Cass Sunstein Stayed Out Too Long in the Sunshine

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A sunny late afternoon in downtown Petersburg. Do you see any Marxism or Marxists in this picture? I see only individuals going about their business and going home from work. According to the distinguished US legal scholar Cass Sunstein, however, “the Russians” are, in fact, busy “heightening the contradictions” in US society, which is a time-honored “Marxist strategy.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Cass Sunstein: “As the Russians know, heightening the contradictions is dangerous for the American people. Here’s a much better idea: E pluribus unum.”

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything sillier in my life.

First of all, “heightening the contradictions” has been the American way since our rickety but powerful country was founded four score and seven years ago or a bit longer than that. We haven’t been trying to create a 330 million-strong army of biorobots who think and act identically. Or have we?

Second, “heightening the contradictions,” pace the considered opinion of Samantha Powers’s power husband, is not a “Marxist strategy” per se, but a time-honored political tactic. Read Machiavelli. Read Thucydides. Read Suetonius. Read Robert Caro’s stunning masterpieces about Robert Moses and LBJ. Read anything.

Third, the Kremlin is currently inhabited by people who have no truck with Marxism in any way, shape or form.

Fourth, Marxism is not a set of tricks for sowing foment, dissent, discord, and chaos. It’s something else, but what it might be is too gnarly and boring for folks who take the Sunstein approach to cheap op-ed point-scoring.

Fifth, if the Kremlin’s current inhabitants meddled in the 2016 US presidential elections and have continued to play on the alleged contradictions in US society the election exacerbated, they have done this without any reference to or inspiration from Marxism, a political economic theory about which Cass Sunstein literally has no idea whatsoever.

I won’t be bothering to link to Mr. Sunstein’s original piece on the Bloomberg website, because that would mean inadvertently promoting Bloomberg, whose editors are so thick-witted they have taken on a pro-Kremlin provocateur as a full-time op-ed writer, and nobody noticed, even though I see lots of people quoting said provocateur (Leonid Bershidsky) all the time.

This is not to mention that whipping up an anti-Marxist panic in a world where Putin crony (and rabid anti-Marxist) Vladimir Yakunin has for years been co-opting western academics and decision-makers into his so-called Dialogue of Civilizations powwows on a wholesale basis right out in the open, but there has never been a single article about these particularly effective Russian active measures all this time in any reputable western newspaper or magazine, seems misguided, to put it mildly.

Finally, Russia has not been a socialist country, a communist country or a Marxist country (whatever that would mean) for twenty-six years. If its elites are messing with the internal politics of other countries, they are not doing so as Marxists, but as gangsters who want to skew the international geopolitical game in their favor as much as possible. Like true gangsters, their only ideology is what is good for them is good for them, and everyone else be damned, including their own countrymen.

This has nothing to do with Marxism.

P.S. While we are at it, let’s stop this “the Russians” business. There are 144 million Russians. They are as pluribus and pluralist as any other society. They are not the Borg.

The Russian Reader

This Is Russia

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“This is Russia. This is the Russia that Americans are so scared of.”

In the background of this photo, you can make out the Galereya shopping mall, located in downtown Petersburg. It’s gigantic, covering the land once occupied by five or six graceful tenement buildings and a cultural center and cinema. They were demolished in the mid 1990s, not to make way for the shopping mall, but so a new train station could be built there, jeek by jowl with the existing Moscow Station, because federal and regional officials wanted to build a high-speed train line between Petersburg and Moscow. Millions of dollars were allocated for the project, but ultimately, the train line was never built nor was the new station erected. No one knows what happened to the millions of dollars allocated for the project. They simply vanished into thin air.

The site of the former-future high-speed train station sat vacant for many years behind a tall, ugly construction-site fence. No one could figure out what do to with all that wasteland, which was in the very heart of the city, not in some forgotten outskirts. However, before the money had vanished, and the project was abandoned, construction workers had managed not only to demolish all the tenement buildings on the site but had also dug a foundation pit. Over the long years, this pit filled up with water. Some time after Google Maps had become all the rage, I took a look at our neighborhood via satellite, as it were, and discovered to my great surprise it now had a small lake in it. It was the foundation pit of the former-future high-speed train station, filled to the brim with water.

Good times came to Petersburg in the 2000s, when the country was flush with cash, generated by high oil prices, a flat tax rate of 13%, and runaway corruption. It was then the city’s mothers and fathers (I’m not being ironic: most of Petersburg’s “revival” was presided over by Governor Valentina Matviyenko, a former Communist Youth League functionary who had converted to the gospel of what she herself called “aggressive development”) decided that Petersburg, one of the world’s most beautiful, haunting, enchanting cities, should be extensively redeveloped, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, into a mecca of consumerism that would give pride of place to cars and new highways, since cars had become the new status symbol among the city’s rich and poor alike. They also decided that, since other big cities in the world had lots of high-rise buildings, their city, which did not have almost any high-rise buildings, should have lots of them, too.

Basically, they decided to demolish as much of the inner and outer city as they could get away with—and they could get away with a lot, because they had nearly unlimited political power and lots of the country’s money at their disposal—and redevelop it with high-rise apartment buildings, superhighways, big box stores, and shopping and entertainment centers, each one uglier and bigger than the last. Thanks to their efforts, in a mere fifteen years or so they have gone a long way toward turning a Unesco World Heritage Site into an impossible, unsightly mess.

