‘What’s Cooking in the Kremlin’? A Heady Mix of Propaganda and Paranoia.

WHAT’S COOKING IN THE KREMLIN: From Rasputin to Putin, How Russia Built an Empire With a Knife and Fork, by Witold Szablowski. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Witold Szablowski describes a number of surprising dishes in his entertaining yet unnerving new book, “What’s Cooking in the Kremlin,” which explores the last century of Russian history through its food. But none is as surreal as the recipe for one of Lenin’s favorites. The instructions for making his “scrambled eggs using three eggs” orders you to break the eggs but not to beat them. What Lenin called “scrambled eggs” were actually fried eggs, with their yolks and whites intact — not scrambled at all.

Szablowski’s previous books include “How to Feed a Dictator” and “Dancing Bears”; as a Polish journalist born in 1980, he doesn’t have much nostalgia for the Soviet Union, though he has spent considerable time talking to people who do. The chapter about Lenin is mostly narrated by a Moscow tour guide who speaks wistfully of what might have happened if Lenin’s “dreams had come true.” (This “tour guide” turns out to be a composite of three people — a fact that is annoyingly slipped into the bibliography.) Szablowski eventually intervenes with his own skeptical interpretation of events, but much of the book, translated into chatty English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is given over to oral history for a reason. I began to think of Lenin’s scrambled eggs as a metaphor. The stories that people insist on telling show how propaganda works.

“It doesn’t matter if a story is true,” Szablowski writes. “What matters is that people believe it.” Of course, believing in a story becomes exceedingly hard to do when fiction runs up against the stubborn reality of hunger. Szablowski’s whimsical title doesn’t quite convey how sensitively he writes not just about food but also its terrible absence. In one chapter, a nonagenarian who survived the 1933 famine in Ukraine recalls how special government commissions went door to door to make sure that no one was storing food. Inspectors confiscated anything potentially edible, including candles, which desperate people had tried to make into soup. Another nonagenarian, who lived through the siege of Leningrad, resented the hippo at the zoo that continued to get fed every day, while she ate aspic that her mother made out of glue.

A lack of food tells an irrefutable truth. But food, as Szablowski shows, can also lie. Poison has a long history in Russian politics. Consequently, the chefs who cook for the Kremlin’s leaders are vetted by the security service and have a military rank. One of Stalin’s chefs refused to get his medicine from the pharmacy for state officials because he feared it might be poisoned. Lenin’s widow died in 1939 after eating a suspicious cake. “It is highly probable that the cake was sent to her by Stalin,” Szablowski writes.

And there were other, less lethal ways of using food as an instrument of deception. Szablowski recounts how lavish state receptions in the Brezhnev era masked the reality of empty store shelves and economic stagnation. A Kremlin chef who cooked feasts while the Soviet Union crumbled reminisces about how he and his colleagues were required to learn decorative techniques to transform a cucumber into a fence and a tomato into a rose. Sometimes the leaders themselves did what they could to help out with the show. Nikita Khrushchev, who was less able to handle his liquor as he grew older, had special thick-bottomed glasses made for him that looked like they contained a full shot of booze but in fact held little more than half.

Szablowski talks to cooks working far from the Kremlin who became disillusioned in the line of duty. One went to Afghanistan during a war that Soviet officials kept calling a “fraternal intervention,” and tried to boost the soldiers’ morale by slipping bay leaves into their soup bowls. The ingredients had to be flown in because the commanders feared the Afghans would poison the Soviets’ food. The cook secretly used her own money to buy fresh produce from the market for the soldiers, and she “never poisoned anyone.” She went from believing “everything they said on television” to realizing “that entire fraternal intervention of ours was of no use to anyone at all.”

For a chapter on the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, Szablowski interviewed several women who were sent there to cook for the cleanup crew. They slept on mattresses so radioactive their dosimeters went haywire. Those who survived suffer from severe health problems — one woman has had 11 operations; another can’t carry anything heavier than a bar of soap.

The chapter ends with a recipe the cooks gave Szablowski for Parisian salad. Lettuce, they assert, can be substituted for the watercress, “though, nota bene, watercress is thought to be better for the health than any other vegetable” — a detail as moving as it is absurd. Like the people they cooked for, these women were routinely blasted by deadly radiation; yet they still took care to specify the healthiest vegetable.

“What’s Cooking in the Kremlin” was first published in Poland toward the end of 2021, three months before Vladimir Putin — whose own grandfather was a chef — ordered his troops to invade Ukraine. In his preface, Szablowski says that researching his book would be impossible now. This edition mentions Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former caterer who, before attempting a coup, built the paramilitary force that helped Putin wage war on Ukraine. (Prigozhin died in a plane crash in August.) A belligerent mercenary with a culinary career may sound preposterous, but Szablowski’s tour through Russian history shows that loyalty in a chef can count for a lot.

“Readers of this book should no longer be surprised that in Russia the grandson of one cook clashed with another cook in the fight for power,” Szablowski writes. Food can contain danger, and so it entails trust, too. This is why the buried disclosure of the composite “tour guide” is so baffling. Why play journalistic peekaboo when you are writing about truth and lies, and you already have a solid story to tell?

WHAT’S COOKING IN THE KREMLIN: From Rasputin to Putin, How Russia Built an Empire With a Knife and Fork | By Witold Szablowski | Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones | Penguin Books | 357 pp. | Paperback, $20

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