Eastern Promises: Classic Russian Borscht Recipe

Year Released: 2007
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl
(R, 100 min.)

"I’m not looking to make comfortable cinema." David Croneneberg

This taut thriller works very hard to earn its R rating, but luckily not at the expense of character or plot. Enter the Russian mafia, London branch, where your life’s history is written in full body tattoos, a dead girl’s diary reveals dangerous secrets, and a newborn baby holds the key to a sordid inner circle.

Just in case you’ve forgotten director David Cronenberg’s B horror roots, he bloodies up the screen early on. One is the sudden hemorrhaging of a very pregnant fourteen year old, and the other a throat slashing by a youth about the same age. How these two are related is slowly revealed as the audience becomes privy to the dark and disturbing world of the Russian mafia.

Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) enters this hidden world when she tries to find the identity of the young girl who has died in the hospital where she is a midwife. She hopes to find some family ties for the infant daughter who has survived, and her only clue is a diary transcribed in Russian with a business card tucked inside it.

When she finally tracks down the Trans Siberian Restaurant named on the card, she finds the posh restaurant closed for business – it is after all Christmas day-- and gets nothing but a polite rebuff from its owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl.) But when he finds out she is of Russian descent, the courtly gentleman ushers her in with old world charm, and proudly shows her the grand preparations for his family gathering that day. And he graciously offers to translate the diary for her if she will bring it by the next day.

Soon we meet Semyon’s wayward son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his inscrutable driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) and we began to find that all is not sweetness and light at the Trans Siberian Restaurant. Cronenberg spends as much or more time painting grandfatherly Semyon as the benign patriarch as he does Russian Godfather, but the soft treatment only makes his casual brutality all the more stark.

Is there any more disarming backdrop than a kitchen with our restaurateur busy checking on the borscht, or carefully arranging rose petals beside a pastel cake for the sweet one hundred year-old celebrating her birthday? Semyon coos over his darling grand nieces and stops to give them impromptu violin lessons, and then with equal ease, rains a series of vicious kicks on the prostrate Kirill who has returned home very drunk. Even Anna senses something sinister behind his ready smile, and she is savvy enough to bring only a copy of the diary with her the next day and to fend off his persistent offers to give her a ride back to her flat.

But Viggo Mortensen’s Nikolai keeps Naomi and the audience guessing. We have witnessed the driver’s secondary job, earning him the nickname Undertaker, his specialty not being arranging velvet caskets or appropriate organ music, but in removing identity from troublesome corpses by snipping off fingers. He even knows the perfect place to dispose of them, where the river currents are strong enough to sweep them under with swift efficiency. We worry a bit when, her motorcycle not working, Anna takes a ride home with him. Just what is behind his dark glasses – really does anyone need them in dreary London – and slicked back hair? Anna doesn’t get much with her questions either. 

“I am only the driver. If they tell me to turn left, I turn left; if they tell me to turn right, I turn right.”

To the dissolute Kirill he is at once an almost best friend who steers his staggering charge back home as well the unquestioning lieutenant who must humiliate himself and others at Kirill’s whim. Vincent Cassel plays Kirill with just a touch of sexual ambivalence to add still another dimension to the relationship, and he is both pathetic and repugnant, loathsome and self-loathing, disgustingly weak and piteously vulnerable.

Finally, no review would be complete without at least a mention of the fight scene that is now the talk of the town, one that will set a new standard for them just as The French Connection did for car chases. It is a bone crunching, ultra violent match in a bathhouse with the completely nude Nikolai fending off a surprise attack from two knife wielding Chechens. His armor is literally skin deep, the tattoos that cover his flesh, and his weapons are of the muscle and sinew variety only.

This bloody tale is not for the queasy. It is a glimpse into an ugly reality that maybe we are better off not seeing, but the Dantesque journey is a class act and Viggo Mortensen’s performance is a work of art.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

It is Christmas day when Anna first enters the Trans Siberian Restaurant, and its polished dining tables are adorned with candles, china, and an array of Russian delicacies that would do the Czar proud. Round pastries are decked out like festive ornaments, their bright icing like holiday lights.

But Anna is less moved by this grand display than by the pot gently boiling in the kitchen. Semyon proudly offers her a taste of the purple soup and Anna declares the borscht exactly like that her father used to make.

So, if you are looking for a little Russian food to cap off Eastern Promises, try this authentic recipe.

Classic Russian Borscht

Russian Borscht is a rich beet and vegetable soup that is served hot, at lunchtime.

Ukrainian borscht includes chunks of beef as well.

Smetana (sour cream) and dill are used as garnishes to bring out the flavor of this outstanding soup.

  • 2 quarts beef consomme
  • 1 c. tomato sauce
  • 1 1/2 c. shredded cabbage
  • 3/4 c. thinly sliced celery
  • 3/4 c. shredded carrots
  • 3/4 c. thinly sliced onions
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 1/2 c. julienne strips of raw beets
  • 2 tsp. red wine vinegar (optional)
  • 1/4 c. minced fresh dill weed

Pour consomme into a large soup kettle or Dutch oven. Add tomato sauce, cabbage, celery, carrots, and onions.

Bring to a boiling and turn heat to low. Skim soup.

Simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes or until vegetables are tender but still keep their shape. Skim as needed. Stir in sugar and add the beets. Simmer, covered, for 10 more minutes or until beets are tender. Check the seasonings.

Season with salt and pepper to taste, if needed. Stir in vinegar if using.

Pour soup into a serving tureen or individual bowls and sprinkle with dill.

Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and serve hot.

Recipe Source: Cooks.com