A Wolf in Chef's Clothings : Out of the Cold, Into the Kitchen : Ex-Spymaster Exposes "The Secrets of Russian Cooking"


So, "The Man Without a Face" turns out to be quite a genial chap after all, not a shadowy super-spook with a rain-flecked trench coat and an exploding briefcase but a jolly bon vivant with the usual component of eyes, nose and mouth--and a few well-informed ideas about Russian cooking.

Culinary success "depends, above all, on one's ability to communicate with other people, to let one's self be inspired by other people, or to pull them under one's spell," writes Markus Wolf in the introduction to his new cookbook, "The Secrets of Russian Cooking."

Markus Wolf. Wasn't he. . . ?

Yes. In one of the most ironic postscripts to the Cold War era, the former East Germany's most ruthless spymaster has just published a cookbook, one that claims that the art of cooking has much in common with the art of espionage.

"Ordinary spying can be compared with the bread and potatoes of an everyday kitchen," Wolf writes in an opening that contends a good spy doesn't need James Bondian razzle-dazzle any more than a good cook requires caviar or other costly ingredients.

"But then, man doesn't live by bread alone," adds Wolf, hardly an ordinary spy but a retired major general once capable of obtaining top-secret construction plans for U.S. missile sites and NATO's contingency plans for a Soviet-led attack.

Cold Warriors and thriller devotees will recall Wolf as the long-time head of East Germany's Main Intelligence Administration, usually known by its German initials, HVA, and considered the most effective foreign spying agency from Berlin to Bucharest.


Wolf--who handled only external intelligence and denies involvement in the hated internal secret police apparatus that plagued East Germans--is presumed by many to be the real-life model for the mysterious Karla in several of John Le Carre's espionage novels, the archenemy of the fictional British intelligence chief George Smiley. It was Wolf's well-placed mole who provoked the 1974 resignation of West Germany's popular chancellor, Nobel peace laureate Willy Brandt.

For years, Wolf was known as "The Man Without a Face" because he managed to avoid being photographed by his Western adversaries. He retired in 1987 and surprised jaded East Germans by publishing a rather tender memoir of his youth in the Soviet Union, revealing himself as something unusual in that repressed state: a powerful official willing to step away from his public persona for a moment and to reveal intimacies about himself to his information-starved compatriots.

Alas for Wolf, his early departure from the HVA and the candor of his early memoir were not enough to save him from the wrath of reunited Germans after the Berlin Wall fell. In 1990, Wolf became an international fugitive, hiding for a time in Austria--where, he writes, he longed for a beloved Russian-style vinaigrette salad that no Austrian seemed able to make to his taste.

But by 1991, Wolf had tired of life on the run and returned to Germany, where he turned himself in. He was jailed in southern Germany--and then the chow got really bad. ("You get a plastic plate with breakfast on it at 7 a.m.," he writes with distaste of imprisonment. "Three pieces of margarine, three pieces of bread, a triangular piece of cheese and a cup of imitation coffee, same as the other prisoners.")

Wolf was put on trial, convicted of bribery and treason, then freed on bail. But in May this year, his sentence was effectively voided when Germany's high Constitutional Court ruled in a separate case that East Germans could not be convicted of treason against West Germany.

Today, Wolf walks the streets of downtown Berlin a free man, more or less. The dashing former world traveler, the fabled connoisseur of well-cut suits and beautiful women, is now forbidden to leave his gritty center-city neighborhood without obtaining permission from the court that granted him bail.

He still has plenty of enemies who believe that he should be behind bars. And there is always that nagging awareness that many of the West Germans who spied so loyally for him did get hefty post-unification prison terms: The Constitutional Court ruling didn't do anything for West Germans.

No job, a minuscule pension, 73 years old and a lifetime's worth of adventure stories and moral dilemmas: What else to do but write a book?

