Russia Buries the Cheese: Observations on the Latest Food Ban

•18/08/2015 • Leave a Comment
Photo: zloy odessit LiveJournal.

Photo: zloy odessit LiveJournal.

If there is one issue that may signal the slow awakening of Russia’s opposition, perhaps the food issue is most telling. On the 29th of July, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree ordering the confiscation and destruction of banned foodstuffs entering Russia. The executive order has its genesis in the presidential decree banning such foods on the sixth of August 2014.

The results of the new order have been stunning: some Russians had previously believed state television reports that the ban was the results of the West’s refusal to export food to Russia. That illusion has been exposed as a lie. Others, understanding that the ban was an order from the Kremlin, supported the government’s restrictions, believing that Russia was countering the evil West, especially the USA.

In reality the previous ban had done little to stop the import of Western exports, except to create inflation as banned products began to rise in price. Customs officials, at least according to some Russians, were the one’s benefiting from the ban as at times the confiscated food seemingly disappeared into thin air.

Over the past year, food inflation has grown 20.7 percent according to the government’s statistical service. Some products, however, have skyrocketed to much higher levels. The government reported that overall inflation had risen to 15.60 percent by July of 2015.

The Russian public has borne the brunt of the current economic crisis. The Federal State Statistics Service estimates that the percentage of Russians now living under the poverty line rose to 16 percent by the first quarter of this year. If one accepts the government’s claim, then almost 23 million of the Russian population now live in poverty.

Bans or not, many of the products eventually found their way onto store shelves anyway. The presidential decree on destruction of banned food products is aimed at achieving what the previous executive order had failed to accomplish. Thus, this directive: Правительству Российской Федерации незамедлительно установить порядок уничтожения товаров. (Translation: The Government of the Russian Federation will immediately establish a procedure for destruction of goods.)

The public outcry may have surprised the government. Several hundred thousand signatures have been collected in a petition to stop the destruction by Change.org. Online social media, from LiveJournal to Twitter, and from Vkontake to Facebook, reveals that the destruction of food has touched a nerve in a country that has seen hunger firsthand. Public protesters, in small numbers at the moment, are reappearing on Russia’s streets–something virtually unseen for almost two years.

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Saint Petersburg, Nevsky street protest. Photo by Константин Куортти.

A popular LiveJournal blogger recently posted a moving message to her government: Я просто хочу нормальной жизни (translation: I Just Want a Normal Life). In that article she begs Mr. Putin to explain how he has personally suffered from the crisis and bans.

Pointedly, she asks: Вы стали меньше есть? Меньше зарабатывать? Меньше ездить по миру? Меньше покупать продукты? Вас сократили что ли? Или, может, вы снизили свои расходы на развлечения в виде походов в театр или гала-ужины? Что вы потеряли? (You eat less? Earn less? Travel less around the world? Buy fewer products? What have you personally cut? Maybe you have reduced entertainment spending at the theater or at gala dinners? What have you lost?)

The conclusion: Я знаю ответ на этот вопрос. И вы знаете. НИЧЕГО! (I know the answer to this question. And you know. NOTHING!)

So, is this growing food opposition only an isolated issue to just a few, or it is a legitimate cause for concern for the Kremlin? The well respected Russian polling organization, Levada Centre just released interesting data revealing that almost half of Russians are opposed to the incineration of foodstuffs, and the bleaching and then bulldozing of diary and meat. While some 68 percent (lower than previous polls) still agree with banning Western products, 48 percent do not agree with the government’s order to destroy foodstuffs. Instead, the most common reaction of those polled thought that confiscated food would be better used to support orphanages and homeless shelters.

In regards to the Russian president, perhaps a telling sign is the resurgence of a title for Mr. Putin not often seen in public discourse since massive street protests in 2011. It is a one word description: царь (Tsar or Caesar).

One Russian twitter account posted: Страна прошла большой путь: от “НЕ ПИТЬ” — при раннем Горбачеве до “НЕ ЕСТЬ” — при позднем Путине. (The country has come a long way. From “DON’T DRINK” under Gorbachev, to “DON’T EAT” under Putin.)

Food destruction Ugolok Tsinika

Dutch cheese from the Netherlands is bulldozed and buried. Twitter photo: Уголок циника (Corner Cynic)

Another poster mixed the secretive burials of soldiers killed in Ukraine with the burial of cheese by tweetingРоссия – это такая страна, где солдат хоронят тайком и со стыдом, а сыр – демонстративно и с гордостью. (Russia-the kind of country where soldiers are buried secretly, but cheese is buried defiantly and with pride.)

The confiscation of banned products is not only an issue at border entry points. Last week Russian inspectors cited French grocery retailer Auchan for selling banned foodstuffs. Russian health inspectors claim to have discovered DNA from foreign pigs in ground pork products on shelves. Auchan, one of the largest supermarket chains in Russia, has promised to remove any products that violate the ban.

