Last week Vladimir Putin announced that in retaliation for the European sanctions Russia is going to ban food from the USA and EU nations. This announcement raised a lot of eyebrows in the West and East. The West was surprised because, while Russia is importing 40% of its food from the West, the percentage of exports to Russia for most EU economies is quite small. The ban was going to hurt Russian citizens much more and much quicker than any EU economy. In the East the reaction was less surprise than quick recognition of the situation. It was not long before old-style Soviet humor was predicting old-style Soviet conditions in Russia: empty shelves, bizarre choice and plenty of wheeling and dealing under the table. After initial surprise the world started debating what this all meant for the global economy, the conflict in Ukraine and the general security situation. Putin’s radical response was seen as a ratcheting up of the tension, as a transition to full-blown war and/or as a sign that the days of the Putin regime were numbered. Scant attention was paid to the announcements made by Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, in which he stressed that Russians will turn the situation to their advantage by giving their own local farmers a chance to fill supermarket shelves. At best this idea earned ridicule, but it might capture more what is behind the bizarre ban than anything else that has been said about it. Rather than seeing the ban as a quid pro quo for the sanctions, the idea to make Russia more self-sufficient and more ‘local’ is one of the pillars of Putin’s grand plan to transform Russia into a new society. Putin is a Soviet child after all and while, after he came to power in 2000, he showed little enthusiasm for communist economics, his politics have always had more than a Soviet touch. His predilection to use repression as a tool of governance has been well noted; his desire to elevate both society and individual into better entities – a goal that was much desired and propagated in communist propaganda – less so.
One of the big disappointments in post-communist Russia was the discovery that Western goods might be more plenty and more colorful than Soviet-era items, yet not necessarily of better quality. Food became a particular item of scorn – not least because McDonald’s flooded the country with ugly little outlets – but also because for most Russians the high-end Western items are still out of reach, leaving them mainly exposed to the cheaper, mass-produced and chemically enhanced items. Sentimentality did the rest. The bland and low-quality items coming out of huge Soviet food factories were conveniently forgotten in favor of the memory of old peasant women selling home-grown apples, hand-picked mushrooms, and self-pickled cucumbers on the metro steps. It is this memory that Medvedev tapped when he spoke about giving Russian farmers a chance. It is both nostalgia and disappointment that drives the current Russian willingness to forego French cheese, Polish dairy, and German chocolate. The rhetoric that scorned these products has been around for a long time. And for Putin it is part of a larger project of creating a society that is not Western: an experiment for which he is prepared to take risks and endure collective hardship. Indeed, just as in Bolshevik ideology, this hardship is not a hindrance to, but part of societal transformation – a kind of purifying process. For the moment Russian society is willing to follow Putin in this experiment: to strike out alone, to be the lone wolf unwilling to follow the dictates of Western consumerism, to defy conventional Western wisdom, to be better, purer, and superior to the despised West. Yet empty shelves and stomachs might well drive Russians out of Putin’s ideological arms, and back into the consumption-oriented West. It might take a while though.