Looking for Love, Good Skin and a Little Pick-Me-Up?
How bout a dash of delicious, and occasionally heroic history?
You’ve come to the right place.
The most famous chocolate company in Moscow, Krasnyj Oktyabr “Red October,” is no longer in its iconic building along the Moscow River, facing Christ the Savior Cathedral. It was bought out and now houses chic chic cafes, a restaurant, hi-end offices and lofts, and an art space. As is the way of the global economy, its manufacturing center has been consolidated in the outskirts of the city, in a building with two other factories—Rot Front and Babaevskaya. This was at first a disappointment, as when I was our group was going to the Chocolate Factory, I was sure I’d be in Red October, where I could look at the red bricks and gold domes of the Kremlin and eat sweets in the same place that, I imagined, Lenin had. This is no longer an option. That was the bad news.
Now the good news: the new consolidated building is also home to the Museum of the History of Chocolate (and, strangely, a bank, which you pass through to enter the museum). This is where I spent a recent morning and learned about chocolate, in theory and practice, discovering how chocolate has played a role in not a few daily lives, ancient horoscopes, and the propaganda machine of the Soviets. Epic, I know. And don’t worry, my visit still included “I Love Lucy” moments of women in white caps and coats and chocolates dashing down conveyer belts. (And samples! So many samples!) This place is THE home of the famous Alyonka chocolate bars, with the unforgettable wrapper:
I’m convinced the little peasant girl is the spitting image of what one my professors MUST have looked like as a child (won’t name names).
But first, the informative and occasionally laugh-out-loud (1) tour beforehand…
Now, just so you know that this tour was actually impressive (albeit a tad bit long for my taste), I’ll let you know that AGAIN, I was dragging my heels—I figured that the chocolate factory would be awesome, but a museum??? Upon arrival I could see folding screens covered in mediocre photos of cocoa plants and Central American teenagers and I was convinced I would have to suffer great feats of boredom before being rewarded with fresh chocolate…I was wrong. I’m starting to learn that even if the exhibitions look boring from a distance, the startling passion of the tour-guides is what makes the day, as well as all the wonderfully unexpected Russian-isms of their speech, behavior, and trivia. That and the bizarre sorts of very obvious exhibitions they coordinate—at the Library it was the book-toting figurine exhibition in the midst of ancient manuscripts, here, it was a collection of marzipan and chocolate sculptures and “paintings” such as the ones below…
After we put little blue booties over our shoes, we were ushered into the first exhibition room. The entire museum is laid out “chronologically,” with each important phase of the History of Chocolate assigned it own space and its own particular technological doo-das. The first room transports us back to ancient Central America, or, as the guide specified, “Indian Chichen-Itza.” The room featured a large screen, and across from it was a miniature reconstruction of a tiered Mayan temple, on which we all sat as we watching our first film about chocolate. The walls were painted like a tropical rainforest and the room was full of reproductions of Mayan art, material culture, and—best of all!—a life size mannequin of a Mayan, dressed in feathers and holding a tiny totem of a bird. I want to you to assume, as I did, that all of this was done with the utmost respect for Mayan culture.
Our guide began eloquently, “Four thousand years ago, on the Indian peninsula [Yucatan], chocolate was born.” She showed us ancient Mayan tools for breaking cocoa beans and proto-mortar and pestles. On the ceiling the twelve astrological signs of the Mayans were painted in a circle, with a giant serpent in the middle under a cup of flowing red liquid. Our guide explained that the ancient Mayans learned how to make a drink out of the cocoa bean, a drink that is probably portrayed above, in their mystical astrological painting, as “the Drink of the Gods.” Only the elites—those allowed on the highest (365th) level of the temple—were allowed to drink this cocoa concoction. They had to prove themselves in Mayan society and war to be allowed the Drink of the Gods. Naturally, we’re assured, no women were allowed the Drink of the Gods. How far M&Ms and Hershey’s kisses have taken us from the mystical, ritualized exclusivity of the ancient bean….(and thank goodness!)
Our guide points to a bust of a Mayan against the wall. She picks up a reproduction of a cocoa bean. Do we see it? The similarity? The Mayans, she insists, actually depicted their heads in the shapes of cocoa beans, in efforts—we can only deduce approximately—to gain the powers of the cocoa plant, and the gods who make it grow. Hmmmm…..
But wait! How in the world do we know this? How can we be sure that the elites weren’t up to other nonsense on the 365th level of the temple, and that the cup of life (or death?) being poured out on the serpent of the sky is really chocolate?! Well, it’s true, for many many years, the Secrets of the Mayans were closed to us. Even long after explorers and scholars got a hold of their ancient texts, it was impossible to make heads or tails of them.
