Following North Korean custom, its restaurants in Russia’s capital carry Korea-related, but decidedly non-political, names.
The first is called “Pyongyang-Koryo” and the second is called “Runrado”, after an island in the center of Pyongyang. “Runrado” is close to the central complex of the Moscow State University, in southwestern Moscow, while Pyongyang-Koryo is located in the underground floor of a building near Gagarin square, much closer to the center of Moscow. Despite everything that is happening in North Korea, the restaurants have survived without any noticeable change for the last decade or so.
Public reaction to these restaurants has been mixed. On the positive side, customers noticed that some of the dishes are of very high quality, for example, famous Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov had high praise for Pyongyang-Koryo’s duck meat and fried eggplant. But this praise did not extend to rest of the large menu.
As Varlamov correctly noticed, “a large menu is the first sign of a bad kitchen. A cook cannot be qualified to prepare 200 different dishes”. Unlike their counterparts in China, these restaurants offer no North Korean beer – all alcohol is of local origin.
The atmosphere is quite cold. As some readers know, the atmosphere in North Korean restaurants varies greatly – sometimes the waitresses are chatty with clients, sometimes they just receive orders and avoid all conversation. Several years ago, Moscow’s Pyongyang-Koryo definitely fell in the second category, while Runrado was somewhere in the middle.
These days the Runrado staff do not engage customers in any kind of small talk. Given that similar changes took place in North Korean restaurants in China, this seems to be a part of a general policy – perhaps influenced by the defection of several waitresses from a North Korean restaurant in Thailand in 2016.
Normally, like in China, all the waitresses are North Koreans, but when I visited Pyongyang-Koryo in the late-2000s I saw a Russian-Korean woman working there as well. Waitresses do not wear the normally mandatory badges with Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il portraits, and unlike in China, they do not even have substitute badges with North Korean flags.
But probably the biggest crisis North Korean restaurants in Moscow faced came not from Kremlin or Pyongyang, but from an unlikely encounter with Russian journalism.
There is a rather controversial project in Russian called “Revizorro” (from Revision + Zorro). The project’s leader, Elena Letuchaya, comes to various restaurants’ kitchens without permission and starts filming. In the process, she observes various deviations from prescribed norms of cooking. Are the cooks wearing gloves? Do they keep meat and fish separately? Everything is noted, filmed and then uploaded to YouTube.
In October 2016, Letuchaya paid a visit to Runrado restaurant. Needless to say, her visit was totally unexpected. She rushed into the kitchen, scaring the waitresses, who tried to stop her but to no avail. Letuchaya tried talking to North Korean cooks and found out that they did not speak any Russian. Interestingly, one of the cooks answered one of her first questions in Chinese – “bu zhidao” (I don’t know), showing that she had at least spent some time in China.
Runrado staff do not engage customers in any kind of small talk
Letuchaya threw a barrage of criticism at the kitchen. None of the products had any markings (possibly because they were directly imported from the DPRK). The cooks were not wearing any gloves. A North Korean interpreter came in, and the Russian journalist immediately noted that she did not take off her winter coat before entering the kitchen.
The interpreter tried to say that the visit was to be pre-arranged, to which the journalist gleefully announced that under the Russian law she has every right to do what she does and that unexpected visits are the very point of her program. Meanwhile, she found a cake still in a fridge long past its expiration date. The interpreter claimed that the cake was not be served (which seems to be true given that there are no cakes in the menu) to customers, to which Letuchaya expressed deep skepticism.
Moreover, she discovered some small sleeping places inside the building. She suspected that the restaurant may give shelter to illegal immigrants, but perhaps that was merely sleeping places for some of the personnel.
The journalist requested a book of complaints, noting that according to the Russian law the restaurants will be fined if it fails to comply.
Eventually she was given one – and the journalist immediately noticed that it does not have a restaurant’s stamp, making it invalid. Many restaurants have two books, one without a stamp which they give to clients and the real one with a stamp – which they never show to anyone, explained Letuchaya.
The never-ending embarrassment led to the arrival of the restaurant’s director – a Russian-speaking North Korean. Initially moderately polite, he soon became infuriated and started shouting at the journalist.
The interpreter joined in, repeatedly calling the journalist “a bad wench” – which sounded equally odd in Russian. Eventually the director yelled “Give that!” and tried to physically take the complaint book from the journalist.
She left the restaurant and passed the damning verdict to the camera: “The Runrado restaurant, like North Korea itself, is closed to the common people. “Revizorro” does not recommend it.”
A spat in a restaurant led to a Russian journalist being invited to North Korea – many suspected she was bribed
BUYING A JOURNALIST?
This, however, was not the end of the story.
The scandal likely reached Pyongyang and a smart official came out with a solution. Letuchaya was invited to the DPRK on a trip.
Her report from North Korea was very different from that from the restaurant.
Basically, it followed the formula aut bene, aut nihil.
While she did not reiterate North Korean propaganda – and did not used expressions such as “Great Leader’s infinite wisdom,” her report was very positive – complimenting the weather and atmosphere of Mangyongdae village where Kim Il Sung was allegedly born.
The Russian public supposed that the DPRK simply bought the journalist – paying her in exchange for a positive report about the country to compensate for the previous embarrassment.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: Pyongyang Koryo by jasoneppink on 2013-04-17 19:52:57