The story of the DC restaurant that offered free borscht to celebrate Stalin’s death

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After the death of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin on March 5, 1953, the Eastern bloc wept, the West rejoiced and Bob Seidel saw a business opportunity.

Seidel was a Washington restaurateur, owner of a restaurant called 1203 Restaurant. The name comes from the address: 1203 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. A souvenir matchbook of the restaurant describes it as “A good place to meet, eat and have fun”.

The first thing Seidel did after Stalin’s death was to put a sign in the window of his house that read, “Restaurant 1203 invites you to enjoy ‘FREE BORSHT’ in celebration of STALIN’s death.” The second thing he did was alert the media.

A wire service photographer took a pair of waitress photos Eileen Keenan in front of 1203. In one, she erects the sign. In the other, she hands a bowl—presumably of beetroot soup—to a Mr EC Charpentier of Cabin John, Md.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the photos have gone viral. Answer Man could only find a handful of newspapers that published them. But it was a striking image, which has spread in recent years on the Internet. Some online sources say the restaurant was in New York. Others say it was run by Ukrainians. Answer The man knows that the first is incorrect, and he suspects that the second is too.

But as the eyes of the world turn to another Russian despot whose death would not be, say, importunateback to March 1953.

Many people were happy to see Stalin go. As one Evening Star writer put it: “Despite much wishful thinking in the non-Communist world, the reaper has long caught up with Joseph Stalin.”

The editorial page of this newspaper noted that “nothing should be said of the dead unless it is something good”, then made an exception for Stalin: “For his name is written in history in letters too big and too sinister to ignore, and the mere mention of it also necessitates a mention of all the badness associated with it.

This wickedness included mass starvation, forced labor camps, political oppression, purges and executions, religious persecution, and the subjugation of satellite nations that still today struggle to withdraw from the malevolent orbit of the Russia.

Stalin’s death also threw random ripples. Some racetrack bettors in Charles Town, W.Va., said they had Russia in mind when they bet on a horse named Petrograd – off the mare Pravda – and raised a mutual winner of $48. One lucky gambler said it was the first time he bet on a “Communist horse”.

Bob Seidel was no stranger to publicity stunts. In June 1950, dairy workers in the district went on strike. A city law prohibited the sale of milk by any dairy not licensed by the DC Health Department. Restaurant 1203 got around this problem by buying milk from an Annapolis dairy and giving it away for free. Seidel put up a sign trumpeting his largesse.

Although Seidel bought enough milk to fill 2,000 glasses, he gave only 200 the first morning. “Milk doesn’t seem so important after all,” he told a reporter.

Seidel was active in the local restaurant scene, serving on the board of the Restaurant Beverage Association of Washington. He was also a yacht broker and owned a boat named after his wife, Lee. Answer Man found no evidence that he was Ukrainian. Nor could he know how many bowls of borscht the restaurateur had given out. But his cheeky sign seemed to capture a sentiment among many Americans.

And that wasn’t the last time Seidel tried to do business in the wake of the news. A year after Stalin’s death, he responded to a rise in the price of coffee by putting a sign in the 1203 window that read “To H— with Coffee. Let’s drink tea. 5¢ a cup. (He really had dashes where “ELL” would have been in that word.)

Unlike milk, tea has caught on. According to The Post: “He says the customer response has been sensational and backs that up by saying he sold over 100 cups of tea yesterday, compared to a normal daily sale of around 10 cups.”

In 1964, a District attorney appointed Carl Shipley proposed that the 1965 inaugural parade be moved from Pennsylvania Avenue to Constitution Avenue. The TV view of Pennsylvania, he said, “shows some rather unromantic architecture.”

Seidel was among the Pennsylvania Avenue businessmen opposed to the proposal. “Inauguration, he said, means money for traders,” wrote The Post. “He said he won at least four times the usual amount of money in the last parade.”

“And more importantly, I think,” he told the Post, “do you remember that awfully cold day it was? All those people who tried to console themselves by being patriotic. Where would they have gone to warm up on Constitution Avenue?

Seidel died on April 3, 1970. Large office buildings would soon replace small businesses like 1203, which a sign above the door described as “the friendliest place in town…not fancy, but enjoyable”.

And for a few days in 1953, a place to get free borscht and toast to the demise of a despot.

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