Moscow kebab house stirs up past tensions

The restaurant was a favourite haunt of dissidents in the Cold War years, but opponents say it denigrates the achievements of the former regime.

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MOSCOW // After its opening in the late 1950s, a cozy Moscow kebab house earned a logical - if ideologically untenable - nickname among its regulars, a collection of artists, writers, musicians and racetrack junkies: the Anti-Soviet kebab house. Even though the restaurant sat almost directly across a main thoroughfare from the quintessential Soviet hotel, the Sovietsky, its role as a meeting place for those with countercultural views played no small role in its unofficial moniker.

The venue went out of business after the fall of the Soviet Union. But this summer it was reopened, this time officially named the Anti-Soviet Kebab House. In a controversy that highlights contemporary Russia's uneasy relationship with its past, the restaurant on Friday was forced to remove the sign on its façade after a group of Second World War veterans purportedly complained to local officials that it was denigrating the country's heroic Soviet history.

City inspectors last week ordered the restaurant to remove its sign, alleging violations of advertising laws, after the Moscow City Veterans Council called the sign an "inappropriate political pun" that upsets citizens "who respect the Soviet period and our history". Oleg Mitvol, the head of Moscow's northern administrative district, said in a radio interview he hoped the city could celebrate next year's 65th anniversary of the victory over Nazi German "without such venues".

"We can't close the place just like that, but we can engage the owners ? and explain that we won't stand for such an attitude toward the memory of veterans," Mr Mitvol told Ekho Moskvy radio. "The fact that on a central Moscow highway there is a kebab house called 'Anti-Soviet' is, of course, painful for veterans." The defeat of the Nazis in the Second World World War - known in Russia as the "Great Patriotic War" - is a sacred achievement in the country's history, and the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin is still revered by many Russians as the strongman who led the country to victory.

Since Vladimir Putin came to power 10 years ago, critics of the Kremlin have accused the ruling elite of romanticising the Soviet past and creating a partial and tacit rehabilitation of Stalin, who in recently issued school textbooks is described as an "effective manager" whose brutal repressions were understandable in their historical context. According to a poll last year released by the respected Levada Centre, 39 per cent of respondents said Stalin played a positive role in the country's history, compared with 38 per cent who said he played a negative role; 22 per cent said they had difficulty answering the question.

The management of the Anti-Soviet Kebab House accused Mr Mitvol of having engaged in cheap populism in the lead-up to elections for the Moscow city legislature next month. They maintain that their restaurant's name does not insult veterans. The restaurant is filled with memorabilia celebrating prominent members of the Soviet-era intelligentsia, who were often critical of authorities, including the folk singer Bulat Okudzhava, the musician and actor Vladimir Vysotsky and the dissident poet Joseph Brodsky, who was forced into exile in 1972. Classic Soviet films are shown on several plasma screen TVs.

"This is not about insulting an era, it's not about hurting the feelings of veterans, it's about giving respect to people of that very same Soviet Union and the place that existed here for 40 years," said Alexander Vanin, the restaurant's general director. Mr Vanin said the restaurant was now looking at taking legal action to contest orders to remove the sign. Seeking to avoid further trouble with officials, however, the restaurant hired a group of workers to take down the sign on Friday afternoon, carefully removing its plastic letters and the neon lights underneath.

At one point during the deconstruction, the sign read "Soviet Kebab House", though the restaurant's spokeswoman Marina Kokush said leaving it like that was also not an option, even if it could pacify city officials. At least one veteran who happened to be nearby agreed with the position of the group of offended citizens. "Of course it's clear why it's called 'Anti-Soviet', because the Sovietsky Hotel is right across the street, but still, it's just not a good idea," said Vladimir Yelesin, 85, who went out of his way to show that he was wearing a hat that read "Fatherland".

One of the owners of the restaurant, Yevgeny Ostrovsky, said there were numerous restaurant names in Moscow with "anti-Soviet" names, and that for consistency's sake, the offended veterans should be calling for restaurants with names like "Emperor" and "White Army" to remove their signs as well. Mr Ostrovsky wryly noted one suggestion from a blogger to add some balance to the situation. "There is a restaurant not far from here called 'USSR'. He suggested removing their sign as well to even things out."