currency figure ``is the main obstacle to the joint venture,'' Shu says. Nevertheless, he predicts there is an ``80-percent chance'' that the Soviets will come through.
The prospect of serving cutlets that will set Russian stomachs agrowl is particularly gratifying to Wang Zhaozhong. A deputy manager of the restaurant and former cook, Mr. Wang manned his skillet through the darkest days of Sino-Soviet enmity.
Wang stood his ground when radical Red Guards tore down wooden Russian murals from the restaurant's marble walls and put their fists through a large oil painting of Red Square in 1967.
Wang says he thinks that out of appreciation the Soviets will agree to pay for the renovation of the restaurant's parquet floors, Corinthian columns, and the construction of 15 private dining rooms.
``I think the Russians will be grateful because we have tried for a long time to uphold Russian styles and tastes despite changes in our relations,'' he says.
Third in a four-part series on Sino-Soviet relations.