Kara-kum Sweets (Central Asia)


Kara-kum Sweets (Central Asia)
Kara-Kum, the Soviet-era brand of sweets, is universally recognised in the countries of the former Soviet Union. They were part of everyday Soviet life and were the equivalent of Hershey’s Kisses and Cadburys Dairy Milk for generations of Soviet people alongside other popular Soviet sweets such as Mishka na severe and Belochka. For many in the Soviet Union and subsequently in the post-Soviet countries -- including myself -- Kara-Kum was their first exposure to Central Asia. The sweet’s sunshine yellow wrapping, featuring camels in the desert, exemplified the orientalist images of Central Asia common in Soviet popular culture. Together with other depictions of Central Asia such as the Soviet hit movie Beloe solntse pustyni (White Sun of the Desert, 1969), and earlier films such as Dzhulʹbars (1936) and others,[1] it helped to define the image of Central Asia in the popular imagination.

The sweets were named after the Karakumy desert in present-day Turkmenistan. In Turkic, Karakumy means Black Sands and the texture of the sweet is reminiscent of the desert’s sands – each bar was made of a very sweet praline combined with nut and waffle crumbs and coated in chocolate glaze. Their design may have been inspired by the 1933 Moscow-Kara-Kum-Moscow automobile rally that seemed to have genuinely captivated the Soviet people[2] and was widely publicised.[3] The rally was so popular that images of cars driving alongside camels overlaying a map of its route adorned some pre-Second World War consumer products, including soap, and some early versions of the Kara-Kum wrappers depicted both cars and camels. 

Kara-Kum was produced according to a single state-approved standard -- recipe number 145, which is sometimes called GOST[4] -- in factories across the republics of the Soviet Union.[5] The design of the wrappers also came from the USSR capital, after Leonid Konstantinovich Chelnokov (1919-2003), a graphic designer at Krasnyi Oktyabr in Moscow likely first made it.[6] Some sources say that Kara-Kum was brainchild of specialists of Krasnyi Oktyabr and that it was first introduced there in the 1950s.[7]

Kara-Kum was produced by factories in every Soviet republic, including in Central Asia, where local factories also marketed sweets under local brands. At the O'rtoq confectionary factory in Tashkent, for example, Kara-Kum sweets were produced alongside Oq oltin [White Gold] sweets for the local market which carried a picture of a cotton flower on the wrapper. O'rtoq and many other industrial sites across Central Asia expanded during and after the Second World War, when the region went through a significant industrial modernisation.[8]However, the O'rtoq factory closed down after the Soviet break-up and the production of Oq oltin ceased.

The packaging of Kara-Kum varied slightly depending on the factory where the sweets were manufactured, but it always had camels on it. Although Krasnyi Oktyabr initially used wrappers with pictures of cars and camels, it later reverted to packaging with camels only.

The differences in wrapping during the Soviet period were nothing compared to the total mishmash that followed the breakdown of the USSR, when the rights to Kara-Kum and other popular Soviet confectionery trademarks were taken over by a Moscow company. All of a sudden, the right to manufacture sweets under the Kara-Kum brand and its recipe, which was once available for every manufacturer in the Soviet Union and could have been considered part of the common Soviet heritage, became private property. This did not stop manufacturers elsewhere in Russia and the former Soviet Union from continuing to produce near-identical sweets. Following numerous and prolonged legal battles, Krasnyi Oktyabr managed to cement its exclusive right to produce Kara-Kum, although some producers did receive a waiver to manufacture sweets under the Kara-Kum brand. Those producers who did not receive such approval had to improvise. In St Petersburg, the [Nadezhda] Krupskaya factory started to make Karavan pustyni [Desert caravan] and Solnechnyi Kyzyl-Kum [Sunny Kyzyl-Kum, after another Central Asian desert]. Other regional variations include Saksaul [a desert tree], which is made by a factory in Omsk, Verbliuzhonok [baby camel] in Penza, and Aramuk [meaning unclear] in Vladivostok. In Kazakhstan, the Rakhat factory in Almaty, which is now owned by a South Korean conglomerate, produces Altyn-Kum. In Belarus and Ukraine, the sweets are still produced under the Kara-Kum brand by local manufacturers.


[1] Abashin, Sergei.: Sovetskii kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei (Moskva: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2014), p. 120
[2] Slezkine, Yuri.: The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 566
[3] Siegelbaum, Lewis.: Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Ithaca, N.Y. ; London: Cornell University Press, 2008), p. 147
[4] GOST stands for gosudarstvennyi standart, or state standard, was a Soviet system managed by the All-Union State Standard, a standard-setting body of the Soviet government
[5] Glavkonditer.: Retsepturyy na konfety i iris / M-vo pishchevoi prom-sti SSSR (Moskva: Pishchepromizdat, 1952), pp. 274-275
[6] Andrei Tolstoi, «Sladkaia Zhiznʹ» Leonida Chelnokova, Novaia Iunostʹ 2000/6 (45)
[7] Tabatorovich A.N., and Хudiakova O.D., "Tovarnye znaki konditerskikh izdelii kak faktor obespecheniia ikh konkurentosposobnosti" Sibirskii torgovo-ėkonomicheskii zhurnal, no. 3 (24), 2016, pp. 67-71.
[8] See, for example, Paul, Stronski.: Tashkent: Forging a Soviet City, 1930-1966 (Pittsburgh PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010)

Roman Osharov is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Oxford. Osharov’s doctoral research explores the history of the Russian Empire and Central Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He began studying Central Asian history in 2018, building on some of his earlier work done while studying at King’s College London.