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From West To Far East, Russians Spending More To Buy Less Food

A boy stands among a line of people queuing for food at a charity distribution for poor people in Moscow.
A boy stands among a line of people queuing for food at a charity distribution for poor people in Moscow.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Yulia Kolykhanova, a teacher in St. Petersburg, used to enjoy making future plans -- setting aside money for a special meal or a summer vacation.

Now, with the economy collapsing and food prices skyrocketing, she says every day has become an exercise in making ends meet. And the future? Well, she'll deal with that when it comes.

"The rise in food prices has hit our family very hard," she says. "Of course we've had to give up the luxuries -- sweets, smoked fish, olives. Even cabbage -- which has always been the food of poor people, potatoes, cabbage, carrots -- they all cost so much now! A cabbage used to cost nine rubles a kilo. Now it's 40 and change, so a small head will cost you 100 [$1.45]. Even basic survival items eat away at your budget."

But Kolykhanova says giving up chocolate, cheese, and other occasional treats isn't the toughest sacrifice she's had to make.

"The saddest thing is that I've completely lost the feeling of having at least some stability," she says. "We used to have money to put toward one thing or another. Now I can't make any assumptions about what the future holds. The only thing I know for sure is that we won't be able to send our child anywhere for the summer."

Black Bread, No Meat

It's been a tumultuous season for Russians, who first saw their food options dwindle back in August 2014, when President Vladimir Putin imposed a ban on Western food imports in response to EU and U.S. sanctions over Moscow's interference in Ukraine.

Shoppers who had grown used to Finnish yogurt, Italian mozzarella, and French apples have since had to readjust to locally made products, many from months-old companies forced into existence by the crisis.

But with manufacturers and suppliers also reeling from the ban, the selection of food available has not only grown smaller, but more expensive.

Add to that the collapse in world oil prices and the accompanying drop in the value of the ruble, and the challenge of putting food on the table has multiplied to the point where one politician reminded Russians "we've survived hunger and the cold" in the past and advised them to "eat a bit less."

The pricing panic has pushed federal authorities to conduct numerous raids in supermarket chains across the country in search of a scapegoat. Their findings have been both underwhelming and ineffective.

In St. Petersburg, teams of inspectors from the prosecutor's office and the state antimonopoly and consumer rights' services concluded food prices had risen just 21 percent, while residents say the jump has been far worse.

In the southern Volga city of Samara, local authorities imposed fines on several supermarket chains, including Karusel, Magnit, and Perekryostok, after finding their prices had risen by more than 30 percent in 30 days. But the fines were largely ineffectual, with basic food items rising between 40-50 percent in January and some non-necessities, like grapes, rising by 85 percent.

PHOTO GALLERY: Russia has scrambled to fill emptying market shelves with locally made alternatives to Finnish yogurt, Dutch cheese, and Italian mozzarella, whose packaging appears intended to fool Russian shoppers. Sergei Chernov, a journalist and photographer based in St. Petersburg, takes a look at some recent mealtime options, many of which appear to involve processed cheese.

Olga Ivanova, a Samara resident who receives an 8,500-ruble ($123) monthly pension, says she is no longer able to afford meat on a regular basis. "Last summer I could afford to buy chicken legs once a week for 80 rubles a kilo," she says. "Now chicken costs 170 rubles a kilo and I'm not getting it any more." She has also switched from white bread to black, because "it takes longer to go bad."

Ivanova's neighbor, Yelena Vasilyeva, is an engineer supporting a 12-year-old son on a monthly salary of 20,000 rubles ($290). "We eat simply," she says, then rattles off a list of dishes built around the traditional Russian staple of "tushonka," or stewed canned meat.

"We mix a can of tushonka with potatoes for everyday meals," Vasilyeva says. "We make soup from tushonka or tinned fish, with potatoes and noodles. I buy the cheapest tushonka -- 50 rubles for a 330-gram can. I bought a big bag of potatoes at 20 rubles a kilo last fall at the market. For dessert we just have rolls with homemade jam or bananas."

Survival Mode

In Chelyabinsk, to the east of Samara, many residents have begun buying food at wholesale markets as a way to cut costs, where a recent price review concluded that buckwheat had more than doubled in price and fresh produce like cucumbers had gone up by a whopping 480 percent. (The Chelyabinsk region has just announced it is laying off as many as 9,000 people from local enterprises paralyzed by the ruble crash.)

Roza Sedykh, a pensioner, is still grateful for the 50 kilograms of sugar she managed to purchase in December at just 34 rubles a kilogram, a price that has since risen by 40 percent.

"We bought good rice for 31 rubles a kilo, flour for 18 rubles," she says. "You're not going to find those kinds of prices anywhere now! Everything has gone up, including utilities -- rent, gas, hot and cold water, heating."

Roza and her husband, Boris, say they have set aside all expenses they consider nonessential, including dental care and repairs to their house and cottage. They say they are hoping the state will adjust state pensions soon, to reflect the rising prices. If that happens, the couple has calculated, they will have enough to afford a badly needed new tea kettle.

In the Far Eastern Kamchatka region, Asian imports remain on market shelves but saw their prices sharply increase by 30 percent in January, while the price of Russian products grew by just 10-15 percent.

Mikhail Puchkovsky, a local lawmaker, says isolated residents in the peninsula's provinces have it worst of all. In the tiny village of Ossora, it can cost 130 rubles (nearly $2) to buy 10 eggs, and even local products like venison are selling for an unaffordable 500 rubles ($7.25) a kilogram.

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