Thus, Wolf's "The Secrets of Russian Cooking" is anything but a how-to guide for making borscht and blinis, although he has certainly included recipes for such dishes. His new book is, once again, a memoir first and foremost, one that sometimes bitterly, sometimes wistfully and often humorously recounts a life in the service of what former President Ronald Reagan called the Evil Empire.

It is a book that fairly screams, "I love the ordinary Russian people" from every page.


Wolf's father, noted German playwright and doctor Friedrich Wolf--himself the author of a cookbook, a collection of health-food recipes--was both a Communist and a secular Jew; as such, he was doubly endangered when Adolf Hitler began his brutal repression of German civil liberties in March, 1933. The elder Wolf packed up his family in a matter of days and decamped for Moscow.

And so it happened that Markus Wolf spent his formative years in the then-Soviet capital. He came to speak Russian more routinely than he did his native German, formed Russian friendships that have lasted a lifetime and sat for hours, listening, at the family dinner table while his literary parents entertained the writers, war correspondents, fellow emigres and Soviet neighbors who made up their new social circle.

At 16, Wolf acquired Soviet citizenship; at 19 he joined the Communist Party. He was assigned first to study aircraft engineering and later to the Comintern school, where young German exiles like himself were trained to occupy key posts in Germany once Hitler was defeated.

After the war, Wolf returned to Berlin and was made a chief commentator for Berlin Radio. He covered the Nuremberg War Crimes trials with a fake Soviet pass--Germans weren't allowed into the tribunal facilities--and relates, gleefully, in "The Secrets of Russian Cooking" how he became the toast of the Allied forces snack bar, the first "Soviet" anyone had ever seen who didn't carry his cutlery in his boots, slurp his food, start a meal by dancing on the tabletop or end it by passing out underneath.

After his radio service, Wolf was given a senior posting at the new East German Embassy in Moscow; from there, he was sent to the newly created "Institute of Economic Research"--a cover name for the Democratic Republic's infant spying service.

His life's experience has given Wolf a keen appreciation of Russian social customs and household mores, descriptions of which he intersperses between the recipes, jokes and personal anecdotes.

"When we arrived in Moscow in 1934, the Writers' Union assigned our father a complete two-room apartment with its own kitchen and bathroom," he recalls, beginning a passage on the role of shared kitchens in the evolution of the Russian cuisine. "That was a huge privilege. In the lower floors of our building, there hung next to each doorway the nameplates of five to six families, which had to share a single-family apartment."

It was no picnic for six families to fight over a single bathroom, Wolf relates, or for half a dozen housewives to cook in shifts over a common stove. But, in the best instances, Wolf-the-idealist writes, the group kitchens of between-the-wars Moscow could become "high centers of learning for community life."

"One escaped into them from the narrowness of one's living quarters and the troubles this caused," he writes. "Holidays were even celebrated there together. Everyone brought foods and drinks along. One brought his best gold-leafed porcelain; another a sophisticated mixed salad; a third brought, perhaps, his door, so that in the kitchen a real holiday table could be laid out.

"If, in this way, people of different nationalities came together, they would exchange their experiences, which is a prerequisite for the mastery of cooking," Wolf adds, crediting these cramped, shared kitchens for bringing borscht from the Ukraine, potato pancakes from Belorussia, pilaf from Uzbekistan and shashlik from the Caucasus into the repertoire of an expert "Russian" cook.

There are musings on the diverse roles of the traditional Russian stove--a bakery! a brewery! a sauna! a fairy-tale protagonist!--on the infinite flavorings and intensities of Russian vodka and a whole chapter on Zakuska, the edibles Russians traditionally eat as accompaniments to alcohol.

Here, Wolf expresses his baffled admiration for the Russian householder, able as he is to fill a table to the breaking point when visitors arrive, even though he lives in an economy where the grocery store shelves are bare.

Wolf writes that he was forever asking Russians how they accomplished this feat.

