A shop selling oriental desserts announces itself in distinctive gold-and-black lettering, luring Muscovites with its colorful display of baklava, halvah, and rahat lokum. Billed specifically as “Syrian sweets,” the enticing offerings don’t just appeal to locals’ love for sugary confections; they also deliver a political message: Vladimir Putin’s Russia is one with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and unity with allies extends to their desserts. And that’s a not-so-subliminal reminder that the Russian president will not tolerate any opposition to his rule, either.

Russia has leaders, but never a fairly elected government that answers to the people’s will—as demonstrated by the protests this summer in Moscow to oppose Putin’s purge of opposition candidates in city-council elections. But Putin has other ways of flexing his muscle: food courts. Depo, the recently opened market near the centrally located Belarus train station, grandly describes itself on its Web site as the largest food court in Europe, with more than 200 booths, stalls, cafés, and restaurants—a source of patriotic civic pride as well as saturated fat.