This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Chocolate Alenka
As pretty much anyone who has ever read a newspaper will know, Russia’s main exports are industrial: gas, oil and other natural resources. Exportation of domestic goods is rare – ask most Westerners to name five Russian domestic goods and they’ll probably struggle. After Baltika and perhaps the odd obscure brand of vodka, they’re likely to draw a blank. Nevertheless, Russia’s homegrown food industry is thriving. Certainly, Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonalds et al. have made their (dramatic) mark here, however Russia’s domestic food industry remains one of the fastest growing within the market sector.

It should be no surprise then that most food brands dominating the Russian market at the moment are relatively new, having sprung up throughout the nineties, filling the gaping economic void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian brand names may make up a substantial proportion of the market, however they are yet to build up the sentimental consumer base enjoyed by their counterparts in the West. There are few equivalents to the likes of Cadburys, Hovis and Bisto, whose branding and packaging evoke feelings of nostalgia across generations of Brits. In Russia, brand-based nostalgia is reserve for Soviet goods, most of which are now defunct or mere shadows of their former selves.

This is where Alenka comes merrily skipping in. Alenka (a fairly common girls’ name) is one of the most successful brands of chocolates in contemporary Russia. Described on the official website as a symbol of a happy childhood for several generations, they’re of the few Soviet products to make it through the collapse of socialism and ensuing economic chaos and still come out smiling. First produced in 1966 in Moscow’s Red October Factory following a Kremlin directive to create a new brand of milk chocolate, Alenka became a sign of the good times. Following the austerity of post-war years, the Brezhnev years (1964 – 82), when Alenka first appeared, were embraced by many as a period of relative stability and prosperity. Alenka fitted right in with this general mood and is remembered fondly by Russians of this era, as well as my contemporary Russians. The brand (along with several others) is still made by the Red October factory, which, uner a different name, both predated and outlived the Socialist experiment.

The story of how the Alenka packaging came about adds a further later of whimsy to the brand, giving it a cockle-warming quality that many of the new brands, whose teeth were cut on the brutality of the 90s market lack. The packaging shows a smiling Soviet child, a character as instantly recognisable to Russians as the Coco Pops monkey or Tony the Tiger. Unable to come up with a suitable mascot, Red October launched a competition to find the face of Alenka, whose image would adorn the chocolates. Entries arrived in droves and unable to decide on an overall winner the company initially used several in rotation. And then came an entry from an photographer who had rendered his daughter, Elena, who was to soon become a household face.

In the 1990s, as part of an advertising campaign, Red October ran a feature, 'Alenka, where are you now?' to find the original little girl. Again, respondants replied in droves, but eventually the scores of pretendants were whittled down to just one – Elena Gerinas, the daughter of a famous Soviet photographer. The company greeted her with open arms, lavishing chocolates upon her and feting her in the media.

And then the story turns a little sour. In 2000, the real Alenka, who had inherited rights over her father's estate decided to try and make some money, demanding recompensation for the use of face on the company's packaging. In her opinion, the brand's success was in no small part due to her and her father's work, and she was determined to receive some sort of payment for her participation. She initiated a costly dollar law suit against Red October for violation of author's rights, but was unsuccessful due to lack of evidence that it was really her, or even her fathers' work. Since then other 'Alenka's' have appeared, but it has not been decisively resolved who the real Alenka is.

In any case, Alenka remains a cult brand with spin off versions popular in lots of ex-Soviet countries. You also know you’re successful when parodies appear, and Alenka land is full of them. Here are two of my favorites: Voldoka (diminitive of Vladimir) and Bono…


The Expatresse said...

That is great! Thanks for the story. It IS good chocolate.

The Seargeant Major said...

Its a good story and the WHC staff all enjoyed the chocolate.
The writings great, well done
The Searggeant Major

Katie said...

Thanks both of you! Glad you liked the chocolate too - I heard someone saying that Russian chocolate was all disgusting the other day. Rubbish!

Jan Paul said...

As a dutch documentary-maker, I would like to learn some more about this story. Would it be possible to contact you, Katie?
Thanks, Jan Paul de Bondt

Katie said...

Jan Paul - Sorry, I only just saw your message. If you're still interested please feel free to contact me at I'll be happy to hear from you!