20 years under Putin: a timeline

Two-thirds of Russian citizens continue to support the food embargo imposed by the Russian government in August 2014 despite its negative impact on the country’s economy. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, this phenomenon derives from a legacy of Soviet thinking, upbringing, and way of life.


After Russia introduced the food embargo, imports of meat, dairy, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seafood and similar products to the country has significantly declined. Photo: AP


Contrary to their intended purpose, the retaliatory anti-Western sanctions introduced by the Russian government earlier this year have primarily affected the Russian population. Despite this, 140 million Russians have expressed little outrage on the issue.

On August 7, in accordance with president Vladimir Putin’s decree “On the application of certain special economic measures to ensure the security of the Russian Federation,” the government imposed an embargo on food imports. The ban was to remain in effect for a period of one year. The list of goods that fell under restriction included imports of meat, dairy, vegetables, root vegetables, fruit, nuts, fish, seafood, sausage, and similar products from the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, and Norway. The ban’s effects have been felt most acutely at home, though: just as predicted, the embargo increased prices of available goods, reduced selection, and finally resulted in a decline in consumption.

Needless to say, lower consumption does not affect those who issue decrees and resolutions, adopt laws, and thrive on corruption. It is low- and middle-income people who suffer most from these restrictive measures.

According to the Federal Customs Service, imports of dairy products, pork, vegetables, nuts, and fruit to Russia showed a year-on-year decline in October 2014. The decline came even after countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America increased exports to Russia in August—October.

Imports of vegetables have dropped by 50.6 percent, despite the fact that Latin American countries had increased supplies of vegetables to Russia six-fold. Pork imports have declined by 37.5 percent. Although countries in Southeast Asia boosted their exports of fruit and nuts to Russia by 25 percent, imports of these products declined by 21 percent in October 2014.

According to director general of FruitNews Irina Koziy, who commented on the current market situation in a report by ITAR-TASS news agency, a “shortage of fruit and vegetables is already noticeable due to the fact that the assortment has thinned and prices have grown while the quality of products has deteriorated. The weakening ruble makes fruit and vegetables more costly, as part of purchasing is made in dollars or euro[s].” She adds that the “growing cost of fruit and vegetables in Russia results in declining consumption.”

When the “retaliatory sanctions” were introduced, top Russian government officials assured the population that the country’s agricultural industry had finally gotten a boost to move forward and upward. Soon after, they began talking about reorienting the country and replacing U.S. and EU imports with imports from other countries. It is now evident that no reorientation will right the ship.

People whose business depends on imports were affected the most, and in Russia, this is a rather large sector of economy. On November 11, Russia’s Supreme Court considered a lawsuit filed by the Murmansk Fish Factory against the government for imposing an embargo on fish imports from countries that joined the Western sanctions in response to Russia’s expansion in Ukraine.

Has not the long-suffering Russian people survived mass executions during collectivization and Stalin’s terror? Has it not gotten used to hunger during the era of Khrushchev’s experiments and Brezhnev’s stagnation?

The Murmansk Fish Factory depended entirely on imports, since it used to purchase live fish at two Norwegian auctions. Deprived of access to Norwegian fish, the factory began experiencing losses at around 1.5 million rubles a day. The company could not make up for the lack of raw materials. Fish that can be purchased in domestic markets are several times more expensive. Besides, the factory can only accept live fish from harvesting vessels, which are scarce in Russia. According to the Russian Federal Fisheries Agency, only two such vessels operate in the country. As a result, the Murmansk Fish Factory is currently teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

According to the factory’s lawsuit, the food ban imposed by the government violates the company’s rights and legal interests in the sphere of business activity and illegally creates obstacles to conducting business. Yet never in its wildest dreams would the Russian Supreme Court issue a verdict in the interests of the claimant rather than the government. Naturally, the court dismissed the appeal. Now, the company’s management intends to file a lawsuit with the Russian Constitutional Court.

The example of the Murmansk Fish Factory’s small but civilized revolt is still a rare thing in Russia. No matter who is affected by the government’s actions and how, the outrage will hardly extend beyond kitchens and smoking rooms. The president and his government realize this and count on it. In his decree, Putin allowed for adjustments to the list of banned products “to ensure balanced product markets and prevent accelerated price increases on agricultural and food products.” Meaning that he fully realized that food prices would increase. So what? Has not the long-suffering Russian people survived mass executions during collectivization and Stalin’s terror? Has it not gotten used to hunger during the era of Khrushchev’s experiments and Brezhnev’s stagnation? Only a few expressed outrage. Even fewer demonstrated their opposition.

Today, the majority of Russians understand that Putin’s political course will have a negative impact on the country’s economy. According to an October opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center, 86 percent of respondents noted that, as a result of the ban on imports, food prices either have already increased or would soon increase. Sixty-one percent of respondents believed that they would soon face dwindling revenues and an economic crisis. Fifty-six percent were sure that the annexation of Crimea and the political and military support the Russian government is offering pro-Russian rebels will result in a drop in Russian living standards in the near future.

It seems that the majority of respondents demonstrated good judgment. However, 73 percent of those who participated in the poll approved of the food ban. This is 5 percent less than in August, but it still represents the majority of respondents. Even more surprising is that 86 percent of respondents approved of the annexation of Crimea.

If the Levada Center’s data is accurate, there is only one reasonable explanation: Russians’ ideological upbringing and powerful patriotism make them sacrifice their personal and familial wellbeing for the sake of imperial ambitions and the greatness of the state. This is a legacy of Soviet thinking, upbringing, and way of life. For the majority of Russians, twenty-five years of post-communist existence have not been enough to dispel the madness of totalitarianism.