The Potato

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Russian Orthodox monks planting potatoes, at the Gethsemane Monastery near Lake Seliger, 1910 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2012, Russia was ranked #3 in the world with greatest potato production, with 29.5 million tonnes, falling behind China’s 85.9 million and India’s 45.0 million tonnes. Nearly 80% of those 29.5 million tonnes are produced by households and in backyards.

But what is the history of the potato?

First, and most importantly, the word potato, in Russia, is “картофель,” pronounced kartofel. If you think that doesn’t particularly sound like a Russian word, you’re right. Much like English, Russian directly borrowed words from other languages. In this case, the Russian kartofel is a loanword from the German word for “potato,” Kartoffel.

The Russian kartofel, therefore, has a close history with Germany and German culture. That is correct. In fact, much of the Eastern European languages have borrowed the German word. In Latvian, a potato is a “kartupelis;” in Estonian, “kartul;” in Ukrainian,  картопля (kartoplya); in Polish, “kartofel;” in Bulgarian, “картоф”‎ (kartof). 

Though the history of the potato goes back thousands of years prior, it was not known to Europeans prior to the discovery of the New World, especially what is now Peru. As a cheap, filling food that takes little soil, it became immensely popular in Europe through the following centuries.

It was only introduced to Russia in the mid-1700s. During the Seven Years War (1756-1763), French, Austrian, and Russian armies invaded Prussia, and the peasants survived devastation and starvation by eating potato. Therefore, the Russian government (along with the French and Austrian) saw this new crop as necessary for its own population. That, in the end, is the historical context of the etymology between German and Russia for the potato.

It wasn’t until the crop failure in 1838 and 1839 that it became more popular among Russians. During the rest of that century, it surpassed bread as the primary food source among peasants. Since then, it has remained extremely popular in Russia, being part of major meals and cuisines.

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