Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

chocolate FOR THE MASSES

Over the Moskva River not far from the Kremlin, the red-gabled Krasny Oktyabr candy factory looks and smells like something straight from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." Inside, 2,900 workers use 1920s machinery to crank out chocolates according to 19th-century recipes -- and a Soviet-era management strives with the zeal of the converted to make Krasny Oktyabr one of Moscow's few successful privatized large-scale businesses. Not even chocolate is immune to this country's struggle with its tsarist and communist past and its current flirtation with the free market. Krasny Oktyabr so far has weathered the storm with a pragmatic approach to its conflicting traditions. The name Red October may seem incongruous on new chocolate boxes and labels that revive Romanov dynasty motifs, but factory leaders who now speak the language of marketing refuse to risk losing Krasny Oktyabr's name recognition. And while the factory plans to rename a popular chocolate bar called Slava, or glory, the old version will also remain available, said Irina Kondakova, head of candy technology for the factory. The name evokes Soviet slogans -- "Glory to this, long live that," she said, "but if people want it, we want them to have it." "Our work is not necessarily above politics, but to the side," said Kondakova, 41, standing before a wall of bright red-trimmed portraits of Krasny Oktyabr's designated best socialist workers from the 1970s. "Our job is to put out good candy." The factory has been doing that for 127 years. At the turn of the century, what was then the German-owned Einem factory won chocolatiers' competitions across Europe, festooned Moscow with bright advertisements and attained the title of Purveyor to the Palace Court. Nationalized and renamed Red October following the 1917 revolution, the factory remained arguably the best-known and best-loved candy maker in a nation of sweet-tooths through seven decades of central management. Beginning in 1989, the employees pioneered perestroika, renting the factory from the state to work as a private company one day a week. And since privatization last year, the market price of Krasny Oktyabr shares has climbed to over 200 times their face value of 1,000 rubles (just over 50 cents). Factory leaders are now striving to reclaim the Einem legend -- without disavowing pride in Krasny Oktyabr's Soviet past. An in-house museum in the works displays Einem's filigreed metal chocolate boxes and ornate gilt labels -- many recently donated by Vera Scriba, the 80-year-old niece of the last German owner -- alongside later boxes commemorating "The Stalin Constitution" as well as the factory's Order of Lenin award and the pen used by its director during World War II. "I don't see how there can be a battle between two histories -- it's all in the past," said the factory's economics director, Yury Yegorov. And after all, for the spry, smartly-dressed Yegorov, 32, history takes a back seat to business. The name Krasny Oktyabr stays -- purely because it is "better known" than "Einem," he said, hustling along a catwalk over a busy inner courtyard. In his office, whose wood paneling, glass dividers and hanging lamps date back to 1898, when the main building was constructed on Bersenyevskaya Naberezhnaya on an island in the Moskva River, Yegorov shows off a new box of assorted chocolates. It sports a label based on a curlicued cookie box that Einem issued in 1913 to celebrate the Romanov dynasty's 300th anniversary. It pictures the first Romanov tsar, Mikhail Fyodorovich, wreathed in banners and labeled in prerevolutionary Cyrillic. But Yegorov says Krasny Oktyabr won't be remaking many more labels in the image of Einem. "A picture like this with the name Krasny Oktyabr -- it just doesn't go," he said. The Krasny Oktyabr name sold 60,000 tons of the factory's 250 types of candy last year, Kondakova said, including 20,000 of chocolate-coated candies, 20,000 of hard candy, 7,500 of chocolate and 7,000 of caramel. They range from the factory's most popular chocolate bar, the 700-ruble Skazki Pushkina, whose label depicts Pushkin's fairy tales, to the fancier fare in the factory's display cases, such as luxurious 10,000 ruble boxes graced with 19th-century portraits or metal treasure chests of chocolate coins in jewel-colored foil. "There is nothing here that the factory does