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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rehabilitating the Kremlin Butchers of 1934

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Anyone who has purchased or rented an apartment in the last few years knows what a "Stalin" building is — as opposed to, say, a khrushchyovka. A Stalin building is, obviously, one that was built during the Stalin era, the period of totalitarianism and the gulag. They were always built of cement blocks or bricks. They have high ceilings and even walls, good soundproofing and a thousand other advantages compared with the buildings that were thrown together during Nikita Khrushchev's thaw, when construction was done hurriedly and without proper oversight.

In Stalin's time, new housing was built primarily for the Stalinist elite. Ordinary people huddled together in communal apartments or dormitories attached to factories. After Stalin, a separate apartment ceased to be an unattainable luxury, although little thought was spared for the quality of the buildings that were hastily constructed for the masses under Khrushchev. The main thing was just to build a lot of them and to build them quickly.

A few years ago, real estate ads always referred to Stalin buildings in quotation marks. Now, I've noticed, the quotation marks have disappeared, as if some sort of instinctive embarrassment about using this word has been worn away. Today a Stalin building is a symbol of prestige and quality that signifies a certain desirable standard of living. For Russian intelligentsia, the word "Stalin" by definition cannot mean anything good. Nonetheless, all of them want to live in "Stalin buildings."

Not long ago I was riding the metro and saw an advertisement for the famous Mikoyan Meat-Packaging Plant that bore the slogan: "Supplier to the Kremlin Since 1934." And I started thinking.

1934 was not just another year in Russian history. It was the year that Leningrad Party boss Sergei Kirov was murdered, an event that is considered the starting signal for the worst period of Stalin's repression. Stalin initiated his major purge after some delegates to the 17th Party congress tried to elect Kirov as Party leader in place of Stalin. Kirov was murdered under mysterious circumstances, although few now doubt that Stalin's secret police carried out the dirty deed. After that, a witch-hunt began as Party activists across the country were accused of being in on the plot to murder Kirov. Hundreds of thousands were arrested and summarily executed.

And who was in the Kremlin then, enjoying the tasty snacks of this Moscow meat factory? The very people who were carrying out this purge. Vyacheslav Molotov, whose real claim to fame was that he later put his signature to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that plunged the world into war. Lavrenty Beria — the godfather of mass terror in the Soviet Union. Nikolai Yezhov, the actual butcher who supervised mass murder. Lazar Kaganovich, who systematically destroyed old Moscow …

Anastas Mikoyan was involved in industry, not politics. He managed to avoid conflicts and didn't get in the way of the mass murderers surrounding him, although he was not directly involved in their crimes. As a result, he was able to outlive almost all of his colleagues, remaining a Party leader until the early Brezhnev years.

Mikoyan was in charge of the food industry. He managed to import from America the latest technology for mass-producing meat cutlets, which he then sold for from 3 to 5 kopeks each. The name "Mikoyan cutlets" was still heard occasionally in the early days of Gorbachev's perestroika. Mikoyan really is a symbol of stability.

Mikoyan's factories, naturally, did not supply 5-kopek cutlets to the Kremlin. For these clients, the factories turned out a line of first-class sausages, hams and other delicacies. The ad I saw in the metro is harking back to this tradition.

"The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food" is a landmark of the Stalin era, and it devotes considerable attention to Mikoyan and his factories. "In capitalist countries," the book declares, "as in pre-revolutionary Russia, consumers are cheated on a daily basis — either the price is too high or the weight or volume of the product is too low. In our country, all production is subordinated to the interests of the people. State standards and procedures have the weight of law and violations are severely punished. By contrast, in capitalist countries such standards — where they exist at all — are far from obligatory. Comrade Mikoyan has said: 'Anyone who produces poor-quality goods is an enemy of food production, an enemy of the people of this country.'"

The book does not stop to explain how "enemies of the people" are "severely punished," but this was clear enough to people of that era. Mikoyan's colleagues saw to this aspect of the work.

In those days, "The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food" was to be found in almost every home. And it really is an amazing book, richly illustrated with color photographs of artistically prepared dishes. As a child, I spent countless hours staring at the pelmeni, mushrooms, pies and other mouthwatering morsels, as well as studying the scientific chart on how to butcher a cow.

And now, evidently, Mikoyan has become a suitable protagonist for advertising. The factory wants to build upon its reputation for reliability and quality and, perhaps, to hint that it is not anything like those who ignore standards or "cheat the people."

Appeals to tradition are a well-worn form of propaganda. Those in power in post-Soviet Russia have mined this resource thoroughly for a decade now. First came appeals to the myth of an idyllic pre-revolutionary Russia. "Traditional quality" adorned practically every advertisement and old-fashioned hard signs appeared at the end of every word to signal tsarist quality.

Then there was a lot of emphasis on the "Russian" origins of various products. Although a closer look at the packaging reveals that Zlato butter is made in Argentina and Pokrov chocolate is made in a German-owned factor. Doyashka butter is made "according to traditional Russian recipes" in New Zealand.

Then, slowly but surely, the Soviet period began to be rehabilitated. At first there were just a few bright periods. Slogans like "the taste you remember from childhood" referred to the Khrushchev and early Brezhnev periods. After all, in subsequent years there was precious little to eat and we really did spend a lot of time remembering the tastes of our childhoods.

Now, it seems to be Stalin's turn to be recast in a golden hue. And this really is something new — viewing the Stalin era as a time of triumphant prosperity. Apparently, this reflects a mood that is forming in society or — to be more precise — among the ruling class. Those who have prospered from the decade of reform and who now seek order and stability, even if it comes in Stalinist tones. The new ads are directed toward these people, people who apparently are not appalled to be associated with the Kremlin heroes of 1934.

Irina Glushchenko is an independent journalist and theater critic. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.