The latest food fad in Russia: the Soviet diet

Propaganda-resistant citizens have been stocking up on the last French cheese they’re going to see for a while ...

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MOSCOW -- Goodbye, Roquefort cheese, feta, prosciutto and jamon. So long, German raspberry jam, U.S.-made Planters nut mixes, Norwegian salmon and Faroese shrimp. In hitting back at the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin is depriving his countrymen of the delicacies to which they have grown accustomed since the Soviet Union collapsed.

On Mr. Putin’s orders, the Russian government Thursday banned the import of certain European, U.S., Canadian and Australian foods for a year in response to those countries’ Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia. Unlike Western governments, Mr. Putin is not concerned about minimizing the effect of sanctions on his own country’s businesses. The measures will hurt Russian retailers and importers as much as Western exporters. To ordinary Russians, the measures show how serious Mr. Putin is about returning to Soviet times, when all grocery stores were called simply “Food” and sold almost exclusively local produce — when they had anything to sell.

The embargo appears focused on products that Russia can source internally or from friendlier countries. It includes all kinds of dairy, fruit and vegetables, meat and seafood. Parmesan cheese is banned, but Italian olive oil isn’t. German sausage is out, but German beer can still be imported. French foie gras is out, but Sauternes is in. Irish cheddar will be gone from the few Russian stores that sell it, but Irish whiskey will still be served in Moscow bars.

Russia imports more than $30 billion worth of food a year from outside the former Soviet Union. In all, Europe’s biggest economies plus Poland, Norway, the United States, Canada and Australia stand to lose some $6 billion over the next year from the Russian food sanctions.

That is far from devastating for them. But the Russian Micex stock index has lost a third of that amount in capitalization since the food sanctions were announced because they are expected to hurt retailers such as the discounter Magnit, which has called itself the biggest food importer to Russia. More upscale retailers will need to reconsider their entire sales matrices, shifting to Asian and Latin American imports. That cannot but have an effect on their bottom lines.

Mr. Putin appears to care little about the effect of the sanctions. He is showing his voters in the most tangible way possible that Russia doesn’t need the West to survive. The Kremlin’s propaganda is already playing up this message.

Blanket-bombed by state TV channels, most Russians will swallow the patriotic line, as they have bought Mr. Putin’s takes on Ukrainian events and the annexation of Crimea. The few propaganda-resistant citizens have been stocking up on the last French cheese they’re going to see for a while and chuckling at the latest Putin joke: “The president decided to show he’s a Western leader, too, and imposed sanctions on Russia.”

Leonid Bershidsky is a contributor to Bloomberg View.


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