Yes, we have no salt

Russian rumors of a Ukrainian cutoff create a run on the seasoning - and a shortage.

In an old Soviet-era joke, a man rushes into a shop and demands of the clerk, "Do you have any meat?"

"No," comes the reply, "this is where we don't have fish. You want to go next door, where they don't have meat."

Russians consider shortages of basic foods part of a bygone era. But in the past week, it seems like déjà vu all over again.

The hand-scrawled note outside the tiny grocery store here in Razdori, the village near Moscow where I live, reads: "We Have No Salt!"

Cashier Yulia Yevteyeva, too young to remember Soviet times, claims she's never seen anything like the panic buying of the past few days. "People just keep coming in and asking for salt," she says. "Some people won't accept no for an answer. They say, 'Go look in the back, maybe there's a package there.' It looks like everyone around here's gone crazy."

Similar 'Yes, we have no salt' signs have been sprouting around Russia as people storm their local shops to snap up the normally abundant supplies of sodium chloride, often paying many times the usual price of 6 rubles per kilogram.

In recent days the salt frenzy has hit Moscow, leaving shop shelves throughout the relatively wealthy and well-supplied capital bare - and top officials red-faced. "This is not an episode of the past, it is modern history," noted the Moscow daily Izvestia last week. "This [salt] panic just struck out of the blue. All official attempts to calm peoples' fears have been to no avail."

In Vladimir, a city about 100 miles north of Moscow, local governor Vladimir Veretennikov went on TV to plead - reportedly in vain - with people to stop besieging local grocery stores. "Our region has enough reserves of salt, enough for everyone," he insisted. "Don't fill your homes up with bags of salt you're not going to need."

In Nizhni-Novgorod, an industrial city on the Volga River, people even began snapping up matches, sugar, and cereals amid the spreading scare, according to Izvestia. "Popular opinion even began to predict war, even if no one could say when or against whom," the paper said.

Prices for salt have spiraled between 20 and 36 times in Russian regions over the past week, with one kilo of the stuff going for as much as 300 rubles (about $10) in some places, reports the online news agency RosBiznesKonsulting.

"Fear and uncertainty provokes panic, and in Russia this often leads to a run on the most basic goods, such as salt, sugar, and matches," says Alexander Makhnach, director of the independent Institute of Psychology in Moscow. "This is part of the 'genetic memory' of Russians, connected to memories of famine, war, and collapse. When people feel danger, they rush out to buy these things."

If the salt stampede owes much to the persistence of the Soviet consumer mentality, in which grabbing and hoarding scarce goods was a vital survival tactic, it appears to have been triggered by current events. In recent weeks rumors flew around the country that Ukraine, Russia's main supplier of salt, was about to cut off deliveries amid growing tensions between the two giant ex-Soviet neighbors. In January, Russia launched a brief gas blockade of Ukraine over a pricing dispute, and later banned Ukrainian meat and dairy products, citing health concerns. Kiev retaliated by suggesting a sharp increase in the rent Moscow pays for use of a Soviet-era naval base in the now- Ukrainian territory of Crimea.

"Polls show the attitude of Russians toward Ukraine has deteriorated lately," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "So, people might easily believe that Ukrainians want to do them harm."

More than 90 percent of Russia's annual salt consumption of about 1 million metric tons comes from Ukraine and the neighboring republic of Belarus.

Ukraine denies any salt squeeze and its agriculture minister, Olexander Baranivsky, even pledged last week to double deliveries to 35 rail cars of salt daily in an effort to stabilize Russia's market run.

Some analysts say the affair illustrates the fragility of Russia's revival under President Vladimir Putin. "It's amazing how easily the surface feeling of stability can be disturbed and how people will respond to any disquieting signal," says Ms. Lipman. "Russians are fond of saying that this is a country where anything can happen and, as you see, it really is."

Apparently, rumors of shortages in Russia ought to be taken with a grain of, well, your favorite seasoning.

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