When the West imposed economic sanctions on Russia in 2014 in response to the seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, Moscow took the punishment as an opportunity. It imposed a ban against a variety of food imports, mostly from European states, with an eye on unleashing its own farming potential. By investing in homegrown agriculture, the idea went, the country could eliminate a potential security threat by lessening its dependence on foreign products, boost employment by returning Russians in rural areas to the land, and set itself up for an organic future by providing ultra-niche crops to patriotic foodies. Three years after the counter-sanctions were announced in August 2014, those closest to Russia's black earth tell us how the country's strategic food-to-table initiative has affected their livelihoods.
The Vegetable Farmers
In 2010, as the United States suffered from its highest unemployment levels in decades, Chicago native Daniel Lawrence landed in Russia. The freshly minted university grad planned to teach English for six months, but soon met Olga Korogodina, a Moscow real-estate executive he describes as having a genius for "getting stuff done." As the craze for kale swept the U.S., the fit, clean-living couple was unable to find the leafy superfood in Russia, so the two set out to grow their own. In 2014, they discovered an abandoned communal cabbage farm 80 kilometers north of Moscow and set to work transforming the Soviet wasteland into an organic wonderland. Superfood Farm now grows more than 30 different boutique vegetables for high-end supermarkets and restaurants.
Daniel: "When sanctions hit, a lot of people got involved in farming. So, for the average vegetable farmer it probably hasn’t been a good thing. There are fewer imports, but that’s just been replaced with domestic competition from people who saw an opportunity. I’m hesitant to say the sanctions have brought about any big changes yet in the way Russians feel about food, but it has definitely started something."
Olga: "I don’t think we’ll see a lot of Russians returning to the land. We tried to hire local people but they would just get drunk and disappear. Russians don’t want to work on farms. Our five employees are from Central Asia. They know how to work."
Daniel: "This patriotism regarding food is a good start, but there has to be something behind it -- it can't be just marketing, people will eventually see through it. You see this phrase everywhere now: 'fermerskiye produkty', 'farmer's products'. It's meaningless. Which farmer? It's like a restaurant advertising 'chef's food'."
Daniel is skeptical about the "boom" in Russia's organic market, which reportedly grew 60 percent from 2010-16. After Russia implemented its targeted ban on foreign food imports, President Vladimir Putin said his country could become the world's leading producer of "healthy, ecologically clean, high-quality food."
Daniel: "I think those numbers are probably inflated. My theory is it’s mostly just big companies putting a sticker saying “organic” on things and charging more. There’s no regulation here. The trend for organic is limited to a very small demographic.
"Russia has huge potential. There are abandoned Soviet farms all over the country, and the infrastructure is still functional. Things don’t need to be new. For someone who wants to get into farming, it’s a great way to get started. But I think the attitude here toward business can be a hurdle. In the U.S., starting a business and failing is almost a rite of passage. Whereas here, if your business fails then, well, you’re a failure."
After a bumper season in 2013 brought in 1.5 tons of honey, beekeeper Ravil Sanzhapov found himself unsure of what to do with the excess. When his daughter Guzel, an experienced entrepreneur, came up with the idea of a honey-cream factory, the fate of tiny Maly Turysh changed in a big way. After a crowdfunding campaign brought in nearly 500,000 rubles ($7,800), Ravil and his daughter set up an operation in the village, located 200 kilometers west of Yekaterinburg, that now employs nine locals to turn honey into a boutique treat. The pair says changes in Russia's attitude to its own food began long before the sanctions.
Ravil: "Maybe sanctions had an impact, but the main thing is a change in people's frame of mind. I sold clothes before we started the honey business and I noticed people were becoming blasé about having access to all these foreign goods. They were no longer impressed just because something was imported."
Russia's aims for agricultural self-sufficiency may be hobbled by the quality of the domestically produced machinery available.
Ravil: "The quality of the Russian equipment is generally poor. Once, we bought a Russian machine for grinding berries, but we eventually just had to send it back. The foreign machines are much more expensive, but we need something reliable."
Guzel Sanzhapova: "We succeeded here because the time has come; the boom in organic Russian food is not a result of the sanctions. There are plenty of niches in the market -- all the villages just produced raw materials when they were better off making a finished product. Don't just milk cows, make a cheesecake with raspberry jam! It's a normal evolution. The same thing happened in Europe, we're just very late.
Guzel Sanzhapova: "Actually, I want this organic Russian food trend to end. Fashionable means a 300-percent price markup. I'm confident that we can save Russian villages, but each of them needs to create some kind of small operation that can employ locals. We'll see how things work out here. If everything goes well, I'll move on to another village."
The Goat Farmer
In the winter of 2013, when Sergei Balaev bought the remains of a Soviet cattle farm 130 kilometers south of Moscow, a bitter wind howled through the empty windows of the dilapidated stables. But the political storm that broke out over the Ukraine conflict the next summer gave the goat farmer's fledgling business an unexpected boost after competing Western food imports were blocked by Moscow.
Sergei: "I know about 200 farmers and all of them hope the sanctions will continue -- the more the better. There are no cheap imports on the shelves anymore. We need about two to three more years for local products to take over the market from imports. Then we'll hold onto it with the quality of fresh local food."
After the Kremlin earmarked billions to support Russian agriculture, Sergei received a government grant of 8 million rubles ($120,000) in 2015. But he says high lending rates present a hurdle for many people looking to get into farming.
Sergei: "It's impossible for a farmer to get a loan, that's something you only see on Russian TV. At 25 percent interest you'd have to be crazy. I wouldn't be able to repay a loan like that in my lifetime."
After the ban on some Western food imports was imposed, Russia laid plans to revamp its agricultural sector. It invested in infrastructure and equipment, and allocated funds for increased subsidies to individual farmers, but Sergei feels more could be done.
Sergei: "It would be great if farmers were supported without needing sanctions to force people's hands, but in Russia the local official needs a kick in the pants from the higher-ups before they'll start doing something."
Sergei: "It is true that Russians don't want to work on farms. I start laughing when I watch the news. They talk about unemployment, but meanwhile my farm manager can't find a dairymaid or a shepherd. Russians are like Italians, always on siesta."
When Boris Akimov flicked through a dusty Tsarist-era cookbook, he realized that much of Russia's culinary diversity had been lost during the Soviet era. In 2009, the former journalist teamed up with a friend to start a business sourcing seasonal produce from small farmers, championing the weird and wonderful. Today, Lavkalavka is a chain of restaurants and farmers' markets, one of several Moscow brands pushing the idea of "farm to table" organic Russian food.
Boris: "I can't say that everything has been great after the sanctions. People are buying from local farmers because they don't have anything from Europe now, but the economic crisis here means that people have less money to shop with. Overall, though, I think the sanctions have done more good than harm. The government here used to only think about big corporations and help them out with subsidies. Now there's more focus on small farms and they are actually getting some money from the government. Buying Russian food from small farmers is giving a chance to villages that just a few years ago were disappearing and dying."
Boris: "A while ago I was flying over Cognac in France. I remember looking down and seeing every little bit of land was being used. The farmers there have been making amazing food for centuries. If I went there what could I do?"
Boris: "But when we look to the huge territory of Russia, we see almost nothing. Right now there's a chance for us to do something great here. Siberian cognac? Maybe one day!"