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Brave New Russia

  • Brian Whitmore

Andrei Polyakov, leader of St. Petersburg's Cossack community, inspects food at a St. Petersburg supermarket.

Andrei Polyakov, leader of St. Petersburg's Cossack community, inspects food at a St. Petersburg supermarket.

One face of Vladimir Putin's brave new Russia is a man called Nikolai.

We don't know his last name, but we know he lives in Vladivostok. And we know that after having a few drinks on the evening of August 16, he called the cops to rat on his neighbors for cooking illegally imported goose meat.

"I served in the army and I understand the situation like this: we have our superiors and they give orders that we must carry out, meaning there is the law and we must obey it," Nikolai said, according to Russian media reports.

Another face of the brave new Russia is Andrei Polyakov, leader of St. Petersburg's Cossack community. Polyakov recently said he would regularly send his men, armed with a mobile crematorium, to raid stores suspected of selling contraband foreign food.

The food snitches and food vigilantes are taking their cues from the top, of course.

Russia's Federal Customs Service has drafted legislation classifying banned foreign foods as "strategically important." Until now, that label only applied to weapons, explosives, poisons, and radioactive materials.

If it becomes law, the new classification will mean those caught importing banned fruits, vegetables, meat, and poultry can face up to seven years in prison. French cheese is apparently now just as dangerous to the security of the state as polonium, uranium, assault weapons, and dirty bombs.

And speaking of cheese, the Interior Ministry this week released footage of a bust of what it called a "major cheese-smuggling ring." Some 470 tons of forbidden cheese was found and six members of the alleged cheese mafia were arrested.

And why stop with food? The head of the Russian Association of Textile Manufacturers says contraband foreign clothing should also be destroyed.

Russian authorities have also begun removing household products manufactured by Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, and other leading Western companies from stores, claiming health risks.

Fortress Russia

It's hard to wrap your head around all this craziness. At first glance, the Kremlin's jihad against all things Western looks like the postimperial temper tantrum of a regime that is truly losing the plot.

And perhaps it is. They want their empire back, dammit, and if they can't have it they're going to smash their dinner plate on the floor and trash their room.

"All the falling regimes share an interesting pattern. Before a fall they start acting crazy, they are struck by the epidemic of mass idiocy," political analyst Valery Solovei wrote on Facebook.

"This is exactly what's going on right now in Russia. From the public destruction of food, to the attempt to ban Wikipedia, to the prohibition of importing household goods and all the other idiocy large and small."

Or perhaps there is a method to the madness. Perhaps Putin's Kremlin is preparing society for what is coming in an era of low oil prices, a weak ruble, sanctions, and a long-term confrontation with the West.

Consider it reverse shock therapy.

In a recent article, economist Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies, wrote that the Russian economy was heading for an era of austerity and autarky, with thousands of private businesses going under and the state sector expanding.

"The real consequence will be Russia's retreat from the global market and its economy’s transformation into one which is much more closed," Inozemtsev wrote.

"This way leads us towards a quasi-Soviet economy detached from the world and, at the same time, proud of its autarchy; towards a deteriorating economy which compensates for the drop in living standards with pervasive propaganda."

Is it working? If the public reaction to the destruction of contraband foreign food is any indication, the results are mixed.

A survey by the state-run All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM) showed that 46 percent favored the destruction of banned food and 44 percent opposed. A poll by the independent Levada Center showed just 40 percent supporting it and 48 percent opposing.

"Can Russia 'opt out' of contemporary globalization? I do not see any reasons which would prevent this," Inozemtsev wrote.

"How long will it remain stable under the new conditions? I believe much longer than the majority of today’s analysts are prepared to admit."

How long the regime can remain stable, to a degree, depends on people like Nikolai the food snitch and Polyakov the food vigilante. It depends on how long patriotic fervor can keep the population supportive with patriotic appeals as living standards plummet.

But much of it also depends on how long the elite -- which has become accustomed to their comfortable globalized lives -- remains cohesive.

We should soon learn whether we are witnessing the death throes of the Putin regime or the birth of a new fortress Russia.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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