Over the past year, the Russian authorities have banned most fresh produce from those countries, which have imposed economic sanctions, following the annexation of Crimea. But on 6 August, a new presidential decree came into force, requiring any ‘contraband’ food products that have crossed the border to be destroyed. The same day, the internet was inundated with photos of people scrabbling for peaches, oranges and cheese, which had been inadequately buried by bulldozers.
‘The main reason for this measure is to ensure the implementation of Russia’s counter-sanctions’, explained Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s press spokesman.
On the first day after the decree came into force, 320 tonnes of ‘sanctioned’ foodstuffs were destroyed. In Belgorod, near the Ukrainian border, a bulldozer buried 10 tonnes of Ukrainian cheese, while in the Leningrad region surrounding St Petersburg, 40 tonnes of peaches and nectarines suffered the same fate (their country of origin was impossible to establish, so it was assumed they came from an EU country).
Concern for the health of the nation
The destruction of all this food has led to a real split in public opinion. In the course of a week, more than 300,000 Russian citizens signed an online petition asking Putin not to destroy the food, but to give it away free to people in need.
Aleksei Alekseenko, deputy head of Russia’s food and agriculture watchdog Rosselskhnadzor (the agency responsible for the operation) was adamant in his response: ‘We shall go on destroying these goods day by day. This is a serious operation.’
The situation was further enflamed by the publication of an official report revealing that nearly 23m Russian citizens live below the poverty line, with monthly incomes under the ‘minimum living wage’ of 9,700 roubles (£97). In other words, they can’t afford to feed themselves properly.
Bulldozers burying food in Smolensk region. (c) Andrei Zavyalov for Rabochyi put newspaper. Used with permission.
Meanwhile, Peskov summarised the government’s line on the destruction of the ‘contraband’ food: ‘We are talking here about pure contraband goods, unaccompanied by any documentation as to their origins, so no one can take on the responsibility of guaranteeing that it is safe for human consumption. So while our first aim is to ensure the implementation of Russia’s counter-sanctions, and our second, to protect our economic interests, the third is concern for the health of our citizens.’
Agriculture Minister Aleksandr Tkachov expressed a similar concern: ‘These are foodstuffs of dubious quality. We cannot risk our fellow Russians’ health by allowing them to be sold in our shops.’
‘We cannot risk our citizens’ health by allowing this to be sold in our shops’
Senior government figures have, however, preferred to remain silent on the subject. Neither Vladimir Putin, nor Dmitry Medvedev, have offered an explanation of why the food cannot be distributed for free, although Medvedev has mentioned ‘the need to support our own growers and producers’.
A source in Rosselskhnadzor told me, however, that there was only one thought behind it: ‘Once Russia announced a food embargo, implementing it became a political necessity.’
‘The quality thing is a joke – it’s the same mutton and tangerines that we were importing two or three years ago, before the sanctions. And everybody knows it all comes from EU countries: the quantity of illegal imports has been rising, and the sanctions are directed at only one group of countries. And it’s easy enough to tell French cheese from a Vietnamese copy.’
‘It’s mostly Russian businesses that transport the stuff: they buy it in Europe and try to get it across the border using fake Belarusian or Turkish documentation.’
‘If something is edible, why destroy it?’
On 3 August, a petition appeared on the Change.org website, asking Putin to distribute the contraband food to the needy, rather than destroying it.
‘Why should we burn and bury food that could be feeding war veterans, pensioners, disabled people or large families?’ wrote the petition’s authors. ‘The sanctions have led to a significant rise in food prices in Russian shops. The poorer groups of our population have been the first to suffer from the sanctions, having to restrict their food intake, sometimes to starvation level. If something is edible, why destroy it?’
Russia introduced counter-sanctions against European produce in August 2014. (c) Velar Grant / Demotix.
‘The destruction is an extra drain on the exchequer, while charities could distribute the food to the needy without any cost to the government. We are prepared to set up a public commission that would decide how to deal with the ‘contraband’ and organise its distribution.’
‘Charities would distribute the food to the needy without any cost to the government.’
In the course of a week the petition received 316,000 signatures, but Peskov announced that ‘the presidential decree is coming into force, and must be implemented. This platform [Change.org], if I am right, does not disclose signatories’ details, so we have no proof of their real number’.
‘We would have queued up for this food’
The Abramov family—Vakhtang, Yekaterina and their two children, Soso (ten-years-old) and Syoma (eight)—are a low-income family living in Puchezh, a small town on the Volga. They try to make ends meet on a monthly income of 13,000 roubles (£131); the national average is 36,000 roubles (£361).
The Abramov family. Image courtesy of the author.
‘There’s very little work here,’ Vakhtang tells me. ‘There used to be a milk plant, but it shut down in 2011. My wife earns 6,000 roubles (£60) a month working in a clothing factory and I do casual work wherever I can find it, helping people with decorating or mending a car engine – and that’s how we survive’.
Most of the family’s income goes on food, but the boys have their own needs – toys and school things.
‘We couldn’t believe it when we first heard about it – that they were going to destroy food here in Russia,’ says Yekaterina. ‘No one in our town can afford to feed themselves properly, and somewhere else they can bulldoze good food into the ground. We would have queued up for that food. We’d have stood all night. If we could save any money on food, we could go on a trip to Nizhny Novgorod or somewhere, just get out a little’.
But all the Abramovs’ earnings go to feed themselves. Their fridge contains bread, potatoes and milk, and they also eat pasta. They only have meat or fish on special occasions – it’s too expensive otherwise.
The Abramovs’ fridge contains bread, potatoes and milk, and they also eat pasta.
Vladimir Kulikov’s family is also in the low-income group. Vladimir himself is disabled, a wheelchair user, and his family also has four members, although only one is a child. Vladimir’s mother Aleksandra also lives with them.
Kolya Kulikov. Image courtesy of the author.
‘Our combined monthly income is 27,000 roubles (£271)’, Vladimir tells me. ‘Half of it goes on rent and the other half on food and medical costs. I’ve no idea what Spanish ham is like, or Dutch cheese, but I’m sure I’d enjoy eating them. Unfortunately, I’m disabled and have real problems supporting my family. If the government gave the food to people like us, it would be a great help’.
On my way to visit the Kulikovs, I decided to go into a shop and buy a few provisions. On my arrival, little Kolya took one look at the yogurt I bought, grabbed the pot and started eating it with his fingers. ‘The man bought me some smetana [sour cream]!’ he cried with joy after eating it.
‘He’ll remember your smetana for a month’, says his dad Vladimir. ‘Sometimes he asks for sausage, but we can’t afford it. He probably remembers each and every time he tasted sausage’.
'It’s a real crime'
The special boarding school in the village of Murygino, also in the Volga region, has 345 pupils and specialises in children with learning disabilities.
One of its teachers agreed to talk to me anonymously—a year ago another staff member nearly lost her job after admitting to journalists that she was opposed to the annexation of Crimea.
‘I’m just glad that our children wouldn’t understand if we were to tell them about the food being destroyed – their disabilities are too severe. But it’s a real crime. If the government could distribute the food to schools like ours, we could afford more medication and therapy for the children.
‘Free food would save us around 3,000,000 roubles (£3,009) a month. We could’ve spent that money on our children instead.’