One man answers by telling one of the bitter jokes that Wolf recounts again and again in "The Secrets of Russian Cooking," giving the reader a taste not only of Russian cooking but also of Russian gallows humor:

"At a party meeting, [one-time Soviet dictator Leonid I.] Brezhnev is given a slip of paper with the following message: 'Leonid Ilyitch! Why is there no meat in the shops?'

Brezhnev answers: 'Comrades! We are striding toward Communism in seven-league boots! The cattle just can't keep up.' "

But a few pages later, Wolf writes that a housewife responded to his question by giving him her recipes for attractive Zakuska dishes made from simple root vegetables, onions, apples, and other basic produce that could be found anywhere, even in a poor country where a mere orange was a once-a-year treat. Wolf then shares these recipes.

What Wolf does not do in "The Secrets of Russian Cooking" is name names from his HVA past, unveil new moles or give sober analyses of his most notorious spying cases and their effects on European history. These secrets, he says, are reserved for another book, a work of nonfiction to be published in English by Random House.

Wolf, who arrives at an interview looking suitably sinister in a black sports shirt and trousers, admits that he has had an extremely hard time writing this analytical memoir, blending as he must the political, professional and moral aspects of his work and making it all comprehensible to an American readership.

He says it was his frustration with this difficult task that finally inspired him to write the more light-hearted "Secrets of Russian Cooking."

"It's a book about Russian cuisine, of course, but it's also a book about my life," says Wolf, whose smile is so relaxed, whose manner is so engaging, that it is easy to forget that until recently, German prosecutors were trying--unsuccessfully--to pin everything on him from the fatal bombing of a West Berlin disco to covert support for such terrorist organizations as Abu Nidal.

"Those people who want to learn about me, maybe even my character and personality, will be able to do so with this cookbook," he says, "more so than they will in this great historical memoir."

SIBERIAN PELMENI (Meat-Filled Noodles With Various Sauces)

This is Markus Wolf's favorite dish. He says this version of the recipe was given to him by his late brother, Konrad, who is a central figure in Wolf's nostalgic 1987 memoir, "The Troika." Wolf describes the "joy of companionship" that is achieved when you hand your guests aprons and invite them to take part in the process of making pelmeni. He adds that a glass of vodka is a must with pelmeni.

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 egg yolks

2/3 cup water, plus or minus 1 tablespoon

1/2 pound ground beef

1/2 pound ground pork

2 onions, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 pound fresh mushrooms, chopped fine, optional

Pepper vinegar, optional

Sour cream, optional

Brown butter, optional

Spicy tomato sauce, optional

Put flour in bowl. Press hollow in middle and add salt and egg yolks and 1/2 cup water. Using knife or big spoon, mix egg yolks first with water and then some of flour. Slowly add rest of water until mixture forms dough. Knead dough with both hands until workable and free of lumps. If dough is too sticky, add some flour. Dough should form solid ball.

Sprinkle thin layer of flour onto flat surface. Divide dough into 3 pieces. Roll out 1 piece of dough until thin. Keep remaining dough covered under damp towel. Cut dough in circles about 2 inches in diameter. Repeat with remaining dough.

Combine beef, pork, onions, garlic and mushrooms in bowl. Place 1 teaspoon meat mixture on each dough circle, then bend other side and press to seal, forming half-moons. Use some water, if necessary, brushed lightly on edges to make them stick. Keep finished pelmeni either on waxed paper or board sprinkled with flour.

Pelmeni can be frozen at this point and cooked later.

Cook 20 to 25 pelmeni at a time, uncovered, in plenty of rapidly boiling lightly salted water, about 5 minutes. Repeat until all pelmeni are cooked.

Serve pelmeni either in clear soup (beef or, preferably, poultry) or as main course with pepper vinegar, sour cream, brown butter or spicy tomato sauce.

Makes 60 pelmeni, or 4 main-course servings.

Each serving contains about:

540 calories; 660 mg sodium; 195 mg cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 75 grams carbohydrates; 30 grams protein; 0.45 gram fiber.


