Being Russian has never been easy, historically speaking, but it’s become more challenging in recent months. In response to sanctions imposed by the EU and the United States over Russia’s Ukrainian adventures, Vladimir Putin’s government has banned the importation of produce, fish, meat and dairy products from those countries.
The effects on Russian society have been dramatic in a short period of time, since the country now imports more food than it grows. Russians who have become accustomed to foreign delicacies such as Italian olive oil, Swiss chocolate and French cheese have been forced to revert to a more basic diet. Food prices are going up, shortages are hitting grocery stores, and---in a replay of the Soviet era--- long lines are becoming commonplace.
The ban on food imports has trickled down to the man in the street. Last week, the government closed four McDonald’s locations in Moscow. The restaurants were allegedly shuttered due to “numerous sanitary violations,” but the closures clearly had a political motivation; legislators have called for retaliation against Burger King and KFC as well. You may be a newly minted billionaire in the born-again Russian capitalist economy, but it doesn’t get you a Big Mac.
If the ban continues, the economic impact could be huge. The European Union exported $2.7 billion worth of produce to Russia last year, and estimates of their total food business in the country range from $15-20 billion. The EU has begun subsidizing farmers for their lost income, but it’s doubtful that the handouts could continue indefinitely.
So what are Russians eating these days? In another haunting echo of the Soviet era, many citizens appear to be turning to buckwheat. The grain is cheap, nutritious and readily available in stores. It can be used to prepare a variety of tasty dishes, most notably gruel. If you’re fortunate enough to afford caviar, one of the few home-grown delicacies, at least you have the ingredients handy to make traditional blini. If not, there’s nothing more comforting in the midst of crisis than a soothing, steaming bowl of porridge.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012); his second book, Moonshine Nation, has just been released by Lyons Press. For more information, go to amazon.com