Markus Wolf, the former east German spy chief, has written a self-serving cook book cum autobiography. Lesley Chamberlain finds it fascinating but morally tastelessby Lesley Chamberlain / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Markus Wolf, the east German spy who has a passion for Russian cooking, would have made a satisfying fictional character 15 years ago. But in real life what are we to make of the 73-year-old smoothie who finds himself once again in the German dock, charged with offences under the old regime? Other former east bloc stalwarts have suffered only a new life in business or retirement. For example, Jerzy Urban, one time Polish government spokesman under martial law, is now the wealthy editor of a top-selling pornographic newspaper. But Wolf started the year 1997 in a D?sseldorf courtroom, after a previous trial against him collapsed three years ago. The court ruled then that so long as the GDR existed, Wolf’s espionage activities were no more treasonable than those of his west German counterparts. The German authorities refiled for kidnap and assault. Wolf, who spent a few months in prison in 1991, after first arriving in the west, smoulders at being fingered “as a common criminal.”
What fascinates me about this man, as a sometime communist watcher and food writer, is this: if you wanted to prove your innocence, would you write a cookery book? The genre has both its confessional and its endearing aspects, but it represents a pretty oblique approach to public sympathy. Wolf answers thus: what a man can cook up as a spy and what he concocts in the kitchen are similar creative activities. Unsettling, isn’t it? Secrets of the Russian Kitchen mixes pleasure, deviousness and personal history with tastier ingredients, but never once puts a moral value in the balance. This well produced volume is so playful it merits the subtitle “The Post-modernist in the Kitchen.” The text is dully written, but the cartoons are brilliant, and perhaps even the publisher’s name, the Red Book Press, is a joke. The whole project, conceived in traditional Russian style, in prison, and first published 18 months ago, is marked by political coyness, memories of raucous Russian parties and bitterness at that first German detention.
Secrets of the Russian Kitchen is also a real working cookbook; if you are interested in Russian food and decline to read Chamberlain (1982) on the subject, then look no further. But, to speak post-modern, this manual-cum-self-serving souvenir has more diverting surfaces than its recipes. For example, there is something terribly sad about the picture of Markus and his much-loved brother Koni growing up in Stalin’s Moscow, the children of a fanatical German playwright who also wrote a vegetarian cookbook and was once caught eating meat by a devastated follower. The communist parents fled Hitler’s Germany, and the whole family was adopted by the Comintern, with rooms first in the National Hotel then a dacha in Peredelkino, the village Stalin reserved for favoured writers. There the Wolfs, true to all the proverbs about Germans and Russians, caused their kitchen garden to thrive, to the envy of their neighbours.
Now Wolf looks back over his fate and finds food is a code for so much of it. He owns his late brother’s copy of the Russian Mrs Beeton, Elizavita Molokhovets, and his mother’s handwritten recipes. Wolf still remembers the ghastly starch fruit jelly (kissel) dished out at his elite Russian school. He and Koni were contemporaries of the distinguished historian Arkady Vaksberg. Wolf then embarked upon a career which would take him from the Russian diplomatic service through news service to spying. Later food and espionage coalesce in efforts to persuade potential new agents to sign up. Finally, Wolf recovers memories of hunting bears and mushrooms and drinking vodka around the campfire. Such were the pleasures of nature which finessed top level Soviet camaraderie (while so much of the country was being polluted to death).
Plato first observed that there is an inherent dishonesty in the culinary art. Wolf agrees. In 1955 a 26-year-old west Berlin woman working as a translator for the US authorities in Berlin was seized-let’s imagine after a good meal of bortsch and homemade sausages failed to persuade her to join voluntarily. The meal is my invention but her kidnap is one of the charges facing Wolf today. But Wolf merely wants to prove the closeness between his two mastered “arts.” In this respect the book (and the man) is trivial. On the near homonyms in German, Ger?che and Ger?chte, aromas and rumours, he rests his case. Another single word, Nachrichtendienst, just happens to mean both news service and (secret) information service. So he tries to keep the press at bay: their business is just as dirty as his.
When the GDR began to dissolve in 1990 the Wolfs took flight. They tried Austria, Slovenia and Bulgaria, but ultimately only Moscow was safe. Wolf always put on weight in Moscow. They spent a last protected year partying through the final months of Gorbachev’s Communist party. By September 1991 no one cared about them and they sloped back.
The flavour of Markus Wolf is of a cold, clever man who in old age is trying to swap communist duplicity for intellectual casuistry, and the protection of the superpowers for the shell of super-relativism. His cunning tells him they are equally good recipes for survival. Geheimnisse der russischen k?che
Rotbuch Verlag, 1995, dm 19.80