not put out," said Kondakova, though acknowledging that the modest, wax-paper-wrapped Kis-Kis "kitty cat" caramel (1470 rubles a kilo) is more often seen in stores. Yegorov said the factory was profitable but would not release figures. Moscow shopkeepers say Krasny Oktyabr chocolates, hard candy and caramels outsell all others, beating foreign competitors not only on price but on taste. At Eliseyevsky, arguably the most prestigious Russian shop in Moscow, Krasny Oktyabr chocolates alone make up for 5 percent of sales, fetching 5 to 9 million rubles daily, according to Tamara Patina, who has sold chocolates there for 27 years. this is not Bounty," said Vladimir Kolnikov, head of the factory museum, biting into a Slivochka, a soft white cream candy flecked with bits of carrot -- yes, carrot -- for decoration and a subtly fresh flavor. "People prefer ecologically clean candies, without artificial color or flavor," he said. Director Anatoly Daursky likes to point out that sales increased 12 percent last year -- the year of the Mars invasion. A spokeswoman for Mars Inc. refused to reveal sales figures for Mars and Snickers, which have become household words in Russia. Some new Krasny Oktyabr marketing strategies are specifically geared to compete with Mars' success, Yegorov said. In the vanguard is the factory's old standby, a dark chocolate, wafer and almond nougat candy called Mishka Kosilapy (approximately "pigeon-toed bear cub"). Traditionally bite-sized and wrapped in rough folded paper, like many Russian candies, it recently appeared as a Snickers-shaped baton in a slick wrapper. The "Misha" wrapper design, showing a mother bear snarling at three playful cubs, dates back to 1913, and the recipe may be even older, Kondakova said. It remained popular throughout the Soviet era, as did Zolotoy Yarlik ("gold label"), a 90-year-old Einem recipe. Such old favorites might be the factory's only link to its past, were it not for Vera Scriba, granddaughter of Julius Heuss, the imposing white-mustached German who led the Einem factory into its heyday as director from 1878 to his death in 1907. The Heuss family lost the factory to the workers' state in 1918 and returned to Germany, but Scriba's uncles traveled in Russia from time to time and brought back pieces of Krasny Oktyabr candy, Scriba said in a telephone interview from her home in Stuttgart. After decades of rebuffs, Scriba made contact with factory management in 1989. After reassuring the directors, who feared she would demand restitution -- "We were just curious," she said -- she attended the factory's 125th anniversary celebration in 1992 and donated sheafs of documents and old labels for the factory museum. There is the 1867 letter stamped by Moscow's governor general giving the founder, Theodore von Einem, permission to open a small factory on nearby Sofiiskaya Naberezhnaya employing "20 people and four horses." An 1892 receipt is written in calligraphy on a blank depicting two sister factories in Simferopol and suburban Moscow. A small lined notebook is dotted with recipes handwritten in German in fountain pen. But the museum's real star is the labels. Einem catered both to Russian sensibilities and cosmopolitanism, splashing the Romanovs all over its boxes but also printing maps of Germany, sunsets over Gibraltar and even crowning one box with a porcelain likeness of Napoleon. With the revolution the look of the boxes changes. Gaslit bourgeois restaurant scenes and romantic idylls in cloistered gardens are replaced by the storming of the Winter Palace, with red and black flags flying -- and, a few years later, a refinery seething smoke. The cowcatcher of a steaming engine fairly bursts from a box lid commemorating "Stalin's 11th Annual Railroad Engineers' Day" in 1946. A wartime box depicts British, American, Russian flags. On another, skipping children bear a banner reading, "Thank you, Stalin, for our happy childhood." "Now it seems like idiocy, but at the time -- what do you want? -- this was just the thing," said Kolnikov. The half-finished museum reaches an uneven success in its attempt to reconcile the two dissonant traditions of Krasny Oktyabr and Einem. With its equally heroic depictions of the bow-tied Einem and the factory's prerevolutionary political activists, in some places it ends up being superficial, ignoring, for example, the fate of the Heusses. Vera Scriba says her father, Bernard Heuss, was jailed in