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.
But giving people real choices can be a dangerous thing. Today it’s artisanal cheeses … tomorrow?
The brainchild of God Nisanov and Zarakh Iliyev, billionaire Azerbaijani developers with connections to both the Kremlin and the Moscow government, Depo offers a level of internationalism fit for the Soviet era. Proletarians of the world unite, now over shared gastronomic interests. In addition to pro-Syrian sweets, there are delicacies from Israel, North Korea, Georgia, and Ukraine. (Never mind that Putin has been warring with the latter two former Soviet republics.) There is fare from all over Europe and—despot oblige—even American hamburgers and British pubs.
Depo offers a level of internationalism fit for the Soviet era.
The airy, redbrick Depo—a 19th-century structure that has evolved over time from a horse-carriage depot to a trolleybus station—is now markedly contemporary. Its open and minimalist architecture hearkens back to the post-1917-revolution era and a time when the Soviet Union was a beacon of international progress in art and politics. Its distinctive aesthetic—referencing Russia’s influential Constructivist modern-art movement—is associated with the cutting edge of human social advancement. Its carefully crafted design evokes Soviet nostalgia, though the forced message of greatness makes Depo feel distinctly Stalin-esque.
Depo’s ostentatious cornucopia of choices is reminiscent of the famous Book of Tasty and Healthy Food (1939), published after Joseph Stalin’s memorable declaration “Life has become better, life has become more joyous.” (In reality, it was the time of the Great Purge, when Stalin’s government murderously persecuted millions for imagined crimes against the state.) In Stalin’s era, plenty was manifest on the pages of this Kremlin-sanctioned book. Now people can actually taste the plenty—thus subtly elevating Putin’s status. Where Stalin delivered an industrial superpower, Putin has provided lifestyle and entertainment.
In fact, Russian leaders are literally on offer in the Depo chocolate shop. In addition to Swiss Lindts and Italian Bacis, Russian political patriotism is embodied in the Otets Narodov (Father of the Nations) candy wrapped in regal purple, with a shining gold image of Stalin on the cover. Vladimir Lenin, appropriately wrapped in revolutionary red, is sold in two versions: Ilyich (Lenin’s patronymic, often used to humanize the leader of the international proletariat) and Vozhd (the leader). And then there is the Prezident: Putin’s face in four (!) styles of purple and white—ranging from caring to sinister.
This chocolate kitsch is at once patriotic and self-mocking. Russians are used to operating in doublespeak and doublethink. Even when abiding by the state’s agenda, they make fun of it nonetheless.
And then there is the Prezident’s chocolate: Putin’s face in four styles of purple and white—ranging from caring to sinister.
After the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the West imposed economic sanctions to punish Putin for his aggressive behavior. The Kremlin responded with its own ban on most European agricultural products, forcing Russians to tap into their own resources. With Crimea now back in the Russian fold, flag-waving was running high. Unable to import Parmesan and prosciutto, many entrepreneurs jump-started their own farming. Suddenly the local goat gouda was better than the Dutch original, and Russian lamb chops became the envy of any global meat lover. The cheeky Russians, some hardly pro-Putin, pro-U.S.S.R., or even pro-Crimea, still proudly distinguished their cheeses from the European brands by giving them distinctly Russian names, such as Tovarishch (comrade).
In recent years, dozens of Western-style food courts, some overwhelming in size and choices, have sprung up in Moscow to showcase Russia’s superior abilities. The state’s bread-and-circuses policy has relied on increased comfort and amenities to divert people from concentrating on their everyday problems—an approach that has been largely implemented by Kremlin-connected private businesses. They have expanded sidewalks, modernized parks, and remade once-disheveled Soviet agrarian markets into sleek food hangouts. Reminiscent of Stalin-era mass-construction projects, these spaces also engender a feeling of satisfaction that Russia can outdo the Western world in sophistication and size. Once a poor and backward country on the outskirts of Europe, Russia has always had something to prove.
The Soft Power of Food
The Central Market, which opened in 2017 on Rozhdestvensky Boulevard, is a Russianized version of Manhattan’s Chelsea Market. Once a public restroom, its Art Nouveau entrance leads to gold-plated toilets à la Gustav Klimt—a true example of Russia trying to best the original Western model. The posh Umi Oysters bistro imports its seafood from Japan for a whopping $6 per oyster.
Lately, however, straightforward Western imitations have become passé. With its patriotic mission of consumption, Depo was supposed to re-invigorate the waning euphoria over Crimea, and to become the primary pilgrimage destination for Muscovites. The plan worked, but not in the way the Kremlin technologists intended.
Despite Western sanctions and Putin’s oppression, over the last 20 years Russians have lived better than ever before. Real wealth is in the hands of the Putin-sanctioned few, but comforts and amenities have become available to large swaths of the population, as they are in any “normal” country. For the first time in history—in the U.S.S.R. even personal leisure belonged to the state—people are experiencing a higher quality of life. The Kremlin almost seems to be relying on the soft power of food to justify its other imperfections is clashing with people’s heightened sense of “normalcy”—even more tangible in the purposely Stalin-esque Depo.
Reminiscent of Stalin-era mass-construction projects.
It may resemble a Brooklyn hipster “clean food” hall, but what’s utilitarian in the West is existential in Russia. For thousands who visit the restaurants, cafés, and bars daily to hang out, shop, eat, post selfies, and move from venue to venue—some to the red Martini Bar that is mixed-metaphorically located in a Soviet-made trolleybus—Depo is more than a lifestyle or an experience. It inadvertently affirms an individualistic pursuit of pleasure—and choice.
“If I can get my coffee the way I want it, with coconut milk, I don’t want Moscow’s government to create roadblocks during the elections of independent candidates,” a college student in sneakers and a sundress said as she jokingly posed next to the Putin chocolate while licking rainbow ice cream from a nearby Happy Unicorn stall.
Many can’t afford expensive seafood, but they can still shell out $15 on a drink and then nurse it for hours just to be part of this scene of universal consumption and cosseted individualism.
As the spread of the protest movement showed, the bread and circuses of pacification have ultimately backfired. Comfort food doesn’t always breed complacency. Personal well-being can only distract from politics for so long. Those who can select between lamb and lobster today will want their choice for the Kremlin tomorrow.
Nina Khrushcheva teaches at the New School and, most recently, is co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones