A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are not a paying subscriber to The Browser, and enjoy this letter, please do become a paying subscriber to The Browser, because that is how I earn the money to write this letter.
This week: Dictators and their cooks.
Editor's update, 24th August 2023: This letter was published before news broke yesterday that Yevgeny Prigozhin was believed to have died in a plane crash along with other Wagner leaders. My contention that "chefs always survive" has not aged well, obviously, but I will leave the letter unchanged, though I have added a new picture at the end. I will affect to think that some sixth sense for topicality actually worked rather well for me on this occasion, even if I totally misread the message which it was trying to convey. — Robert
EVEN THE most paranoid ruler needs at least some people around him whom he can trust, and they will almost never be found among the supposed team-mates in party and government who hug him on public stages and praise him in speeches; these are the very people who will do away with him if ever they get the chance.
The people whom the ruler must trust because he has no real choice but to trust them are his close personal staff — the people who dress and feed and drive him, the ones who have access to the body, the ones who might kill him every day.
Trust of this kind can make for strange bedfellows. Boris Yeltsin used to grunt and grumble all day to his ministers, then open his heart each evening to his bodyguard and his tennis coach over a bottle of vodka. Winston Churchill's closest confidant in later life was his doctor, Lord Moran. Margaret Thatcher bonded with her dresser, Cynthia Crawford. Turkmenbashi, the half-deranged dictator of Turkmenistan, seemed to like nobody except his personal dentist, Gurbanguli Berdimuhamedow, who became his minister of health, then his vice-president, and finally his successor.
In dictatorial lives, personal chefs seem to play a particularly significant part. The three highest-ranking leaders of the Khmer Rouge — Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and Khieu Sampan — all took chefs for their wives (in Pol Pot's case, for his second wife, though the Khmer Rouge purported to frown on remarriage).
Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sushi chef who went to work for Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 1988, soon became the Dear Leader's buddy-of-choice in fishing expeditions, drinking bouts and stripper parties which belied not a little the North Korean regime's pretensions to austerity:
Kim's 'pleasure squad' consisted of young women chosen to dance and sing for Kim, and to bathe him. Kim liked disco music, but preferred watching others dance rather than dance himself. Fujimoto later married one of the women at a drunken wedding, where he passed out on cognac and woke to find his pubic hair shaved.
Otonde Odera, when chef to Idi Amin, was the highest-paid member of the presidential administration after Amin tripled his salary on a whim and threw in the keys to a new Mercedes-Benz. Their relationship was not without its costs; After Amin converted to Islam, he required Odera to get circumcised and take two new wives. But Odera insists that he was never required to cook human flesh for Amin, although others say Amin spoke knowledgeably of its flavour.
Many of these details I found in a highly readable book called How To Feed A Dictator, by Witold Szablowski, a Polish journalist and former chef who interviewed at length six cooks once employed by now-dead dictators. Some shared their leaders' favourite recipes, from which I will quote here, since, while lacking exact instructions, these dishes do seem to have the makings of an unusual themed dinner party:
"Saddam called it Thieves’ Fish Soup because apparently Tikrit’s local thieves used to make it. We use the oiliest fish, gattan, for this soup. But I know you can make it with other fish, salmon or cod. First you cut the fish into inch-long pieces; then you coat it in flour. You put some onion and a dash of oil at the bottom of the pot. You fry the onion, then place a layer of fish on top. You sprinkle it with parsley. Then you add a layer of tomatoes. Then a layer of dried apricots. Then tomatoes again. Then fish again. Then a layer of almonds. Then fish again. As you arrange the layers, it’s important for the onion to remain at the bottom. And for the soup to include garlic, parsley, almonds, apricots, and tomatoes. You can also add a few raisins. Then you wait until the water from the fish and vegetables you’ve added has evaporated. When you hear a hissing sound, which means there’s no water left, you pour hot water from the kettle over it all, until you’ve covered the top layer. After pouring in the water, you cook it for another fifteen to twenty minutes. Finally, you can add a little turmeric. I’m the only person on earth who knows how to make it the way Saddam Hussein liked it."
