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Vladimir Putin’s Bonfire of the Delicacies

Russia’s ban on Western foodstuffs isn’t just cynical populism — it’s a chance for the Kremlin’s cronies to make a quick buck importing “Belarusian” avocados.

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In the first five days after Russia started burning, crushing, and otherwise annihilating food smuggled in from Western countries, 552 kilograms of contraband brought by Russian citizens in their carry-on luggage were destroyed. That’s 1,200 pounds of everything from French Camembert to Italian prosciutto — anything that was made illegal a year ago. That’s when, in a tit-for-tat move, Moscow imposed sanctions on food imported from the countries that imposed sanctions on Russia for dismembering Ukraine. Those 1,200 pounds of carry-on foodstuffs, though, are nothing compared to the hundreds of tons of agricultural produce — cheese, peaches, and pork — that were torched in incinerators or pulverized under tractor treads in just five days.

If you have any knowledge of Russian history, you know that the index of any book on the subject has a substantial “famine” entry. You may also have heard that the Russian economy has been slowly and steadily cratering for nearly two years now. According to the Kremlin’s own estimates, the number of Russians living in poverty has increased: 16 percent more in the first quarter of this year than last. Over 15 percent of Russians now live in poverty. And if you’ve seen the photos of local residents trying to salvage some tractor-scarred Greek nectarines out of the dirt, you might be wondering: Why is Russia destroying perfectly good food?

It’s a question some Russians are asking themselves. “When Putin signed the order about destroying contraband produce, I was very surprised,” wrote journalist Valery Panyushkin, noting the irony of the president’s own history. “A Leningrader? The son of a woman who survived the siege of Leningrad, the son of a man wounded in the battle for the city? The brother of a child who died in the besieged city? Destroying food? How?”

Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister who is charged with carrying out the order, Panyushkin notes, is also from Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg, a city that lost over half a million people to hunger and disease during the nearly two-and-a-half-year Nazi blockade. It is the most legendary of all the famines in the Russian history books, and its lore of hunger and cannibalism haunts most Russians, but especially Leningraders, like Panyushkin himself. “My grandmother used to carefully sweep the bread crumbs off the table,” he wrote, “not to throw them out, but to eat them.” She hoarded food, and now so does Panyushkin’s mother and Panyushkin himself. So how could Putin and Medvedev — these two famous Leningraders — rid themselves of this inherited neurosis and sanction the calm destruction of food?

Setting aside the cutting-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face logic of the Russian countersanctions, there is one big problem with them: They have proven very difficult to enforce. For the most part, it is because of the Eurasian Customs Union, which Russia created as a counterpoint to the European Union. Though only four other countries have joined — Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan — they now have open borders with Russia but without having imposed the ban on EU foodstuffs. And because Moscow’s sanctions didn’t kill Russians’ appetite for, say, shrimp and oysters, it wasn’t long before Belarusian shrimp and oysters started appearing in Moscow.

It is an absurd, but perfectly logical flanking of the law: Of course, landlocked Belarus produces neither shrimp nor oysters, but Belarus can produce lots and lots of food labels — and make lots and lots of money by repackaging the contraband as its own domestic produce. And because there are no sanctions against Belarusian imports, the stuff is, technically speaking, kosher. Though Putin and Kremlin officials spun the embargo as a good opportunity for Russian food producers to win a larger share of their own market, it hasn’t. All it did, in effect, was to create a business opportunity for its partners in the Customs Union — as well as endless fodder for jokes.

When it comes to food imports, the Russian border with Europe has, in effect, been moved to places where Russia can’t enforce it. And even inside Russia, the ban has proven difficult to enforce: Where there’s money to be made, there are bribes to be paid. “From what we’ve heard, every single business has found a channel to get around the sanctions — everybody,” says Elena Panfilova, the vice chair of Transparency International and former head of the organization’s Moscow office. In the year since Russia banned French brie and Bleu d’Auvergne, “restaurants are overflowing — no one’s lacking anything. Everyone who needed it, everyone who had big contracts, found a way.”

She added, “I have personally purchased Belarusian avocados.”

If corruption is helping Russians undermine the sanctions, corruption is also behind the push for the destruction of banned food. The person to propose the bonfire of the delicacies was Russia’s agricultural minister, Alexander Tkachev. For the first 15 years of Putin’s rule, Tkachev served as the governor of the Krasnodar region, Russia’s agricultural heartland — and a notorious gangland. He became very, very wealthy in the process, setting up what amounts to a personal agricultural monopoly in the region. According to the Russian edition of Forbes, Tkachev’s wealth didn’t double or triple or even quadruple during his tenure as governor. It increased 33-fold. He is, in other words, a keen and ruthless businessman. In April of this year, Tkachev was named minister of agriculture, and by July he was proposing an even more muscular enforcement of the import ban on the European food that competes with his Krasnodar produce.

Then there is the much more basic problem that underlies all of this: How do you make people obey the laws you create, however self-immolating? “The problem isn’t corruption but a very weak government,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a Moscow political scientist who once advised the Kremlin. “It’s weak in the sense of governance. They may have nuclear weapons, but you’re not going to bomb Kazakhstan and Belarus to enforce the sanctions.” In Russia, Pavlovsky explains, abiding by the law is optional until it isn’t. “People only observe the law if there is an extreme situation,” he says. “So you have to scare people. You have to create a spectacle.”

And spectacle we got.