Queue our film, featured in 3D. We put on glasses, settle into our fake-stone seats.
“The Secret of the Texts of the Mayans”
Footage begins with monkeys, turtles, and dew-covered tropical plants. Suddenly we are in a dark Mayan temple, filled with swirling hieroglyphics.
“Who can unlock the mystery of the Mayans?”
Scholars from Spain, Belgium and Dresden (yes, that’s how it was put) have tried and failed. The swirling hieroglyphs accelerate, converge, disappear down what must have been some ancient Mayan well. We are left with the thunderous impenetrability of the Mayan language and culture.
Cue music, a black and white snapshot appears on the screen: it’s a young boy, with a serious face, confidently holding a violin. The violin assures us that not only is the boy clever and disciplined, but his parents made the necessary sacrifices for his Education. We quickly learn that this Yuri Knorosov.
His curiosity and brilliance would lead him to the Mayan manuscripts, which he would “unlock” at an early age. Thanks to Yuri, the records of this ancient people are illuminated. We see brief footage of him as a very old man, teetering around a Mayan temple, which, considering how steep it is, actually just makes one nervous. The camera pans in for a close up—he has wild, yet stern, eyes and even wilder eyebrows. Clearly only a man of exceptional, nay, otherworldly!, intelligence could have such a piercing gaze and such unruly eyebrows.
Another snapshot appears, it’s Yuri, but we’ve moved back in time and now he’s middle-aged, holding a Siamese cat. We are quickly told that this cat was, perhaps, Yuri’s greatest confidante, a statement that takes us even further away from any semblance of an expected Museum experience. The plot thickens—
The Siamese Cat leaps onto the screen and is suddenly sitting in the middle of a Mayan cave, surrounded by menacing, bloody wall paintings. The cat begins to speak—it will tell us the story of the Mayans, and what Yuri revealed about their language, ritual, and ultimately, about chocolate…(2)
The rest of the video was pretty straightforward, although it had a surprising opening scene—we’re in contemporary Central America, watching three very young children break open cocoa beans and hungrily eat them. They have the big, sad eyes of the kids in World Vision commercials. The cat asks us, “How do we get delicious chocolate from the bitter beans these children are eating?” The Siamese cat tells us nothing of the cocoa trade or its victims, but rather bounds off into the forest and back in time.
The video doesn’t last much longer, as we will actually learn more about processing cocoa in a later room (19th century Europe). Most of the film was pictures of darkly painted Mayan lairs, spooky music, and then flashes of Yuri thinking. Fair enough.
After the film ends, we return our 3D glasses, climb down from the reconstructed temple, and walk, briefly, in the Conquistador-era Spain. We are in the underbelly of a very small ship, with three TV screens looping footage of the ocean. We are about to discover America, we’re told (note: when a Russian says this, they mean CENTRAL America. Just so we’re all on the same page. No Plymouth Rock here…) Burlap bags ostensibly filled with cocoa beans sit on the ground, veritable sacks of gold in that time, we’re told. There’s a tiny grate window overhead, which we are instructed to look through. For whatever reason, we’re told that we’re not allowed to go up top, as if we were indentured servants on a cocoa bean seeking expedition. This tiny glimpse of the night sky is be our only consolation, we’re informed. Fortunately, the constellations have been accurately reproduced on the ceiling, so our glimmer of the night sky is not entirely a rouse…
We move out of the boat, but we have not yet left the Conquistadors behind. Forgetting our Siamese guide, we now watch a cartoon film that sums up Cortez’s entire life.
We get a brief glimpse of the 15th century Spain, were a cloaked academic in a funny hat angrily slams his pointer on a poster reading “America: Myth or Reality?” This pressing question leads Cortez sails his boat across an empty map, until
He hits shore! An outline of North and South America instantly materializes on screen!
Cortez looks out onto the New World. There are brown people with painted faces. One of them climbs a tree, which—I’M NOT KIDDING—is bursting with chocolate bars in Alyonka wrappers. Yes. Exactly. But then Cortez and his gang pull the little brown Central Americans out of the trees and push them back off the shores—we seem them retreating with sad faces into the Jungle—to fill their boat with chocolate bars in iconic Russian wrappers and sail back to Europe. Glory and riches follow, and in the closing scene, we are in contemporary Russia, where a little boy is out in a snow storm hitchhiking (yes, I also noticed the plot jump here). He’s so cold and alone. He puts out his thumb, AMAZING!, a truck appears, he hops in, sigh of relief.
