Stories of life in Russia

Stalin’s Ghost.

I met up with Stalin’s ghost a few months after moving to Moscow. No, he wasn’t roaming around in empty attics looking for a home. It seems that Stalin already has a home. He has quite a few homes in fact, all over Russia. Neither does he possess just homes, but the ole boy has furniture; chairs, beds, tables, books, token empty coat racks, and at least one piano stool that I know of, can be found reserved in waiting for the old man to stop by for a midnight visit.

Stalin was somewhat of a ghost even in real life. His practice was to rise in early afternoon, and then work for 12-14 hours without stopping, while fully expecting his aides and government ministers to maintain the same sort of schedules. This was his routine even during the war. He easily fit the profile of a “night owl.”

Even in real life, Stalin was somewhat of a mystery ghost. Terrified of being poisoned, his house staff prepared separate but identical meals in at least two kitchens, never knowing which meal he would choose to eat. When he traveled, even as a guest, his staff brought food along, and it was checked by a taster first.

However, the very same man who feared the Russian people might murder him, and so surrounded himself with security details by day, would sometimes at night don a disguise and sneak out to walk the streets of Moscow alone, frequently knocking on doors and inviting himself in to sit and eat and drink tea with unsuspecting, not to mention terrified ordinary citizens, who weren’t fooled in the least by his disguises. Such adventures were legendary and have contributed greatly to the idea of “Stalin’s Ghost.”

In Russian tradition, upon death a soul remains behind for 40 days, visiting former living places to make amends for any wrongdoing and waiting for prayers of relatives and friends to usher the soul over to the “other side.” By my calculations, God must have given him one hell (pun intended) of a long waiting period….because the old boy is apparently still lurking around Russia to this day.

About four months into my arrival in Moscow, I moved from my first place and rented a furnished apartment in which the landlord had designated a chair to be permanently reserved for the old dictator’s spirit. She, a well educated attorney, listed in the rental contract the one piece of furniture that I was prohibited from using. It was an antique rocking chair which sat in the living room area. I really did not take the idea of the chair being reserved for Stalin very seriously, thinking instead that she simply wanted to preserve the chair. Later I would learn that she was quite serious when it came to Stalin’s ghost.

My first really direct experience with “Stalin’s ghost” came in the small two room apartment of an now-retired Moscow University professor. Until recently, she co-hosted a weekly radio program on Voice of Russia Radio. Having been invited into her home, I was awed by a grand piano that sat prominently in the center of a small living area. It was a beautiful instrument, and so important to this lady that she slept on a narrow cot in her kitchen area, so that the piano could have center stage in her home.

She motioned for me to take a seat in the corner of the living room, near a window by a foldout table. There we sipped tea and ate some of the chocolate that I had brought as a gift. By the way, Russian hearts must be made at least partly of chocolate, as it is a gift that is always perfect for any occasion. After enjoying about a half hour of conversation, she stepped into her kitchen to brew hot water for another round of tea.

Now I know a little something about pianos, and could tell that this was not just her personal museum piece, but one that was masterfully played by the hostess. So, almost without thinking, I decided to take the keys for a brief spin. As I stepped toward the console, and about to sit on a little round piano stool, the hostess suddenly rushed from the kitchen to stop me in my tracks.

With a frantic gaze she pulled me back from the stool. Realizing that it would have been better to ask permission first, I apologized. “Oh, it is okay,” she said, explaining that I could play the instrument, but it was very important to take a hand and gently brush off the stool just in case it was occupied.

Occupied? Yes, occupied. By Stalin’s ghost. Mr Stalin could have been sitting there, and naturally (hmm, ‘naturally?”), a ghost would be invisible, so it was only polite to give him a gentle “brush off.”

Glancing in her direction, there was no hint of a smile or twinkle in the eyes. She was serious. Standing there was a well educated University professor, and international radio hostess, who sincerely believed it necessary to brush off a piano stool in case the ghost of old man Stalin might have been sitting there.

Her professorial instincts took over, and soon she had demonstrated the proper technique to brush off the stool. After Stalin’s ghost had been given the appropriate gentle brush off, she indicated that I should sit down and play. She returned to the kitchen to prepare the next serving of tea and bread.

There in her living area, I played as best as a novice could manage. The console held a nice collection of sheet music, and so it seemed that were it not possible to suffocate Mr Stalin by sitting on his ghost, at least it would be fairly easy to murder a thoroughly good score by Rachmaninoff. That should count for something.

When she returned from the kitchen, I couldn’t resist.  Even though she held a teapot filled with hot water, I worked up the courage to ask, “how often does Mr Stalin come by to play?” No response. So I tried another; “Is he a good pianist? I was not aware that he had studied music.” There was still no word of reply.

With a nod of the head toward the corner, she indicated that we should return to our places at the table. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps I should pick Stalin’s ghost from the floor, and return him to the stool, but prudence suggested it best to resist that temptation.

“Let’s return to intelligent and pleasant conversation,” was the hostess’ admonition.  After a few minutes it was almost as if the ghost incident had never happened. I left that afternoon having made a new contact which would grow into a friendship, and she has graciously received my family into her home many times. We do not, however, sit on the little black piano stool.

Since that afternoon I have listened to her from time to time on International Voice of Russia broadcasts. Her English, accented by a British education, is flawless. She is a brilliant and interesting woman; a joy to engage in conversation. But the image of Josef Stalin’s ghost on her piano stool is hard to erase.

At least now I know how to give old Josef the “brush off.” Sadly, the millions who died at his command were never afforded the same opportunity.

border black keys

Pepsi Cola (Пепси кола) was the first USA product sold in the Soviet Union. How did that happen? In 1972 Pepsi negotiated a deal with the Soviets to trade Pepsi for Stolichnaya vodka. They got Pepsi, the USA got vodka.

Pepsi discovered a way to advertise by sponsoring tickets for sporting and cultural events.

At first Pepsi was not allowed to advertise on Soviet media so they built the brand by taking the product to the streets, literally, beginning with 73 distinctive blue, white and red kiosks in Moscow around subway stations and other high-traffic spots. The first year each kiosk sold an average of 4,000 daily servings at the dollar equivalent 20 “kopeks” or about 40 cents each at the time.

Later Pepsi was granted permission to put metal vending machines in select underground subway locations. Just as mineral water was sold from Soviet vending dispensers, the Pepsi flowed into glass cups that were shared by the public.

20 kopeks for a small glass of Pepsi.

In 1990 the Russians couldn’t pay their Pepsi bill so they made a trade deal: Pepsi got double the amount of vodka that year plus 10 old Soviet Navy ships.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s