Orenburg in the Urals -- "Interned," says Kolnikov -- under the anti-German policies of World War I. He eventually escaped to Germany. Vladimir, the eldest son and last factory owner, was the most attached to Russia, Scriba said, taking a Russian first name and spelling his last name Russian-style as Geis. Geis stayed afloat until 1918, when the factory was nationalized. Kolnikov said the Bolsheviks then offered Geis a job as a candy bureaucrat of sorts -- which he took, heading Moscow's central planning office for candy until he went to Germany in 1922. Another interesting display includes a 1913 letter from workers to management threatening to strike unless they receive a six-ruble monthly raise -- and the response, granting them a three-ruble raise. Besides delving into history, Yegorov said, the museum is designed to "educate the workers" about the Einem tradition. Particularly fascinating to Krasny Oktyabr's budding capitalist management is the German management's superb marketing skill, harking back to a bustling commercial Moscow. "They spent one-third of their profits in advertisements," said Kolnikov. "They were all over, on the fronts of buildings, on pedestals." Kolnikov took a fat tome from a travelworn leather case -- a scrapbook of labels he recently received from descendants of an Einem wholesale agent who traveled Russia and Ukraine from 1895 to 1917 selling candy. Thumbing reverently through its pages of glitter-trimmed pictures of noble courtship, palace scenes and landscapes from the Riviera to Simferopol, Kolnikov said, "They believed that chocolates must feed the eye first. Then maybe you will ask, 'What in the world is inside?'" But the company suffers no inferiority complex about its life as Krasny Oktyabr. Lyudmila Yevstifeyeva, 43, has worked here since graduating the Moscow Food Institute at age 20 and still boasts of the "excellent grades" that gave her "the honor of working here." Yegorov says his transformation to spiffy capitalist executive was a true conversion. "Before, we were working equally hard for socialist goals," he said. But "when perestroika started, with Gorby and all that," 300 employees invested their own money to rent the factory and buy their own raw materials, he said. Eighty percent of workers worked 20 Saturdays a year for three times the normal wage -- and the mini-company made a profit. "We acquired a taste for normal distribution in a free market," Yegorov said. "It was a real revolution." When privatization rolled around, Krasny Oktyabr hit the ground running. Large voucher funds including Pervy Voucherny Fund and Moskovsky Investitsionny Fund bought 29 percent of the shares at auction. Raw-materials suppliers bought 20 percent, and 51 percent were sold or given away to workers, 90 percent of whom have shares. One foreign shareholder is U.S. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, who bought one for $20 on an official visit last year. Daursky, the factory's director for over 30 years, was voted president of the shareholders' committee last December. Production rose 12 percent to 59,200 tons last year, the work force rose 15 percent to 2,900, and caramels are being exported to Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, according to Yegorov. Last month, the average salary in the factory was relatively high at 260,000 rubles a month. Skazki Pushkina is currently the most popular chocolate, Kondadova said, though popularity is hard to judge when limited supplies of capital determine today's output much as did raw materials supplies under central planning. In the late 1970s, Kondakova said, increased travel abroad gave Russian consumers a taste of something other than the classic Russian slab of dark chocolate. There was a boom in sales of chocolates with additives like raisins and nuts -- but, she said, it also coincided with a sharp increase in the Soviet Union's nut supply. One chocolate, Kondakova believes, had a natural rush of popularity in the late 1960's - Alyonka, a "tender" bite-sized chocolate picturing a young blond girl, named for the daughter of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman cosmonaut. Stopping outside the factory on a biting cold day, a 65-year-old worker proudly pointed out its frilly trim and curlicued ironwork, reminiscent of a gingerbread house, and surveyed its views of the Kremlin and of Krymsky and Bolshoy Kamenny bridges. She said she had joined the caramel