#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews WHAT’S COOKING IN THE KREMLIN. A MODERN HISTORY OF RUSSIA THROUGH THE KITCHEN DOOR by Witold Szabłowski

Witold Szabłowski is a Polish journalist who is fascinated by the links between food and power, something he first examined in How To Feed a Dictator, which revealed the eating habits of such notorious figures as Pol Pot and Idi Amin. Now, he suggests, such links are nowhere more widespread and important than in the history of modern Russia. His research, luckily for us, took place before Vladimir Putin launched his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, with all its attendant clamp-downs on freedom of movement: but even so he was more than once interrogated by the police and even Russian special services. But I managed to complete the work only because it never occurred to any of Putin’s state agencies that it’s possible to show the mechanisms of power … through the kitchen.” And so we’re taken on a grand tour of the food, the cooks who prepared it and the power-hungry leaders who ate it – from Tsar Nicholas II through Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev to Putin, for whom using food, or rather the threat of no food by stopping Ukrainian grain from being shipped, is a legitimate power play. This book, Szabłowski says, “explains why it’s in Russia … that a regime could come up with such a diabolical idea. Indeed, in his first campaign for the presidency, Putin made much of the fact that his grandfather was a great cook, who had been given a gold coin by Rasputin, worked at the Astoria in St Petersburg and cooked for Lenin and Stalin. Szabłowki’s research could turn up no evidence that any of these claims for his grandfather were true – but that didn’t matter. The important thing was that people believed the propaganda. “’Since the leaders of the USSR trusted my grandfather, you can trust me,’ Vladimir Putin seemed to be saying. And so they did.”

What makes this book so gripping is that so much of the evidence for Szabłowski’s thesis is, like the above, from first-hand interviews with the cooks themselves, or those who were their relatives or knew them well. The simplicity and directness of these testimonies is underpinned by Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ finely crafted translation. Amazingly, given the likelihood that anyone in Russia who was close to the leadership – as cooks working in the Kremlin or the regime’s private houses were bound to be – could find themselves ‘purged’ when that leadership changed, so many of them survived into old age. Stalin’s cook, Alexander Egnatashvili, was close enough to the great leader to live through getting on the wrong side of Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s head of the security service, the NKVD – though his wife did not. Then there was Timofeyevich, who was born in the Tsarist Kremlin of Nicholas II, cooked his way through the Revolution and The Great Patriotic War and quietly died after preparing crayfish for a banquet for 500. Viktor Belyaev first entered the Kremlin kitchens under Brezhnev and went on to serve Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin – whose favourite food, he said in his interview with Szabłowski, is ice cream; he was cautious enough not to reveal much else about the man who’s just won six more years in the Kremlin. Belyaev – and indeed many others – describe how thorough their training was, not just theory but practical work in restaurants and canteens in the big cities: there were obviously many more places to eat in Russia than the casual visitor was aware of! 

There are excursions away from the kitchens of the great to those outside Moscow and the big cities, to the banquets at Yalta with Churchill and Roosevelt; to Kilometer 41 and Star City, where Faina Kazetskaya cooked for Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space; and to the kitchens serving the teams cleaning up after the Chernobyl disaster. Remarkably, Szabłowski found there seven cooks who survived the radiation – amongst the many who didn’t. Olga got the job because she was always laughing, something that was in short supply around the reactor site. Being a cook, she explains in the book, is about more than just food, it’s about being sensitive, to people’s moods – and to the regime’s propaganda. “Cooks see things that other people don’t notice. And on [my] first day I knew things were very bad. Much worse than … a minor accident. When I saw those soldiers … I knew it wasn’t true. They were burning up … they didn’t want anything to eat, they didn’t even glance at the chocolate, they just drank and drank and drank.” And there’s a telling episode in Minsk, where three prime ministers, Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk from Ukraine and Vyacheslav Kebich of Belarus met to wind down the USSR and replace it with the Commonwealth of Independent States – over a dinner of wild boar goulash – amongst much else! It was a decision that disgusted the cook, Polina Ivanovna: ”I should have poisoned them … put arsenic in their wild boar … no-one should have come out of there alive.” If that sounds just wishful thinking, Szabłowski points out that Russia’s dictators have routinely been overthrown not by street protests but by palace coteries, including chauffeurs and cooks. Perhaps, he wonders, there’s a cook in the Kremlin today to add a few drops of poison to Putin’s soup … “I hope one day I’ll have a chance to ask them what kind of soup it was.”

Reviewed by Max Easterman

WHAT’S COOKING IN THE KREMLIN. A MODERN HISTORY OF RUSSIA THROUGH THE KITCHEN DOOR

by Witold Szabłowski

translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

published by Icon (2023)

March 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Max Easterman spent thirty-five years as a BBC broadcaster. He was a lecturer in journalism for seventeen years at Huddersfield University and is today a translator, media trainer with Sounds Right, jazz musician and reviewer.


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