With food prices so high, how does the average Russian feel about their immediate economic future? According to the Moscow based unit of Nielsen Research, the Russian Consumer Confidence Index fell to a record low of 72 points in the first quarter of 2015, down seven points from the previous quarter. Yet, even amid all the ire, humour is never too far around the corner. A popular joke is to call someone a “Parmesan” (as in cheese-head), a play from the Great Patriotic War (WWII) labeling of volunteer guerrilla fighters as Russian partisans.

Despite all the recent Kremlin talk of Washington being controlled by the Illuminati, Russia continues to buy U.S. Treasury bonds, adding $1.4 billion in June, the same amount as May (source: U.S. Treasury). Russia currently holds some $72 billion in U.S. government bonds.

Finally, for those traveling to Russia soon, be aware that over-zealous customs officials are reportedly confiscating personal food items by travelers found in luggage and carry-on bags. This is a violation of the presidential decree, but is allegedly happening in spite of the illegality of the reported enforcement. For those planning to carry food items, it might be a good idea to carry a printed copy of the decree. Specifically such travelers should highlight this section of article 2: Положения настоящего Указа не применяются в отношении товаров, ввезённых физическими лицами для личного пользования…. (The provisions of this Decree shall not apply in respect to goods of private individuals for personal use.)

Meanwhile, if you smell something burning–it is probably the cheese.

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Pipeline Explodes Under Moscow River

•16/08/2015 • Leave a Comment

The sounds of explosions were thunderous and flames and smoke rose over the Moscow River this past Wednesday when an underwater oil pipeline exploded in the Maryino district of Russia’s capital. At least three people, including a child, were injured and amateur footage of the blaze showed large plumes of black smoke rising over the water.

Investigators at first thought that the sudden rupture of an underwater oil pipeline caused the blast, but later reports indicated that a slow and previously undetected leak may have been accidentally ignited by workers who were burning brush along the riverbank. The fireball erupted about 200 meters upstream from a Moscow oil refinery site.

The fire and plume of smoke could be seen as far away as Red Square, about 1600 meters (a mile) from the explosion site. Residents of nearby apartments and office workers watched from highrise windows as fire crews battled the blaze for over an hour.

On Monday local residents had begun to complain of unusual smells coming from the refinery and the river. Inspectors suspected a leak but could not pinpoint it at the time. A cloud of hydrogen sulfide gas had enveloped parts of Moscow in November of last year and investigators had concluded then that the gases were coming from the same Moscow refinery.

Officials with Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry advised residents to say indoors as a protection against respiratory issues caused by the smoke. Russia Beyond The Headlines is reporting that environment damage is estimated at almost 30 million rubles ($464,000).

RT reported that some frightened residents at first believed that nuclear war had commenced with an attack from the West.

Travel to the Russian City of Ufa

•11/08/2015 • Leave a Comment

It has been a while since we’ve checked in with Sergei of Real Russia. He is living back in Ufa, and many of his more recent videos are of the city and region in and around Ufa.

Thinking that some of our readers may someday travel to this region, here is Sergei’s report on the Ufa International Airport (IATA code UFA):

UFA airport info in English: http://www.airportufa.ru/en/main.html

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Holodomor: Class Warfare and Confiscatory Taxation in the Extreme

•09/08/2015 • Leave a Comment

The Holodomor, mass starvation of Ukrainian peasants in 1932-1933, was a prime example of class warfare and confiscatory taxation.

Shameful journalists, some of them from the West, promoted the lie that the famine was really nothing more than a “hunger protest” against progressive Socialist policies by rich farmers.

First, the government used confiscatory taxation to seize assets, then when people began to starve they seemed unable, and unwilling, to do what was necessary to save lives. The sad truth: Stalin and the Communists meant for millions to die. It was the class warfare cleansing of Ukraine.

To be blunt, we should not be so surprised at the nationalistic pride many Ukrainians feel, and for their anger against Russian oppression and occupation.

Our American readers should also understand that when political parties, such as the party of Barrack Obama, promote class warfare, the logical conclusion can too quickly be taken to the extreme.

Russia Threatens Principle of Reciprocity Against Financial Lawsuits

•09/08/2015 • Leave a Comment
Duma Moscow June 2015 W 211 ed sm

The Russian Duma (Parliament) building in Moscow. Photo: The Mendeleyev Journal.

Smarting from the potential of massive losses over shareholder lawsuits in European courts over the Yukos affair, the Russian Parliament, the Duma, has introduced a bill that would allow Russia to confiscate property belonging to foreign states. Sponsors of the bill expect the bill to become law in January of 2016.

Citing European court rulings that award large sums to former Yukos shareholders, Russian President Vladimir Putin has directed the Duma to prepare legislation that would give Russia the ability to seize foreign assets in Russia as a “tit for tat” strategy against Yukos associated losses. Last Wednesday the Duma’s website published the text of the lawsuit, calling the idea a form of the “principle of reciprocity.”

Yukos was the former oil giant that was seized and dismantled by the government. It’s primary partner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sentenced to prison on questionable legal grounds, and many considered him to be a political prisoner. He was released from prison prior to the Winter Olympics in 2014.

