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Moscow's Stalin-Themed Kebab Shop Purged Within 24 Hours Of Launch

Wily Russian entrepreneurs have been known to seize on long-standing controversies and international scandals to plug their brands. The latest -- Stalin Doner -- proved a step too far.
Wily Russian entrepreneurs have been known to seize on long-standing controversies and international scandals to plug their brands. The latest -- Stalin Doner -- proved a step too far.

Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union for 28 years, overseeing a personality cult and a brutal regime. But a Moscow shawarma stand named after him lasted just one day.

After complaints from angry local residents, Stalin Doner -- which owner Stanislav Voltman said was a tongue-in-cheek tribute not meant to cause offense -- closed after just 24 hours in business last week.

Voltman said officers carted him off to a police station for a three-hour interrogation about the controversial fast-food joint.

Better not to ask where the meat came from.”
-- Olga Marsheva joking on Facebook

“They asked me if my head was screwed on straight,” he told RFE/RL in a phone interview.

On the first, and only, day of sales, the modest establishment in northern Moscow’s Koptevo district sold 200 kebabs, Voltman said. Menu items like Stalin With Double Meat and Beria With Tkemali Sauce -- named after the tyrant and his notorious henchmen -- were rustled up by staff in uniforms of Stalin’s secret police, which dispatched millions of Soviet citizens to frigid forced labor camps in Siberia or straight to the firing squad.

Voltman’s three staff members have quit, citing uncomfortable attention from the media, and he has shut the establishment as he searches for new employees in hopes of reopening.

“It’s not like I had Hitler as the face of my brand,” he said, noting Russia’s ban on Nazi symbolism. “I haven’t broken any laws.”

For years, the Kremlin has advanced an ambivalent policy toward Stalin, a man who oversaw show trials of his opponents and jailed or executed hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens. Under President Vladimir Putin, the government has neither vilified nor unequivocally justified his brutal legacy.

At times, officials have taken pains to protect Stalin’s reputation, drawing the ire of critics who say Russia must reckon with the crimes of the Soviet state or be doomed to repeating them.

In 2018, authorities banned the Russian release of The Death Of Stalin, a British comedy about the dictator’s final days in 1953 and the desperate scramble for power among members of his inner circle. Child 44, a Cold War thriller set in the same year, was pulled in 2015 for “distorting historical facts.”

“Such films should not enjoy mass release in our country,” then-Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said.

Stalin’s supporters in Russia point to the Soviet Union’s rapid industrialization under his rule, saying harsh policies used to accelerate it were justified. They also cite the Soviet Union’s enormous contribution in defeating Nazi Germany in World War II as testament to Stalin’s credentials as a leader -- though critics say victory came despite errors by Stalin, not thanks to his role.

The result has been a slow but linear rehabilitation of the dictator, who today enjoys more widespread approval among Russians than at perhaps any time since his successor Nikita Khrushchev denounced his legacy in a fiery speech to the Soviet Politburo in 1956, ushering in a period known as destalinization.

Stalin is a complicated figure.”
-- Valery Fadeyev, Kremlin’s human rights council

So it’s no surprise that the controversy over Stalin Doner has received outsize attention in Russia, both on television and social media, where it has divided opinion just like any topic related to Stalin and his historical role.

“Better not to ask where the meat came from,” one woman, Olga Marsheva, wrote on Facebook.

Some officials criticized Voltman over the gimmick while going soft on Stalin himself.

“We shouldn’t stoke this debate,” Valery Fadeyev, the head of the Kremlin’s human rights council, said in an interview with a Moscow radio station. “Stalin is a complicated figure.”

Savvy Russian entrepreneurs have been known to seize on long-standing controversies and international scandals to plug their brands. In 2018, farmer Aleksei Yakushev launched a sunflower oil called Novichok, after the nerve agent allegedly used by Russia against former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England that year -- and again last August against Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny.

And after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, T-shirts with Putin’s face and slogans praising his foreign policy hit souvenir shops across the country.

Voltman, who moved to Moscow in August from Orenburg, a city near Russia’s border with Kazakhstan, says his dreams of making it in the Russian capital may now be dashed.

He has received dozens of messages, ranging from threats of action if Stalin Doner reopens to notes of support for his business.

As for Stalin, he too has mixed feelings.

“I’ve been reading about him for years, and I don’t demonize or glorify him,” he said. “He did a lot of bad things, but he also did a lot of good.”

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.