Will Russia's Destruction of Food Start a new kind of Kitchen Debate?

By: Tove K. Danovich

Bulldozers running over mountains of food. Incinerated calamari. Euthanized ducklings. Footage of nighttime raids of a “cheese smuggling ring.” These are just a few of the images that have come out of Russia since Vladimir Putin enacted a ban on a wide range of food imports from Western nations, including the United States, in August of last year. Aiming to cause some consternation to former agricultural trading partners, Putin’s government also considers the ban a point of pride. They may import about 40 percent of their food, but they can still cut themselves off from the West if necessary and, hopefully, become completely self-sufficient. The ban itself was in retaliation against sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU as a result of Russia’s involvement in the destabilization of Ukraine.

"Kitchen debate" by O'Halloran, Thomas. Public Domain Image. In 1959 Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev talked foreign affairs via kitchen appliances. Are we fighting with food now, more than ever?

"Kitchen debate" by O'Halloran, Thomas. Public Domain Image. In 1959 Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev talked foreign affairs via kitchen appliances. Are we fighting with food now, more than ever?

And so the refrigerator wars began.

Over the first year, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the import ban did affect foreign producers, but it also had a marked effect on the domestic economy. Consumer inflation spiked to 17 percent this year.

Yet, Russia only recently started cracking down on violators and closing loopholes, such as the one that allowed banned Norwegian salmon to enter through Belarus. A Presidential Executive Order declared that “prohibited imports” would be seized and destroyed. Not only did the order mandate seizure and destruction of food, but the government also required the destruction to be photographed and videotaped — leading to the interesting media that has popped up on the Internet since.

But Russians are largely unhappy with this new policy. A Russian poll referenced by the Wall Street Journal shows that 68 percent of Russians still agree with the food ban. However, 48 percent disapprove of the destruction of banned goods. In one video, viewers can see over nine tons of cheese being bulldozed. Hundreds of tons of food — including tomatoes, meat and pepper — has been destroyed since the ban started.

The latest estimates from Rosstat, Russia’s statistics bureau, show that 16 percent of the population lives below “subsistence level.” A Russian Change.org petition calling on the government to donate the contraband food to the needy has received over 500,000 signatures. It’s not the ban but the waste that upsets people.

Russia’s 1921 famine resulted in the death of between one and five million people. After the rise of the Soviet Union, another two major famines in 1932 and 1947 hit several areas of the communist state. These events are still close enough to cause some backlash against a wasteful policy. According to the New York Times, even government allies are protesting. “I don't understand how food can be destroyed in a country that lived through the horrible hunger during the war and tough years that followed," said Vladimir Solovyov, a usually pro-Kremlin TV anchor.

Yet the government seems only to get more serious about enforcing this policy. As of August 18, a hotline created by the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office allows citizens to report illegal imports of banned food. On August 19, Russia’s Federal Customs Service published a draft of a bill that would label banned food as “strategically important.” The Moscow Times reports that it would put items like cheese and salmon into the same category as “radioactive materials, poison, armaments and explosives.” If the bill passes, offenders could be charged with prison terms of up to seven years.

While disapproval of Russia’s food policies is pervasive among Russian citizens, a recent survey by the Levada Center revealed that 70 percent of Russians surveyed believe that Russia should not bend at all to the Western sanctions, and only 8 percent felt the Western sanctions had caused serious problems for their family. In that case, who is actually feeling the burn of these policies? Would the viral footage of burning cheese change Russians’ responses to the Levada Center survey? Where will Russians find substitutes for illegal food items? How will that impact international food commodities? Is there a way to leave food out of diplomacy?