Recalling famine, Russians decry Kremlin destruction of food imports

The Kremlin's decision to destroy some 400 tons of Western food covered by countersanctions offends those who remember the Soviet years.

A broken head of cheese lies on the ground as illegally imported food is bulldozed in Russia's Belgorod region.

Larissa Tarkhanova well remembers the Soviet-era rituals of lining up, often for hours, to obtain basic foodstuffs in the "grocery stores" of those days. As a clerk in a pretty well-stocked local food shop, Ms. Tarkhanova says she knows how far her country has come, generally supports its leadership, and seldom complains about anything.

But today something has upset her – the Kremlin's destruction of perfectly good food.

The Russian government has been destroying vast quantities of foodstuffs, from pork and cheese to apples and tomatoes, because they originated in Western countries covered by retaliatory counter-sanctions ordered by President Vladimir Putin a year ago. And that waste – almost 400 tons of food incinerated or bulldozed in the past several days – is rubbing a lot of Russians, who have memories like Tarkhanova's, the wrong way.

"My parents went hungry during the war, and we never had very much. It just seems like a criminal waste to destroy food as they are doing. It's against the traditions of this country," she says. "If it's contraband, OK, confiscate it. But why not give it to orphanages, or resell it at low prices for poor people? Punish the smugglers, but why do my eyes have to burn when I see this?"

Why the waste?

While the extent of this mood has yet to be confirmed by public opinion polls, the mass food wastage does seem to have struck a raw nerve with many Russians. Even people who seldom have a bad word to say about Mr. Putin, or Russia's government, seem viscerally opposed to the idea of plowing juicy-looking peaches into the earth.

The Kremlin's in-house human rights council has deplored the policy. Duma deputies and Orthodox priests are among the nearly 350,000 people who have signed an on-line petition calling on Putin to cancel the program.

Social media has erupted in anger and derision over the spectacle. While that's not so unusual for Russia's freewheeling Internet, some of the commentary, juxtaposing images of food being willfully destroyed with famines within living memory, seems more biting than usual.

"I don't understand how, in a country that survived the terrible privations of war and the horrible years of the post-revolutionary period, we could be destroying food," tweeted the normally pro-Kremlin media personality Vladimir Solovyiev this week.

The food destruction program was ordered personally by Putin two weeks ago to crack down on efforts to circumvent the counter-sanctions regime by relabeling produce from European Union countries as coming from non-sanctioned places like Turkey or Brazil. Both Putin's signature on the order, and the graphic media coverage showing eradication of baskets of lettuce, cheeses, and boxes of bacon, leave little doubt that this is not simply bureaucracy run amok, but a deliberate political point being driven home by the Kremlin.

"Putin has put his own name to this, so it's certainly something to do with asserting his own legitimacy," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "He may be demonstrating his toughness and resolve vis-à-vis the West, and telling Russians they must not evade the hard choices that go with that. We all have to make sacrifices."

'This is the way things are'

It has been an open secret over the past year that a good deal of sanctioned European produce has been slipping into Russia through the open borders with its EurAsian Union partners Belarus and Kazakhstan, who don't have much enthusiasm for enforcing the bans. The crackdown may be partly aimed at pressuring those friendly governments to be more compliant with Russian wishes.

The EU formerly sent about 10 percent of its food exports to Russia, worth about $13 billion. The Kremlin's demonstrative food destruction may be partly designed to intensify the impact of the counter-embargo, which many Russian analysts credit with sowing doubt within Europe over the EU's anti-Russian sanctions.

Another goal could be to encourage Russian entrepreneurs to invest more heavily in import substitution, by giving them assurances that their often lower quality produce won't get pushed off the market by covertly imported European goods. According to Bloomberg, in the first six months of 2015, Russia's poultry output increased 11.4 percent from the same period in 2014, meat production jumped 13.2 percent, and cheese production increased 27.5 percent.

Putin's popularity ratings still hover well above 80 percent. Experts suggest he's using the food show to circle the wagons more tightly in anticipation that Russia's problems with the West will probably go on for a long time – and people had better get used to paying the price for that.

"Movies and TV have played their role in making Russians see eye-to-eye with the Kremlin over what happened in Crimea and Ukraine. But actions are needed, too," says Mr. Petrov. "This [food destruction] spectacle is a way to make everyone feel directly involved, and accept that this is the way things are."

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