St. Petersburg, 12 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Sennoi Square is one of St. Petersburg's busiest food markets. Located in the heart of the city, with the cheapest prices to be found, budget-conscious consumers travel to it from all over St. Petersburg. But most of what they find on sale comes from Europe and the other former Soviet republics. "Look at what's here", says Luba, a middle-aged female vendor, "almost nothing is Russian. Where did all our goods go?"
Many Russians echo Luba's words, and such talk can often be heard at meetings of the so-called patriotic opposition. During his recent trip here, Russia's State Duma Chairman Gennadi Seleznev told reporters that "60 percent of St Petersburg food stuffs are imported." This, as Seleznev put it, "gives NATO the ability to throw the city into a panic at any moment by threatening to block food imports."
As if to underscore the strong foreign presence in the local food market, Tuesday witnessed the last day of a ten-day Finnish promotion campaign titled "Made In Finland - Quality is in the Neighborhood." Pressed by growing foreign food competition from other countries, the Finns are eager to maintain their traditional strong presence in the Russian northwest, where they sold 90-million-dollars worth of food last year, according to Eija Tervonen, trade commissioner at the Finnish consulate in St Petersburg.
But, the Finns and other foreign food manufacturers are suddenly facing unexpected strong competition from one source that they have long counted as down and out. St. Petersburg food manufacturers are now making a comeback after years of depression. Vitali Zubchenko, commercial director for St Petersburg's leading food store, Eliseyevsky Store on Nevsky Prospect, told our correspondent that "our store has seen a noticeable change in consumer purchasing patterns. People are buying Russian. Four years ago 80 percent of the food we sold was of foreign origin. Today it is almost the other way around." Many other stores throughout the city are noticing similiar trends in varying degrees.
During Soviet times and for most of the 1990s, Russians perceived imported goods, especially foodstuffs, as superior to Russian ones. But a recent study by VTsIOM, one of Russia's leading social opinion polling agencies, shows that 60-70 percent of Russians say that Russian food products are of better quality than foreign ones.
The reason for this, Zubchenko explains, is that "Russian consumers want fresh food. Foreign food manufactures must use more preservatives to ship over a distance. Since Russian food is made locally, he said, it's more natural, with less preservatives and chemicals, and fresher."
Realizing the link between better quality and good public relations, St. Petersburg's eight leading food manufacturers have teamed up to create their own lobbying and promotional group: "Made in St Petersburg." The group works with distributors and the media to get the word out about the quality of Russian food products. Firms represented include the dairy food giant, Petmol, and Russia's largest brewery, Baltika. While President Yeltsin appealed to the nation several months ago to buy Russian, "Made in St Petersburg" was founded a year ago under the slogan: "Buy Ours. Buy Russian."
Dianna Ogurtsova, an official at "Made in St Petersburg," told our correspondent it is natural that Russian food manufacturers are taking back the market. "Foreign food manufacturers often send to Russia items of low quality that could never be sold in the West. They think Russia is a Third World country and can dump anything here."
Ogurtsova also points out that, "Russian consumers should understand that patriotism can be financially beneficial to the country's economy, especially in terms of jobs, economic growth, and increased tax revenue. As Ogurtsova put it,"Buying Russian helps each one of us."
Though the "Made in St. Petersburg" is currently the only movement of its kind in Russia, food manufacturers from other cities are interested in the project as a model. Still, the essence of the idea is not protectionism, but improving the quality of Russian goods so that they can successfully compete in a free market. They hope that "Made in Russia" will one day be said with pride.