Vladimir Putin and his government have had an unusually high level of support from the Russia people, especially when compared to leaders of other major powers. His earlier approval rating according to Levada Center Polling, was as high as 87%. But a recent poll last month in June, taken after his decree to destroy all fresh produce imported from the West, reflects that many Russians disagree and have called for the ban to be overturned.
When Western sanctions were imposed on Russia in retaliation for the illegal annexation of Crimea last year, the Russian authorities replied by banning most food imports from western countries including the U.S., Australia, the EU, and many others.
The most recent development is a presidential decree that banned food found in food centers in violation of the Russian presidential decree would be seized and destroyed. Hordes of patriots descended into supermarkets to scour for any food that violated the ban and made note of cheeses, nuts, or refined products that had not been produced in Russia.
Yet when videos were circulated of bulldozers running over and crushing rounds of cheeses or fruits, public opinion was quick to change, and an online petition from Moscow resident, Olga Saveleva, against the decree gained as many as 310,000 signatures.
Why are Russians reacting so strongly to food being destroyed and not to economic sanctions or to how the international community views Russia?
Economically, part of the reason is the level of trade and dependency which has developed between the west, specifically the EU, and Russia. Appropriately, 10% of the European Union’s food and agricultural exports made their way to Russia, around $13 billion worth of European produce alone in 2013. The ban has caused imported food products to disappear, and while Russian businesses are turning to Asia for future imports, the shortfall has been felt across Russia.
While not as bad as the hour long lines in the former Soviet Union, the sudden disappearance of a large part of Russia’s food source is hurting consumers and have caused food prices to rise by about 20% by July. Worst hit are the 11% of Russians who live below the poverty line. For these Russians simple survival is an issue. The realization that around 350 tons of food has already been destroyed by authorities struck a nerve with them and many other Russians. To them, the government’s action was not patriotic, but simply wasteful.
However, the underlying reason that is causing panic or anger isn’t due to wastefulness in the light of growing hardships. Rather it’s the memory of the impact of the Soviet-era famines on the population, and how avoidable many of them were.
It’s the memory of those long food and bread lines that burned hours of women’s lives daily as they struggled to feed their families. It’s in light of those memories compared to the freedoms of the capitalist market of modern Russia where shelves are packed and lines are short, that is enraging many Russians.
As Ms. Salvaleva, who began the petition summarizes, “There are veterans of (World War II) who remember the blockade of Leningrad, when hundreds of thousands of people died of hunger. This is a mockery.”