— Abu Ali, chef to Saddam Hussein
“My great invention was whole roasted goat. We’d remove its innards, cut off its beard, stuff it with rice, potatoes, carrots, parsley, peas, and some herbs and spices— naturally, all mixed with goat meat cut into small pieces. We’d roast it in the oven and colour it a bit, and as a finishing touch we’d stick its beard back on. It would be brought to the table in a standing position, as if it were alive. Everyone was surprised to see a goat looking as if it had come straight from the pasture but which was ready to eat in minutes.”
— Otonde Odera, chef to Idi Amin and Milton Obote
“Thanks to my sheqerpare I sat at the same table as Enver and his family on New Year’s Eve. Not many of his staff achieved such an honour. You’d like the recipe? You need three glasses of flour, half a block of butter, three eggs, a glass of sugar, some baking powder, and vanilla. To make it the way I made it for Hoxha, you have to replace the sugar with xylitol, of course [Hoxha was diabetic]. You use these ingredients to make a dough. For the syrup you need two more glasses of sugar, half a glass of water, and vanilla. You tip the sugar into a bowl, then melt the butter in a frying pan and pour it into the bowl with the sugar. Add the eggs, vanilla, and flour, and mix until you have a thick yellow dough. Make little balls out of it, arrange them on a baking tray, and bake for twenty minutes at 180 degrees centigrade. Take them out when they start to brown. Now the syrup. Bring the sugar, vanilla, and half glass of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Once it’s boiling, pour it over the dough balls. I couldn’t do this for Hoxha but it tastes great with whipped cream and fruit.”
— Mr K, chef to Enver Hoxha
Szablowski's conversations did not touch upon wine parings, and none of his dictators were known to be wine buffs, but we do know from other sources that Saddam Hussein often drank Mateus Rosé, a light and affordable wine which might easily go well with the soup and even the dessert. Roast goat would need something big and red: Perhaps a Rioja, the wine which Fidel Castro drank in his youth before switching, once in power, to the Algerian reds which he received by the case from fellow-dictator Houari Boumedienne.
I find myself thinking about dictators and their chefs mainly because of the distinctive part played by two chefs in the life of Vladimir Putin, a subject on which I have it in mind to write a book of my own (the life, that is, not the part played by the chefs).
Putin has claimed that his paternal grandfather, Spiridon, cooked for Lenin, and then for Stalin, and in later life for the Moscow Party Committee. I am sceptical of this account pending further and better particulars, for I can no reference to Spiridon in any writings about Lenin or Stalin prior to the first publication of Putin's story in 2000, making Putin, in effect, the sole source. It also strikes me as odd that Putin would have grown up in the degree of hardship to which he often laid claim if his father was the son of Lenin's cook.
But if Putin invented or exaggerated the story, that would be, in its way, even more revealing. Was it some deep-seated reverence for the kitchen which underpinned the reckless indulgence with which Putin allowed his own chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to go into the private army business, recruit tens of thousands of mercenaries, then turn them against Putin's own General Staff in June's abortive mutiny?
Still more bizarre, at first glance, has been Putin's apparent willingness to forgive Prigozhin his trespass. He and Prigozhin were said to have met privately a few days later, and Putin was said to have accepted Prigozhin's argument that the mutiny had been launched in support of Putin, and directed against only the General Staff, whom Prigozhin claimed had been sabotaging Putin's war in Ukraine.
Preposterous as this sounds, and whatever the true story, I detect a more general principle at work here: Chefs always survive.
Another case in point is the debauched sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto, who fled North Korea in 2001 and began writing his astonishingly lurid series of memoirs. North Korea has a history of assassinating people for lesser offences. Fujimoto not only survived, but was welcomed back to North Korea in 2012 to cook for Kim Jong Un and to open a private sushi restaurant in Pyongyang.
