How Do Russians Live Without Italian Cheese And American Chicken? Surprisingly Well.

25/05/2015 10:00 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Diana Abroskina

I grew up in the 90s in a small provincial city of Vladimir, Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a new country, the Russian Federation, was no longer strong, self-sufficient, and inhabited with fair-minded people who believed in social equality. Instead, robbery, unstable economic situation, shortage of food, loss of hope, and desperate chaos reigned in the country for over ten following years. The crisis in Russia was as much ideological as it was economical. People had to let go everything they believed in: stability, trust in the government, better future for the nation, and good food on the table.

Many years have passed since then. Russia has become stronger, wealthier, and more open to foreign countries. But the joy over accesible western food after the deprived 90s and 2000s didn't last long in the country. With the introduction of the Western sanctions and the ban on imported products, the Russians felt the difference. In a radical response to sanctions imposed on Russia due to its involvement in the crisis in Ukraine, the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev, in August 2014, outlined the list of banned agricultural products that could not be imported from the U.S., the European Union, Norway, and Australia for a year.

Within the first weeks of the ban the prices on imported fruit, cheeses, meats, etc. skyrocketed. In the beginning, domestic food producers raised their prices too, using the opportunity to make that extra profit. The devaluation of the Russian Ruble and the discreasing prices on oil didn't help to improve the situation in the winter months. The Russian government had to start monitoring prices on the shelves in supermarkets all over the country to make sure they remain stable on basic products.

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Now, over 9 months later, since the beginning of the one-year ban, the majority of the imported products have been successfully substituted with local analogies and imports from the Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. If earlier in winter fruit and vegetables were brought from Europe, now, Moroccan tangerines, Israeli bell peppers, and Iranian potato have become affordable substitutions to Polish and French groceries. As for French cheeses, American poultry, and Italian cold cuts so much welcomed by the Russian aristocracy and the rich, local milk and meat factories have finally been given a chance to show off the quality and not less delicious taste of the produced analogies of the European delicacies.

For the last year many Russians have opened their own farms and food production businesses to support the government with its import substitution strategy that aims to encourage production for local consumption, rather than producing for export. For instance, this year monks at the Eastern Orthodox monastery at Valaam (the island is located in the Russian Karelia on Lake Ladoga, in the northwest of the country) recently announced they have set up an Italian cheese factory and that they expect production to begin in December 2015, BBC News reports.

The social network page of the monastery announced that one of the monks, Monk Agapy, as an agricultural chief had a chance to visit Italy last October and learn from the local farmers how to make mozzarella, morlacco, smoked ricotta, bianca, and caciotta. Now having the authentic recipes of Italian cheeses the monks at Valaam hope for great successes.

Although many western politicians and economists said that Russia misunderstood trades and predicted that the ban on imported agricultural products would backfire with the skyrocketing prices on domestic goods and people's overall disappointment in the government (, they didn't take into consideration the fact that it wasn't the first time when Russia had to refuse from western imports and survive on self-produced food.

I remember how hard it was for my parents to get any produce in the early 90s. My Dad had to wake up at 4 a.m. and stand in line in the rain and cold to make sure he would be among the first to exchange food stamps for milk, bread, butter, and flour. Every meal we ate was very basic and simple: potatoes, cabbage, carrots, macaroni, chicken, buckwheat, etc. Everything was grown and produced in the partly working factories and farms of the new half-broken country. My family friends from the Central Asia would send us a package filled with exotic dried fruit, honey, smoked meat, and nuts once a year. My Mom would save those till holidays to serve some delicacies on the festive table.

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I tried my first pineapple only in the early 2000s. In Russia people would usually buy a pineapple for New Year's, since they were very expensive, like everything imported from the tropical countries was. We would buy a big pineapple about three days before the celebration to make sure it was ripe and juicy for the New Year's night.

With every following year, more and more imported goods from the West started to appear on the shelves in local grocery stores. Snickers, Twix, and Bounty chocolate bars and Coca Cola became hits among the Russian kids. Imported products were expensive, and the biggest part of the population in the country couldn't afford buying them for everyday meals, only on holidays.

Those were the tough 90s and 2000s. If you go to a Russian supermarket now, you won't believe that for the last ten years the market has gotten flooded with imported goods from all over the world. The urban population of Russia has acquainted themselves with fancy cheeses and wines from France and Spain, Swiss chocolate, authentic Italian pasta, Thai and Chinese extravagant food, Greek yogurt, American peanut butter and maple syrup. People have started to live better, travel the globe, and afford more. The experimental spirit of the Russians makes them try new things and fall in love with international cuisines. People have slowly gotten used to having 24/7 access to relatively expensive exotic treats.

Albeit, the ban on imported products have brought some instability to the market, mostly in terms of prices, there are still ways to make it less noticeable for the populaion: to import produce from other countries, beside the U.S. and the E.U., to invest in national agriculture, farming, and production, and to remind people that there was and still can be life without western delicacies.