31 October 2009

The Hunt for Red October (the chocolate factory)

Back in my Art History days, many advanced graduate students focused on the Italian Renaissance not only because of their strange penchant for Michelangelo's meaty, gender-neutral sybils, but also because they got to conduct research in a warm, sunny place.

The artillery of snowflakes that persistently bombarded my eyelashes on the way to Red October (Krasny Oktyabr' / Красный Октябрь) reminded me of the fact that I could've made more climate-friendly choices too. At the same time, a tour of a chocolate factory, the scent of which filled my nostrills as soon as I left Krasnosel'skaya station, was much more in tune with Halloween pop culture than the handful of pitiful "gothic" events advertised around town.

Moscow simply hasn't been sufficiently Westernized for a proper celebration of Samhain. The Slavic variant thereof -- Christmas Eve -- only seems to be remembered at antique exhibitions and sales (which I've been profusely attending, for some reason) with many overpriced porcelain statuettes of Vakula riding the Devil. I even briefly considered an all-night walk with Bulgakov's house (a more cultured version of a zombie walk, in my book!) starting at 1 am sharp, but I normally expect Woland to play lighhearted pranks on me, not potentially cause pneumonia at below-freezing temperatures.

That made the chocolate factory a solid compromise. Would one of the loud, annoying visitors get sucked into the machinery and turn into human filling? Or, would the cute Shishkin-painted bear family from the century-old Mishka Kosolapy chocolate brand SUDDENLY! leave the wrappers and turn into giant blood-thirsty beasts? Oh, the possibilities...

That...and, uh, a little thing called a doctoral dissertation. Hunting for Red October is not an exaggerated statement. During this research trip, I've been able to easily obtain a number of sources, the existence of which I couldn't even fathom. By contrast, I've been having a difficult time piecing together the type of information that should have been readily available.

The latter includes various details about well-known chocolate brands, which anyone writing on consumer culture in 1920s Russia should not avoid, even those foolish enough not to be occasional chocoholics. And, since I often pretentiously walk around the house failing to sing Buck-Tick, "Ahhh, ahhh, ahhh, give me チョコレート (chokoreeeto)!!!", you know where I stand.

The long road to Red October started by freezing at the unheated federal economic archive and the state archive of the Russian Federation, continued onto various exhibitions, like the fabulous packaging museum, and involved creatively gaining extended access to the art fund of the former Leninka, digging through the Moscow city archive, and, of course, many a busy signal on the other end of the phone line. I certainly didn't anticipate that wearing lab rat gear, tasting half-manufactured chocolate, and observing tired-looking women with forearms that look like they just gave cows a pregnancy test would result in obtaining useful information. Only in Russia?

The chocolate and cocoa museum at Red October features the story of chocolate beginning with its discovery and focuses on Russia's long-established, albeit reinvented brands: Krasny Oktyabr', Babaevsky, and Rot Front. Krasny Oktyabr', for instance, was originally created by one of the many German Badasses who significantly contributed to Russian culture (Empress Sophie Friederike Auguste Badass being my favorite). Ferdinand Theodor von Einem (Эйнемъ) first opened a candy shop on Arbat street in 1851, then expanded into an Einem Partnership factory, which was nationalized shortly after the 1917 Bolshevik takeover and renamed to its current manifestation. Some remnats of that early Soviet period demonstrate a move away from pseudo-Victorian pre-revolutionary imagery toward Communist experimentation like this Red Army Star caramel, not to mention all the famous branding for the large overarching state trust Mosselprom created by Mayakovsky and Rodchenko. Exhibits from the later period include items commemorating everything from space dogs Belka and Strelka to a number of Communist Party Congresses, undoubtedly sweeter than the originals.

Mosselprom's chocolate sales girl

The museum gave me a few information gems that I could not find anywhere else, now coming to a dissertation chapter near you. And, perhaps, next time I could combine this softer, tastier, academically friendly side of Halloween with a zombie walk through the factory. Although, I don't think that flying bits of gelatin wounds are all that hygenic, even if they're crafted with as much love as Red October chocolate.

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