In a similar vein, one of the few members of Stalin's entourage to die peacefully in bed was Stalin's executive chef, Sasha Egnatashvili. When Egnatashvili's wife was executed in 1941, apparently because she was of German descent, Egnatashvili knew the rules: He went on working and never mentioned the matter to Stalin. He was duly rewarded with a promotion to the rank of general, and his professional triumph was the 1945 Yalta conference where rivers of vodka and tureens of caviar helped reconcile Churchill and Roosevelt to Stalin's plans for post-war eastern Europe.
When Idi Amin staged his coup in 1971, Otonde Odera was cooking for Milton Obote; and when Milton Obote staged his counter-coup in 1979, Odera was still cooking for Idi Amin. Obote and Amin were not kindly or forgiving men. But while others around him were executed, Odera cooked on:
The previous coup had taught me that generals are there for coups. But a cook is there to have clean hands and a clean apron. And to cook. Nothing excuses you from your work, because once they’ve carried out their putsch, they’ll arrive with empty bellies, and as long as you have something good for them to eat, there's a chance they won't kill you.
Perhaps even Spiridon Putin belongs in this company of survivors, with a larger role than history has so far allowed him, given the modest circumstantial evidence that Lenin was poisoned on Stalin's orders and that Stalin was poisoned on Beria's orders. If we apply Lucy-Letby-style matrix analysis to this chain of events, we find Spiridon Putin in attendance in both households. Might Spiridon have dropped the cyanide into Lenin's mushroom soup and the warfarin into Stalin's watered-down wine? I do not know, but the claim seems scarcely more fanciful to me than the claim that he was cooking successively for the two leaders in the first place.
I wonder who cooks for Putin now? A whole brigade of chefs, I suppose, given that he had eight declared residences at last count and who knows how many more undeclared palaces, villas and yachts at home and abroad. But given his own record as an accomplished poisoner and a chronic germophobe, I doubt that Putin is getting much light-hearted fun out of all these thousands of marbled and gilded square meters. He must fear even to touch a doorknob, let alone to grab a late-night snack from the fridge. Where now the bare-chested horseman?
Saddam Hussein in his later years would insist that meals were prepared and served for him every day in all 29 of his palaces, and he would decide at the last minute where he would actually eat, on the grounds that this uncertainty would greatly complicate any poisoner's task. Perhaps Putin does the same — or perhaps Prigozhin is still in charge of the presidential kitchen while also managing his mutinous private army, which would account for Putin's otherwise inexplicable reluctance to make an enemy of him.
As for a possible glimpse of what comes next for Vladimir Putin, I recommend a most entertaining novel, The Senility Of Vladimir P (2016) by Michael Honig, which imagines the future ex-president in his mid-seventies: Dementia has forced him from office and confined him to a suburban mansion where he is tormented by frustration, racked by nightmares, and helplessly dependent on a feckless domestic staff redeemed only by a devoted male nurse called Sheremetev:
Quickly, before Vladimir could notice him, Sheremetev closed the door. If he got to him early enough, he could sometimes calm Vladimir and get him back into bed, but by the time Vladimir had reached this point, by the time he was striking his judo poses, there was only one way to handle the situation. Vladimir might seem like any other old man, frail and hesitant, but when the delusions took hold of him, he had the strength of a man thirty years younger and a martial arts technique with which to channel it. Sheremetev went to a phone on the wall outside the suite and called the security man who was posted in the entrance hall of the dacha. The phone rang for what seemed like minutes before someone answered. Then Sheremetev went to a locked cupboard in his room and took out a vial of tranquilliser. There were fifty milligrams in the vial–he carefully drew up five milligrams into a syringe, the dose prescribed to calm Vladimir when he was acutely agitated.
I wonder how close Putin is now to a life like that. It might well be the best old age for which he can reasonably hope. — Robert