20 years under Putin: a timeline

Last week, the Russian government banned food imports from the United States, Canada, the European Union, Australia, and Norway. This initiative has split the already-divided Russian society into two warring camps. Olga Melnikova, a Moscow-based journalist, sums up the discussion currently unfolding in the Russian blogosphere.


Product shortage in the Soviet Union during the late years of perestroika.


In 1989, during perestroika, my parents and I visited Rome—the very heart of capitalist decadence. Naturally, my first and strongest impressions came not from encountering an ancient civilization—they came from food stores, with their breathtaking variety, scents, and sometimes tastes. Soviet citizens took their first selfies abroad posing with different types of sausage. Soviet embassy employees inspected each other’s casseroles. I am not exaggerating—“who eats what” was a constant topic of conversation.

I don’t know about now, but as recently as the mid-2000s, hotels where actors and musicians from Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater stayed during their foreign tours would often experience sudden power outages: several hundred visiting Russians would simultaneously switch on their electric water heaters in their hotel rooms, and the power surge would overwhelm the system. It was considered the height of wastefulness to spend foreign currency on food; hence celebrated artists travelled with canned food, and even with portable electric ovens to cook in their hotel rooms. I know this because I have relatives in the orchestra.

Last week, when Russian president Vladimir Putin introduced a ban on food products imported from the West, Russian social media platforms were suddenly filled with similar stories: people recalling food shortages, long lines at the stores, food rationing, and hunger. Some began to wonder how much food prices will rise as a result of the ban. Even my apolitical children called me from their dacha to find out which of their favorite foods they would now be unable to buy.

Russia’s state television networks presented the import ban as positive news: apparently, we should be relieved that harmful, antibiotic-filled imported foods will finally be replaced with healthy, high-quality domestic products. Why, one might ask, did the government tolerate the poisoning of Russian citizens with foreign food until now?

The day after the introduction of the import ban, the sole topic of passionate discussion in Russian social media was food. This is not surprising: in the country that has experienced food requisitioning, the siege of Leningrad, food shortages, and a cult-like obsession with food, eating is not taken lightly. Russian parents still strictly forbid their children from playing with their food, and still tell them about the “Clean Plates Society” (in which all food had to be eaten from one’s plate) from books about Lenin.

Patriots—or internet “trolls” who pretend to be patriots—wept with joy, made a sign of the cross, or melted: “Thank goodness those foreign poisons will finally be taken off our shelves, and we will be able to buy Russian fish, potatoes, cabbage, and butter.” As if imports had been preventing domestic products from being sold, and as if sanctions were necessary to develop Russian agriculture. One wonders who will invest in the development of Russian cattle breeding and agriculture, given that the sanctions will only be in force for one year?

It is noteworthy that Russian farmers have not welcomed the sanctions. A friend of mine who is a fish farmer near St. Petersburg disclosed to me that most domestic fish farmers are now trying to unload their farms.

In Moscow’s Auchan stores, imported products that have fallen under the ban have sold out. People bought cheeses, ham, and—just in case—imported alcohol by the box. In one store, a forgotten Soviet-era notice was posted: “No more than 5 kg of food per person.”

“It is not only the domestic producers—it is also domestic transporters, storage-builders, packers, and twenty other sectors that will have to be developed. And this has to be done immediately, before you become hungry,” wrote Russian farmer Alexei Khaliullin.

“The import ban affects affordable products that can feed the population and that totally depend of imports. For example, the production of cage culture fish (salmon and trout from Murmansk) is dependent on the import of Norwegian hatchlings,” wrote Klimov, another farmer. “Russia does not have enough parent flocks to produce broiler chickens and turkeys, and without imports, our poultry farming will disappear, leaving people without affordable poultry. We need at least five years to solve this problem domestically, if we begin now. The only people who will benefit from this farmer ‘stimulus’ are the distributers of financial aid, legislators, and other supporters of the ‘Russian food program’ that have appeared from everywhere, hoping for large dividends.”

Opponents of the forced revival of Russian agriculture have spoken in a similar vein: “I could eat only buckwheat for a month; I could, if necessary, eat only potatoes from Tambov for a year; I could wear garb without lace underwear. I could easily forget the taste of Coca-Cola, whiskey, Finnish butter, and Parmesan cheese; I could ride the explosive metro, surround myself with ‘spiritual ties,’ and forget the word ‘sex’—but it will be my choice and only mine, not the choice of a KGB midget and his 87-percent-strong following… I hate the very thought that someone in this world will decide what I can eat, what I can watch, and what I can wear. Even God has not done this.”

The bravest bloggers have referred to the import ban as the fourth round of sanctions against Russian citizens, while Russian citizens themselves are debating what is more important to them—European cheeses or the motherland. People who are not unintelligent are saying that if our freedom depends on cheese, then something is wrong not with us, but with our country, our government, etc.—and they quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1976 speech at Stanford, in which he said that “true human freedom is the God-given inner freedom: the freedom to decide our own deeds—but also to bear spiritual responsibility for them.” I doubt Solzhenitsyn would have liked the idea of reviving Russia through sanctions.

If one judges by actions, not by words, cheeses appear more important. In Moscow’s Auchan stores, imported products that have fallen under the ban have sold out. People bought cheeses, ham, and—just in case—imported alcohol by the box. In one store, a forgotten Soviet-era notice was posted: “No more than 5 kg of food per person.” If the media is to be believed, last weekend patrols appeared in food stores to check whether the president’s decree was being followed.

“The people who are least upset about the so-called sanctions are those who consider themselves ‘foodies,’ culinary bloggers, people who lead culinary master-classes and such,” says prominent culinary blogger Elena Chekalova. “Amazingly, most restaurant owners who have spoken out have said that they can cook everything in their Italian restaurants just from potatoes. These are the people who, for the past twenty years, have been creating Moscow’s restaurant world and have begun to win international gastronomic prizes—and even they are ready to carry the rope with which they will be hanged. This is more frightening than these idiotic sanctions themselves. I had a naïve hope that people who understand the freedom of choice in food will gradually develop a more acute appreciation of freedom generally. How many times has it been explained to me why France could not have a socialist revolution, despite the fact that there are many socialists there—because they cannot give up even one out of their five hundred varieties of cheese.”