Russians have gotten used to some fancy foods in recent years. But they're willing to sacrifice Parmesan for Putin's foreign policy.
- By Alec LuhnAlec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Nation, the Guardian, the Independent, Slate, GlobalPost, and other publications.
MOSCOW — There’s an old saying in Russia: "Cabbage soup and porridge is our food." It speaks to a Russian sense of culinary simplicity and steadfastness. But for Russia’s middle class in the Putin era, cabbage soup and porridge belong to the days of Stalin and Khrushchev. Urban Russians today augment their dinner with peaches from Spain, cheese from France, and salmon from Norway. Inexpensive chicken legs from the United States became so prevalent after the fall of the Soviet Union that they’re popularly known as "Bush legs" in honor of the then-U.S. president.
But Russian shoppers will have to say goodbye to Brie and Camembert, Italian salami, and Spanish jamón as soon as current supplies run out. At President Vladimir Putin’s order, the government last week banned meat, dairy, and fruits and vegetables from the European Union and the United States in retaliation for the latest round of Western sanctions on Russia.
About 25 percent of what Russians eat is imported, and foreign products take up a lot of the meat and dairy aisles in particular. Even dingy local supermarkets often stock cheeses and dairy products from France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Finland; cured meats from France, Italy, and Spain; fruit from Poland; and fish from Canada and Norway. Nonetheless, most of Moscow’s shoppers seem to shrug at the sanctions. Many support Putin’s decision, even while they admit they will suffer for it.
"It will be bad if there’s a smaller selection and prices go up," said Yelena, a doctor who declined to give her last name, as she shopped for groceries at a Moscow supermarket specializing in imported foods. "I remember what it was like in the Soviet Union, and I don’t want empty shelves again."
But Yelena said she backed the ban as the "right response" to Western sanctions. "America and Europe have responded poorly to the situation over Ukraine," she said, walking past a fridge full of Baltic and Scandinavian dairy.
State-controlled television has been downplaying any effects of the ban. "Consumers will barely be able to notice any price increase…. Even if people have to travel abroad for some dishes, it will lead to greater profits for Russian tourist firms," reporters on Rossiya 24 exclaimed during a newscast on Friday, Aug. 8.
But analysts predict an overall rise in food prices that will further exacerbate inflation, which has already risen beyond the Central Bank’s predictions to 7.5 percent.
The import ban doesn’t only affect luxury goods. Almost one-third of Russian families don’t obtain the minimum amount of calories and nutrients designated by the Health Ministry, according to the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, and they will likely have even more difficulty as cheap products from Ukraine are taken off the shelves.
It was mainly affluent Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg who were most derisive about the import ban. A picture of Putin with the caption "Let the Hunger Games begin" circulated on Twitter.
Tatiana, the owner of an upscale Italian restaurant-cum-art gallery named Rubens in Moscow’s well-to-do Khamovniki district, wondered how she would replace the imported products, especially French and Italian cheeses, the restaurant cooks with. "The taste buds of our guests will be limited," she worried.
Yet shoppers were surprisingly calm late last week at Azbuka Vkusa, an upmarket grocery-store chain that stocks largely imported products, from American peaches to Australian honey. Although one well-dressed Muscovite wondered whether she could stomach Russian meat after her usual Australian lamb ribs, many others spoke out in favor of the ban even as they stocked up on imported products.
"Our mother raised us on simple Russian food," said Lana, a lawyer who declined to give her last name, as she picked out some fruit and cheese. "I’m all for allowing only food from Russia, domestic stuff so that we grow more and make everyday things ourselves."
But even Lana was going to draw the line somewhere. "I won’t give up my Chanel, but I can buy domestically made products for daily needs," she said.
"I support the ban. It’s not good that they were treating us so unfairly," Nina, a pensioner, said of Western sanctions as she examined a carton of Chavroux goat cheese from France. Climbing prices won’t affect her, she said, while admitting she had already set aside a block of her favorite Finnish cheese, Oltermanni.
At a much cheaper supermarket near one of the city’s main railway stations, attitudes were even more in favor of the import ban, and no one was worried about the disappearance of French cheeses. Olga Vinogradova, a doctor, said she doesn’t typically buy anything imported anyway because foreign products are more expensive.
"It’s only fair, although small consumers like us will suffer of course, as well as [food producers] on the other side," she said. "The West didn’t need to do sanctions…. How long can [Russia] stay on its knees?"
Even the staff at the seafood restaurant Boston, whose signature dish is a New England clam chowder, weren’t worried about the import ban. According to Oleg, a waiter who declined to give his last name, about 15 percent of the restaurant’s food is imported from now-sanctioned countries like Canada and Norway. But, he said, the restaurant will replace them with suppliers from Asian countries and Russia.
But while Russians may be ready to change their diets to accommodate Putin’s foreign policy, not everyone in Moscow is so amenable.
When John, an American public relations officer with an international company, heard about the sanctions he rushed to the grocery store and spent $200 on Parmesan, ricotta, bleu cheese, cream cheese, and "the last piece of cheddar." He’ll be freezing the stash for later use. "I’ll need ricotta in case I make some ravioli," he said. "And maybe I’ll want to make a cheesecake in a few months."