division at 13 in 1942, following in the footsteps of her mother, who witnessed Stalin's destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior just across the river in 1934. Now a label designer, she would not give her name but recalled proudly the days of packaging kasha and mixing extra-sweet chocolates to give pilots energy during World War II. For her, the switch to capitalism -- which made her the owner of 56 Krasny Oktyabr shares -- merely confirmed what she knew all along: "The factory belongs to us." Best Gimmicks Einem, the prerevolutionary factory, had a parade of sales gimmicks, including: The Chocolate Waltz, sheet music for a ballroom tune copyrighted to the factory and distributed only to large-scale buyers. Candy dispensers that ate kopek coins and beckoned to the children of tired shoppers. Postcards depicting a futuristic Moscow where flying cars swoop around golden domes and skyscrapers. The Soviet management continued this tradition in its own style with Misha, the life-size chocolate bear cub who presided over the factory's prize-winning display at the Brussels International Chocolate Festival in 1958 and still stands outside the office door of factory director Anatoly Daursky. Like a chocolate Lenin, Misha is "touched up" every few months. "He originally weighed 90 kilograms, but now that they've added so many layers, he's probably up to 100," said Irina Kondakova, a factory manager. Worst Names lobster necks (Rakoviy Sheiky) These fruity hard candies are ribbed like a lobster's tail. The attraction, said Kondakova, is "untranslateable." Stalin's Constitution. The lid of this assorted chocolate box is decorated solely with the first few lines of Article 118, "The Right to Labor," spelled out in fat silver letters. For anyone who has ever dreamed of touring a chocolate factory Enter the lobby of the Krasny Oktyabr chocolate factory, perched like a gingerbread house on Bersenyevskaya Naberezhnya, and the first thing you see is a white plaster Lenin. This particular Vladimir Ilyich has an unaccustomed paunch and wears a puzzled frown, as though he's eaten one too many chocolates. Don a white apron and kerchief, whisk along the labyrinthine corridors of the century-old building and your tour begins. Molten chocolate gushes from ancient green pipes into waist-high mortars where it is churned by a gigantic eggbeater. Then it flows in a chocolate river through a trough to a huge rumbling machine, which squeezes chocolate as if from thousands of toothpaste tubes into waffle-like molds. At the opposite end, vacuum tentacles pick up the cooled and hardened bars and plop them onto another belt headed for wrapping machines threaded with spools of silver, yellow and green foil. Ten tons of Skazki Pushkin bars will be made in this eight-hour shift. Broken pieces tumble into vats to be remelted -- but workers rarely nibble, said Lyudmila Yevstifeyeva, a supervisor. "By this point they want something salty -- herring or pickles," she said of the workers -- mostly women -- she explains, because "not every man can stand here all day and do such laborious work." The top floor is for hard candy. Glassy liquid pours from rusting vats into a receptacle where metal arms knead a faint red color into a viscous mass of candy - rather like a writhing, striped pupa. It enters a molding machine and out come hexagonal hard candies strung together like tadpole eggs or beads on a necklace. Beneath the conveyor belt, dust collects like colored sand. In the caramel section, each of the 13 aging machines makes over a ton of Little Golden Key caramels in a shift. Heated in ancient green urns, the caramel spreads in a translucent golden film over a rotating cylinder, and then is squished again into a huge rotating cone, which workers smooth out with their hands every now and then. The caramel snake rounds the corners of a green trough, narrowing until, two fingers wide, it is fed into a machine which quickly cuts and wraps the pieces, which then sprinkle five or six at a time from pipes onto a conveyor belt. "It does 500 pieces a minute," said one 63-year-old worker, patting her machine. When she came to work at age 15 in February 1945, she had to pinch caramels off by hand until her fingers were swollen -- not to mention unloading barges."They looked at us and said, 'Where are you going? You are too skinny, you will never be able to do the work,''' she said of the wartime factory bosses.