This is a Russian-style vegetable salad, nothing like an American-style vinaigrette green salad. This is the salad that Wolf says he longed for when he was living as an outlaw in Austria, after the unification of Germany. "It is difficult to give the exact quantitative ratio between the vegetables and the sauce," he says. "It's really a question of inspiration. A vinaigrette salad that turns out well is a work of art."

Wolf also writes that northern Russians leave out the sauerkraut, use a bit more potatoes and onions and add little pieces of salt-cured herring that have been soaked in milk to get the excess salt out.

* Mix equal amounts of cubed cooked beets, carrots, potatoes, minced gherkins, minced onions and drained sauerkraut in large bowl.

* Combine herbal or wine vinegar, oil and salt and pepper to taste in small bowl. Add dressing to salad and mix well to combine.


Andrea, Wolf's third wife, is German. Her grandmother brought this recipe from the former Soviet Union.

Wolf writes that mossberries are an integral part of the Russian cuisine; they are very similar to American cranberries. In addition to eating this cake, Russians would typically spoon stewed cranberries or cranberry jam into their tea after dinner.

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

6 tablespoons oil

3 eggs

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter

1 (12-ounce) bag cranberries

Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, optional

Combine 6 tablespoons flour, 6 tablespoons sugar and baking powder in bowl. Add oil, eggs and 1/2 cup butter and mix until smooth batter forms. Pour batter into 8-inch round buttered and floured cake pan. Spread layer of cranberries on top of batter.

Mix remaining 6 tablespoons butter, remaining 1/4 cup sugar and remaining 1/2 cup flour until mixture form little crumbs. Sprinkle topping over cranberries.

Bake cake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, if you like, and offer tea.

Makes 8 servings.

Each serving, without whipped cream or ice cream, contains about:

424 calories; 282 mg sodium; 134 mg cholesterol; 33 grams fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.55 gram fiber.


This version is almost like a stew. It originated through the typical Russian practice of making do with whatever raw ingredients you happen to be able to get your hands onto. Wolf sometimes simplifies the step of making the beet broth (bringing beets, vinegar and water or broth to a boil then letting it stand 20 minutes) by using the juice from canned pickled beets for broth.

1 pound lean beef brisket, or stewing beef

5 pounds beef bones

2 leeks, chopped

2 large carrots, sliced

2 stalks celery

1 bunch parsley

3 medium onions, diced fine

5 peppercorns

2 bay leaves

3 large beets, peeled and diced

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 quart water or beef stock

1/4 cup oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons ketchup

2 large potatoes, in chunks

2 cherry peppers

2 teaspoons salt

Freshly ground black pepper

6 Polish sausages

1/4 pound diced ham

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, parsley or chives

Sour cream, optional

Combine brisket, bones, 1 leek, 1 carrot, celery, parsley, 1 onion, peppercorns and bay leaves in large stockpot. Cover with water and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer, skimming any foam that floats to surface, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove brisket and cut into bite-sized pieces. Strain beef stock and set aside.

Place beets and vinegar in saucepan, and cover with 1 quart water. Bring to boil. Remove from heat and let stand 20 minutes. Drain, reserving beet broth. Dice beets and set aside. Recipe can be made a day in advance up to this point.

Heat oil in large pot and add remaining onions. Cook 5 minutes, then add garlic, remaining leek, remaining carrot, tomato paste and ketchup. Cook, covered, 10 minutes. Add diced beets and enough reserved beef stock to cover. Cook 10 minutes.

Add potatoes, reserved beet broth, cherry peppers and salt and pepper to taste. Add additional beef stock if needed. Cook 15 minutes more, then add reserved meat, sausages and ham. Cook 15 minutes more.

Serve with chopped herbs and large spoonful of sour cream.

Makes 8 servings.

Each serving, without sour cream, contains about:

417 calories; 1,493 mg sodium; 71 mg cholesterol; 28 grams fat; 20 grams carbohydrates; 22 grams protein; 1.37 gram fiber.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World