Russians React To Western Food Ban With Pride, Resignation
In Moscow, apples are starting to look a little worse for wear. Soft cheeses are in shorter supply. And if you want fresh fish from the market — well, you're going to be paying a premium for it.
But one month into the food ban Russia imposed on most Western imports of produce, meat, fish and dairy, the city's grocery shelves are still stocked. And average Russians don't seem particularly perturbed about the ban, an answer to sanctions over Russia's involvement in Ukraine.
"Things [under the ban] will change, but then they'll return back," says Alexandra Aksheva, 27, a shopper outside the Danilovsky Market in Moscow. "It's not better for Russia, but it's temporary."
Another shopper took a more patriotic view.
"The West doesn't have to feed Russia; Russia can grow food for itself," says Ivan Alexeyevich, 65, who gave only his first name and patronymic (a customary Russian middle name). "Take the Soviet times: Everything was Soviet, everyone ate Soviet, Russia didn't depend on the West — so there's nothing to worry about."
The one-year food ban is a near across-the-board measure preventing the import of products from the U.S., the European Union, Canada, Australia and Norway. Ordinary Muscovites have cultivated a bumper crop of food jokes about everything from how Belarus could become a paradise for repackaged European products to myriad recommendations for dressing up grechka, a homegrown buckwheat grain and trade-ban-proof staple.
Yet as Europe readies a new round of sanctions that Russia has already promised to answer, a look at the food ban's immediate legacy could be telling of what more is to come.
When the West began targeting Russia's financial, defense and oil and gas industries with sanctions, Russia opted for a gastronomic retort.
This summer, Moscow's quality control agencies started reporting a glut of food safety violations in various shipments of European fruit, Ukrainian cheese and American chicken.
Russia's main consumer watchdog agency sued McDonald's — a symbol of Americanism in Russia since the first restaurant opened in Moscow in the waning years of the Soviet Union — over bacteria and underreported nutritional content in certain menu items, and eventually shut down several restaurants.
Even a few American booze manufacturers, like Jack Daniel's, faced Russia's regulatory wrath.
Officials deny charges that the scrutiny was politically motivated despite a historical pattern of practice suggesting the contrary. Russia blocked Ukrainian cheese and chocolate imports around the time the country decided to pursue closer ties with Europe; when Georgia did the same in the mid-2000s, regulators found microbes in its wine exports, which stayed off of Russian shelves for seven years.
Since the Kremlin ordered an all-out ban, normally food import-dependent Russia has been trying to build up capacity and confidence in its own agricultural sector.
Russian state television stations trumpet stepped-up production in national farms and food factories. Meanwhile the Russian government has announced a host of new trade arrangements to replace Western fresh food imports with products from Turkey, China, Iran and Brazil.
As Russia pulls in substitute imports from far corners of the globe, shipping costs alone could drive up the prices of food, already in the throes of a national 7.5 percent inflation rate, even farther — despite government promises to prevent price gouging and keep costs in check.
Authorities are serious about enforcing the ban, reserving the right to conduct compliance checks in stores, and turning back shipments from neighboring countries discovered to contain prohibited goods. Despite that dedication, even the Russian government has acknowledged there are limits to what it can do.
In late August, Russian officials announced they would take a select number of items off the blacklist, such as lactose-free dairy products, because those products aren't produced in Russia. Onions, frequently subject to price shocks, will also be allowed in.
Thus far, the system seems to be working: Supermarket shelves are stocked, and popular support for the ban is strong. According to a recent Levada Center poll, about three-quarters of Russians back the prohibition on Western fruit.
But cooling temperatures in Moscow are a reminder that the true test of the food ban will come during the long Russian winter, when the frozen ground makes imports more vital.
"We know what it will be — and it will be unpleasant," says Tania Yazikova, 26, who will pine for Finnish yogurt. "But worried? No, we aren't worried about it."
Karoun Demirjian is based in Moscow, where she writes for the Washington Post. Once upon a time, she was an intern for NPR's All Things Considered.
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