The driver offers him some chocolate and they munch away, with a light-hearted tune about chocolate in the background. As the “camera” pans out, we see that it’s actually a delivery truck full of chocolate, which makes the little boy’s rescue even more ideal.
But what happened in between Cortez and our little Russian hitchhiker, who was saved by the goodwill that chocolate inspires?
The early history of chocolate in Europe! A delicacy so delicious, it’s existence and production was apparently kept under wraps by Spain as a veritable state secret! That is, until France made a strategic marriage and got a member of the Spanish royal family to cough up the recipe for hot chocolate. From there it spread to Germany, Switzerland, England, and Italy (you know how incestuous they were back then…). Our tour guide told us though that people in Italy didn’t actually like chocolate at first, and Switzerland was actually the very last to have chocolate at all, apparently a blow to their reputation as the most-chocolately of nations. Russia, we learn, was always of one devoted mind to chocolate….
Cue Peter the great. In his great importation of All Things Western, he probably introduced chocolate to Russia, although it’s unclear. It’s likely that it was around beforehand, but not yet made in Russia until Peter brought German chocolate-engineers into the country. The guide plays a slide show of famous Russians with chocolate—Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth Petrovna, with a saucer of chocolate, a picture of the café Pushkin frequented, which is known for its hot chocolate (he’s ubiquitous in Russian history, as you may be learning), etc, etc.
Then began the explanation of how chocolate is made, how its grade is determined (percentage of cocoa bean product vs additives) and how it is processed today to get the delicious creamy candy we all love so well. If you’re interested in actual details, email me, or, let’s be honest, just wiki it. I aim to share that which isn’t easily available to the public, and I have a sneaking suspicion chocolate processing could be common knowledge….
The museum had a model cocoa tree, full of fake cocoa pods. Strangely, it was illuminated by green lights, which made it a more menacing version of what’s found in nature, I assume. With downcast eyes and supplicating palms, our guide, whose passion for chocolate in Russia was increasingly infectious, revealed that every time she walks by that model cocoa tree, she rues that they cannot grow in Russia. Russia, with its long history of confection! Russia, where the sweet tooth transcends Class and Education! Russia, where chocolate brings private consolation and social opportunity! No, nothing can be done, the native love of chocolate cannot coax the tree into growing in a climate not its own…so the chocolate lovers of Russia must all the more embrace the processing of chocolate as their honorable trade, if not the cultivation of its plant…
We learned about the two men who owned the biggest chocolate factories in Moscow, both of which now operate out of the new consolidated building. One man, a German named Einem, started the Einem Chocolate Factory, was wildly successful, even buying a blimp to fly over Moscow with his logo on it for advertising. (Fantastic, yes?) However, our guide told us in a low, sad voice, he had no wife and children, and no one to leave his factory to. His was a lonely life dedicated to sweets…Now, that might not bother us, she implied, because after all, he was just a German. But you know what? Einem gave so much to Moscow, beyond just chocolate, that he is more like a “Russian German,” [Russkij Nemetz] than just a German. Poor poor Einem, not only was he childless, but there are no surviving pictures of him: the guide seemed to link these things, as if the failure to transmit your DNA could cause all material evidence of your personage to disappear. The museum cannot even offer a sketch of him. Instead, there is a model of his factory with a different man inside, his business partner, who had many children (ten or twelve!) and carried on the factory until it was taken over by the government and renamed Red October.
Contemporary to Einem was another major chocolate company that started out as a simple confectioners shop. It grew, first through caramels, then through chocolates, and was named after its founder, Abrikosov, until it was also taken over in the Revolution and renamed Babaevsky, after a revolutionary. Abrikosov, the inversion of his competitor, had 22 children. All by one wife! I think its been proven that chocolate is an aphrodisiac, but I’m starting to suspect the Mayans may have discovered some sort of fertility drug of the gods. We can only hope. Seventeen of the Abrikosov children survived to adulthood, and not a few of his grandchild have been important figures in Moscow society, we learned, as business people, actors, and singers.
Across from Abrikosov’s photograph and a model of his living room is a large portrait of a young woman carrying a tray of hot chocolate. We learned that she was a simple ‘chocolate girl’ (Russian is a very production language, so there’s a word for the girl who served chocolate). She was from a poor family and made very little money as a chocolate girl in Moscow. However, one day, she served chocolate to a very wealthy and well-connected man and he fell in love with her, and married her. He had her portrait commissioned, in honor of her beauty and holding the tray of chocolate that brought them together. Let’s say they lived happily ever after.