European courts have ruled against the Russian government, awarding millions of dollars to former shareholders. The assets of Yukos eventually found their way into oil companies controlled by the Kremlin, primarily the closely held Russian oil company Rosneft.

Russian Duma members sponsoring the measure openly hint that the new bill is designed to intimidate countries whose courts rule against Russia in such lawsuits. Konstantin Dobrynin of the upper chamber’s constitutional law committee, told the Moscow Times newspaper that “the idea of the legislation is of a preventative character.”

After courts had begun to rule against Russia in June, President Putin indicated that Russia would respond in kind and promised that “we will defend our interests.”

Profiles of Those Who Have Stayed in Russia

•06/08/2015 • Leave a Comment

(Moscow) The title of the article is “Who’s Left in Russia?” and authors Louise Dickson and Sophia Tupolev chronicle the flow of expats who have left Russia in the past year, and profile those who have chosen to stay.

In the article, they write that “Russia’s opportunities for expats are shrinking faster than its economy, it seems. Economic growth is forecast to contract by as much as 5% in 2015, the ruble has depreciated 50% against the dollar, and foreign companies are jettisoning off Russian ventures.”

For many expats, staying in Russia has become more difficult. Not only have economic opportunities shrunk, but attitudes towards “outsiders” are hardening. The two observe that “…Russia’s collapsing economy that no longer demands as many Western specialists. Many have left, but some have stayed.” The article profiles five expats who share their experience in Moscow’s rapidly changing business landscape.

Tourism was far more active in previous years, such as this photo taken by the Mendeleyev Journal at the rear of Red Square in 2011.

Tourism was far more active in previous years, such as this photo taken by the Mendeleyev Journal at the rear of Red Square in 2011.

However, it is not only the expat community that is in decline. Tourism is down, especially since the annexation of Crimea. “Since this time last year, 499,000 fewer Westerners lived in, visited, or studied in Russia, or an average net loss of 1,360 per day.”

Similar reports by trustworthy sources such as VICE News and Journeyman Pictures show that some regions, such as Crimea, have lost nearly all of the typical tourism trade since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.

The article is featured in Russia! magazine. Author Sophia Tupolev is the creator of a Russia advice portal, AskSophie! She also works for RT, and is the creator of Moscow’s Russian Conversation Club. Louise Dickson is a Moscow-based journalist. Follow Louise on Twitter @louisecdickson.

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Karl Marx in Moscow

•22/07/2015 • Leave a Comment

Despite all the changes, some things remain the same in Russia. A few years ago the term “democracy” was amended to “managed democracy,” the government’s way of sugar-coating the scrapping of direct elections for regional leaders. Today, the term “democracy” is considered to be a four-letter word.

While capitalism, still very much the wild West style, rumbles on for those at the top, the country continues to find itself with one foot in the old ideology of Marxism-Leninism, and the other foot in the race to make more and more money for those with the right political connections.

Despite all the talk of change, the grand statue of Karl Marx remains standing across from the Bolshoi Theatre, near the Teatralnaya Plaza and Metro station, and opposite the Plaza of the Revolution.

Karl Marx monument, Moscow.

While the monument to Marx has stood at this location since 29 October 1961, the first monument to the discredited theorist was unveiled by Vladimir Lenin on 7 November 1918, commemorating the first anniversary of October Revolution. Lenin’s “Program of monumental propaganda” was touted to replace statues from the Tsarist era.

The original statue was nearby, on Revolution Square, which had just been renamed from its former title of Resurrection Square. The first monument featured Marx and Engels together, and due to the design quickly led locals to dub it “Two in a Bathtub.”  That statue, made of plaster of Paris, collapsed a year later, and so a new marble stone was set at the present location to show where a new monument would be constructed.

Communism wasn’t exactly the economic engine that Marx had prophesied, and so construction languished–for decades. The single marble stone at the new site read: “First stone of the monument to the great chieftain and teacher of the world proletariat.” It would be in 1957, long after Lenin’s death, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced a competition to complete the monument, and the job was awarded to Lev Kerbel, a favoured Soviet realism sculptor.

In 2009, officials with Moscow’s Committee for Monumental Arts proposed that the monument be removed from such a prominent spot in the centre of the city. The committee argued that the founder of communism had no place in Moscow since he had never visited during his lifetime.

Others have suggested that a life size statue of Vladimir Putin would be more appropriate at that site, but at least for now that idea has been tabled. Engineers say that the monument is one of the heaviest in Moscow, and therefore very difficult to move.

On the statue is an inscription reading: “Proletariat of all countries, solidarity!” At least some of the proletariat, in the form of local birds, visit the spot daily and are clearly united by showing their respect in the form of droppings on his head. It is as if the only human workers who remain united with Marx are the city maintenance crews who are dispatched to clean the statue daily.

Given the substance of his ideas, perhaps it would be just as well to allow the bird poop to accumulate.

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