The contraband food is not simply destroyed, but according to law must be done so in front of two witnesses and on camera. Not surprisingly, Russian television screens immediately filled with images of wheels of cheese exploding under tractor treads. There was even the much ridiculed video of two bumbling officials in Tatarstan pulverizing three frozen geese that had been smuggled in from Hungary. Anticipating a negative reaction from the population, Russian television spun the destruction as a necessary evil. “It’s worth noting here,” said the anchor introducing the segment on the country’s main evening news program, “that destroying contraband is an absolutely normal measure for any government.” Sure. And it wasn’t just about getting back at Russophobic Europe.

The real reason for the destruction of food that could have fed droves of poor Russians, the report said, was to protect Russians. Germany and other central European countries, the report claimed, are suffering from an outbreak of “African swine plague.” And, hey, it wasn’t just Russia wantonly tossing away meat; thousands of pigs across the region were being slaughtered because they too were afflicted with the disease. Even Tkachev made an appearance. “Byproducts from pig breeding, pesticides, nitrates,” he said, shrugging like a Russian extra from The Sopranos, “these endanger people’s lives…. We need to clean up the produce market once and for all.”

And yet — despite the ire of the liberal, anti-Kremlin set on Facebook, despite the history books, and despite the idea, as Pavlovsky put it, that “in Russia, food is the main form of freedom” — Russians didn’t seem all that angry. When the opinion polls came out last week, they weren’t as bad as you’d think. While 48 percent of Russians were against the destruction of contraband food, 40 percent were in favor. What’s more, an overwhelming majority — 68 percent — still support the import ban.

Why the paltry reaction to something so historically visceral? Despite his rumored wealth, Putin’s popularity lies in his salt-of-the-earth, no frills persona. He’s a simple guy, like us, with simple taste, like us. The banned foods are often high-end goods; it’s not what the bulk of Russians eat. Moreover, with the ruble continuing to weaken and food prices rising, fewer and fewer Russians can even afford a can of foie gras — if they ever could in the first place.

The other part is the fever of anti-Western sentiment in Russia that has yet to abate. Since Putin’s 2012 reelection, Russians have been listening to the constant, unabating drumbeat of hatred of all things Western: gay culture, NATO, and now, Emmental. “The indignation is coming from people who are always going to be indignant about the Kremlin’s actions,” says Masha Lipman, the former editor of Pro et Contra, a political journal. “Given the high level of anti-Western sentiment, you can always package this in a way so that it’s considered the right, patriotic thing to do. When you say you’re destroying ‘Western X,’ you don’t even need to clarify what it is you’re destroying.” And if the spoiled, Westernized Muscovites complain that they’re not getting their delicacies, well, tough luck for them. They’re of questionable loyalty anyway.

The passive support for Putin’s landfill reality TV spectacle also exists because everyone knows it’s a show. If you really want a frozen Hungarian goose (and can afford it), it’s not hard to get. Panfilova, the Transparency International official, said that, in situations like these, Russians adapt. She recalled how, in the early 1990s, when food became scarce, her white-collar friends and acquaintances suddenly signed up in droves to be dockworkers. Why? Because that’s where the food was, and that’s where you could skim a little off the top for yourself. Panfilova predicts that the same thing will happen here, too. “The authorities will announce that 300 tons of produce were destroyed, but 285 will reappear somewhere else,” she says. “People haven’t really changed in their day-to-day behavior.”

But Russian purges have a funny way of accelerating themselves. Various people inside the Russian government seem to be racing each other to the bottom, trying to outdo each other in what evil Western products they propose to ban: flowers, neonatal incubators, dental drills, syringes, and even condoms. (The latter, according to Russia’s former chief physician and current assistant to the Russian prime minister, “have nothing to do with health. [The import ban] will just force people to be more disciplined, strict, and discriminating in their choice of partners,” he said. “It may even be a service to our society in solving our demographic problems.”) On top of the foreign produce ban, the government has proposed limiting the number of livestock private citizens can hold. All of this creates new avenues for corruption and new flows of money as the Russian economic pie gets smaller and smaller.

In the meantime, with all of this as a backdrop, the Russian elite isn’t sparing itself any delicacies. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny recently published an exposé about Russian officials using government funds to buy banned cheeses for state banquets. Earlier this month, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, put on a lavish wedding in Sochi. He sported a Richard Mille watch that cost around $620,000 — or about how much Peskov would make in four years. (He had earlier given his new wife, figure skater Tatyana Navka, a Bentley to celebrate the birth of their daughter.) Then the two set off on a honeymoon, apparently on a yacht that rents at more than $400,000 per week.

Not that Putin cares. Peskov is known around Moscow as a bon vivant, and it hasn’t hurt his standing with the Russian president. (The fact that Navalny is calling for Peskov’s resignation will likely only make him stronger.) The average Russian, like the average American, likes the pomp of royalty — whether it be Hollywood celebrities or the president’s press secretary. It is beautiful, and it is aspirational.

Polls show a kind of cognitive dissonance: Nearly 70 percent of Russians don’t mind economic inequality, but the same percentage also thinks that it is impossible to come by these millions of rubles honestly. For the vast majority of Russians — those for whom even a $620 watch would be an extreme luxury — they simply, as Panfilova says, tighten their belts and adapt. A recent study showed that the real rise of grocery prices was lower than the official figure for many Russians because they simply spent more time shopping around for the cheapest produce. The elite is adapting, too, by finding new flows of money, like Tkachev. It’s just that, for some Russians, adapting is using your cabinet post to protect your agribusiness from foreign competition amid an economic crisis; for others, it’s scavenging for a meal among the tons of food their government has destroyed.

Photoillustration by FP

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