1917. Chaos, Revolution. The Rise of the Proletariat. The end of the Romanov Dynasty. The State takes over all chocolate production. Mayakovsky (a famous revolutionary poet) has a job writing “poetry” about the Red October chocolate factory. Our tour guide, straights, crossed her hands in front of her and recites two poems by Mayakovsky. [«Не могу не признаться: / лучший шоколад – / aбрикосовый № 12. / Нет нигде, кроме / как в Моссельпроме».] Damn, Russians are so good at memorizing poetry and then having something fantastic and appropriate to bust out at any given moment. We could learn from them…
Anyway…this is the time in Russia when bars of chocolate produced by the State are plastered with slogans of economic emancipation and calls to arms. Tins of chocolate are sold with pictures of Lenin on the front, because—as our guide explains—the peasants were illiterate, and couldn’t read about their own history. Hence, their history was presented on the chocolate tins and wrappers, because even peasants eat chocolate. Chocolate was the way to get them to voluntarily consume their own visual history. Then chocolate production practically halted in the 1920s and 1930s because of economic conditions, and most of the factories only made caramels and other sugar based confections.
In the 1940’s special bars of chocolate that were sent to the Front, with some sort of methamphetamine in them (moments like these and I really wish I had better Russian language skills)…I certainly got this now verbatim:
“It is, of course, a narcotic. But we had the task of victory ahead of us, so…”
In the same exhibition case as the super-powered chocolate bars, we saw the medals and personal effects of the confectioners who were sent to the Front, again, the workplace remembers those who went before them…
When things improved in the 50’s and 60’s, more tins with historical events surfaced. We saw chocolate tins with scenes from the Olympics, strapping boys running across finish lines or hurling shot puts, the Soviet Space dogs who went on rocket trips, and not a few commemorative boxes of assorted chocolates for the US/USSR Apollo joint mission.
This just about wrapped up our tour of the museum, and we transitioned into the factory itself, donning white jackets and haircaps. Now, our museum guide had told us about the many strengths of cocoa butter—it was delicious, healthy, good for your skin. She told us that all of the women in the factory have beautiful skin because they work with cocoa butter all day (not, she noted, like the women who work on the caramel belts).
But after the talking Siamese cat and Yuri unlocked the mystery of the Aztecs, after cartoon Cortez ransacked Central America and made off with all their cocoa, after Switzerland’s dedication to chocolate was pooh poohed, I was a little skeptical of our guide’s perspective. But damn. Those factory ladies (and they were all ladies) absolutely glowed. The young ones, the old ones, the ones in between. Either they make so much money that they can afford fantastic skin care regimes and never go in the sun (right, I’m sure that’s it) or there’s something about cocoa butter.
At each conveyer belt, we were given a sample—dark chocolate bars, fresh truffles, the insides of truffles before being glazed in hard chocolate. We walked past vats of cocoa powder and what looked like dumpsters filled with liquid chocolate. We saw the liquid chocolate poured into molds, cut into bars, wrapped in foil, then wrappers, then boxed, bar-code-stickered, and pulled off the belt for shipment. There was a huge scale in one room for weighing shipments, and as we stood around and watched chocolate get wrapped in silver foil (some girls from the group sneaking a few off the belt!) one employee walked onto the scale, checked her weight, and walked back off again. Completely matter of factly. I guess you end up keeping a vigilant eye on the scale if you work around chocolate all day.
Our guide for the factory, a factory worker herself, told us that after 32 years of working here, she still loves chocolate. Could she name a favorite? No. But she loves working here. And she still loves chocolate. Who knows, it could have been the sugar high from the conveyer-belt freebies, but I certainly felt in love with all things chocolate too. To top it off, we got a “gift” from the museum, a chocolate bar of famous Alenka chocolates and a little box full of goodies with a terrific whimsical, vintage cover.
All that learning and thinking and unlocking of mysteries wore me down more than expected, and after departing the museum/factory, I fell into a heat and chocolate induced afternoon coma…I’m pretty sure I dreamed of marzipan squirrels and German blimps and Mayakovsky, declaring the dawn of a new era of chocolate and art for everyone…
(1) By laugh out loud, I mean that my expectations for a history museum were so thoroughly squashed, my American sensibilities of political correctness (which I only half-heartedly recognize) were so rebuffed, that I had no option but, quite literally, to laugh out loud. It was good. I needed a good laugh, things have been too serious lately.
(2) Wandering thought: I’m guessing Lady and the Tramp (ITAL) isn’t big here. Because anyone who watched that as a child inevitably should fear Siamese cats for the rest of their life. They’re not to be trusted. They should not narrate films. They try to commit in