Bring back some good or bad memories


February 16, 2024

Vintage Photographs From Inside a Soviet-Era Caviar Plant in 1960

In 1280, caviar was formally sanctioned by the Russian Orthodox Church as a food that could be consumed during religious fasts. This is during a time when the Church strictly governed the most minute aspects of all Russian life.

Back in the days of old, Russia was once the main producer of caviar, the icon of aristocratic elegance. Beginning in the 16th century, Russian caviar was harvested from wild caught sturgeon from the Caspian and Black seas, a tradition that eventually gave way to more sustainable aqua culture practices.

After a series of export sanctions and restrictive quotas were levied in the early and mid-2000s, Russian caviar no longer dominates the global caviar industry. CITIES temporarily banned imports on caviar from the Caspian and Black seas in 2006. As a result, today, it’s now likely that caviar from Russia is either fake or illegal. 

Due to closely monitored fishing restrictions and import sanctions, Russian caviar for sale is a thing of the past for most caviar lovers, especially now that superior quality roe is available from sustainable fish farms around the world. In fact, many chefs prefer farm raised sturgeon roe to Russian caviar because of its comparable taste to the finest sevruga and osetra caviars. These farms offer consistent, high grade caviars that do not come with the potential risk of a retroactive CITES violation.  As a result of overfishing, you can get high quality, reasonably priced, variety specific caviars from all over.

While on assignment in the Russian city of Astrakhan in the spring of 1960, LIFE photographer Carl Mydans took a break to jot down a scene he witnessed during his tour of the city’s largest fish processing plant:

“When the tank boats with their swimming fish arrive at the plant, men in rubber suits, usually two to a boat, climb into the boats and in waist-deep water reach among the thrashing fish, seize a snout, lift the fish part way out of the water and strike it with a wooden club. This is supposedly a death blow, but later, in the first processing room, many of the great fish slither about on the concrete floor and are very much alive.”

A fisherman holds his sturgeon catch.

Sturgeon fishermen and women hauling sweep-nets in the Volga delta. Soviet sturgeon conservation limited fishing to two months a year.

The sturgeon seen here with its distinctive scale along the crest of its back.

Many of the sturgeon fishers came from neighboring Kazakhstan, which was a part of the Soviet Union. According to Mydans’s notebook, Russian and Kazakh fishermen worked well together in their teams.

Sturgeon being taken from river boats to be hauled up to the Fish Complex for processing.

At the Astrakhan Fish Complex on the Volga, men stand in a fish compartment boat which is open to the river water and club each of the live sturgeon before they are taken up onto the fish processing floor. The roe from caviar had to be extracted from live fish.

Beluga sturgeon on hoist is being sent to have its roe removed. After that it was smoked, frozen, or canned.

Pile of gutted fish from which the roe has been removed waiting to be sent into the canning, smoking, or freezing rooms.

In the Fish Complex, women cut open the sturgeon and remove the roe. They knew before opening the fish if it had roe. Those fish that did not were sent to freezing, canning, or smoking rooms, depending on the day's market demands.

Women and men clean freshly caught sturgeon.

Women sift through extracted caviar pearl prior to canning.

Women pack prime caviar in glass jars for export. The woman in the foreground with a flag on her bench was being honored for surpassing her production quota.

In the caviar canning room, caviar is being prepared for shipments abroad.

Scenes from the canning room.

Caviar being served in Moscow, shown here with iced vodka and buttered bread.

(Photos: Carl Mydans—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)


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