But let’s get back to our miniature inner-city lake. Finally, developers came up with a plan to convert the site into a giant shopping mall. Even better, the architects who designed the mall were clearly inspired by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect and a leading Nazi Party member, to turn a rather oversized mall into a celebration of kitsch faux-neoclassicism, precisely the sort of thing Speer had championed in his projects. This, indeed, was a bit ironic, because Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, had survived a 900-day siege by the German army during the Second World War. Considered the longest and most destructive siege in history, it killed at least 800,000 civilians, that is, it killed the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of the people who now enjoy visiting this mall, with its distinctly neo-fascist aesthetic.

Along the sides of the street running down towards the photographer from the Albert Speer Memorial Shopping Mall, you see lots of shiny new, fairly expensive cars, parked bumper to bumper. In fact, the Albert Speer has a huge underground car park where you can park your car relatively inexpensively (our neighbor lady, a sensible woman, does it), but most Petersburg car owners actually think parking their cars wherever they want—especially either right next to their residential buildings or, worse, in the tiny, labyrinthine, incredibly charming inner courtyards of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings—is their legal right. It isn’t, but they don’t know it or don’t want to know it. I know they think this way because many Petersburg car owners have told me so.

To my mind, the precipitous rise in personal car ownership in Petersburg has done more to degrade the city’s beauty than all the underinspired colossal high-rises put together, because the city was purposely designed by its original builders, beginning with Peter the Great, to have a good number of intersecting and radiating, awe-inspiring, long and clear sightlines or “perspectives.” Hence, many of the city’s longest avenues are called “prospects,” such as Nevsky Prospect (the title of one of Nikolai Gogol’s best stories) and Moskovsky Prospect. Nowadays, however, you gaze down these “perspectives” only to see traffic jams and hectares of other visual pollution in the shape of signs, billboards, banners, and marquees. It’s not a pretty sight.

On the right of the picture, somewhere near the middle, you should be able to spot a small shop sign with the letters “AM” emblazoned on it. It’s one of the dozens of liquor stores that have popped up in our neighborhood after the Kremlin introduced its countersanctions against US and EU sanctions, which were instituted in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine. The US and EU sanctions targeted individuals and companies closely allied with the regime. Putin’s countersanctions, in a manner that has come to seem typical of how the Russian president for life’s mind works, were targeted against Russian consumers by banning the import of most western produce into the country. An exception was made for western alcoholic beverages, especially wines and beers, and this meant it was suddenly profitable again to get into the liquor business. The upshot has been that you can exit our house, walk in any direction, even putting on a blindfold if you like, and you will find yourself in a liquor store in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

Last summer, I tried painting a little verbal and photographic sketch of the effect this massive re-alcoholization has had on our neighborhood, along with other, mostly negative trends in the use and abuse of commercial space in the city.

Finally, there is one other thing you should know about all those new, mostly oversized cars parked on the street. Since the average monthly salary in Russia barely crawls above 600 or 700 euros a month, even in a seemingly wealthy city like Petersburg, most of those gas-guzzling, air-polluting status symbols were bought with borrowed money.

Just the other day, in fact, I translated and posted a tiny article, originally published in the business daily Kommersant, about how people in the Voronezh Region currently owed banks approximately two billion euros in outstanding loans. In 2015, the region’s estimated population was around 2,300,000, so, theoretically, each resident of Voronezh Region now owes the banks 870 euros, which I am sure is more than most people there earn in two or three months. Of course, not every single resident of Voronezh Region has taken out a loan, so the real damage incurred by real individual borrowers is a lot worse.

I could be wrong, but I think what I have just written gives you a rough idea of how you go about reading photographs of today’s Russian cities, their visible aspect in general, turning a snapshot into something meaningful, rather than assuming its meaning is obvious, right there on the surface. You don’t just tweet a photo of a new football stadium or fancy restaurant or street jammed with expensive cars and make that stand for progress, when progress, whether political, economic or social, really has not occurred yet in Russia, despite all the money that has been sloshing around here the last fifteen years. Instead, you talk about the real economic, political, and social relations, which are often quite oppressive, murky, and criminal, that have produced the visible reality you want to highlight.

Doing anything less is tantamount to engaging in boosterism, whataboutism, Russian Worldism, and crypto-Putinism, but certainly not in journalism. That so many journalists, western and Russian, have abandoned real journalism for one or all of the isms I have listed is the really scary thing. TRR

Photograph by the Russian Reader

 

 

 

Ace Reporter Julia Ioffe Joins the Russian World

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It looks as if ace reporter Julia Ioffe has gone over to the Russian World.

It’s a strange thing when a journalist who, only six years ago, wrote an excellent article in Foreign Policy about how officials in Petersburg quickly set up and then rigged elections in two out-of-the-way municipal districts so outgoing Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko’s “upmotion” to the Federation Council and the post of its chair would appear “legal,” would suddenly sink to naïve, angry Russian boosterism and, kick all Americans in the face, to boot.

Okay, so a stadium somewhere in Russia added extra seating when FIFA demanded it. So what?

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Does Ioffe know about the debacle—involving extreme cost overruns; the employment of North Korean slave laborers, one of whom was killed on the job; the destruction of a federally listed architectural landmark; the multiple firings and hirings of general contractors and subcontractors; numerous revelations of newly discovered structural defects—that has plagued the Zenit Arena on Krestovsky Island in Petersburg, one of the main venues for this past summer’s Confederations Cup and next summer’s World Cup?

Told in full, it’s a mean, ugly story that would not “scare” Americans, but would hardly leave them with the impression Russia was well governed.

Ditto regarding the ongoing destruction of a tiny intellectual powerhouse, the European University of St. Petersburg, which the Kremlin, the Smolny (Petersburg city hall), the courts, and the state education watchdog, Rosobrnadzor, have decided to shut down for no ostensible reason.

Americans, if they are so inclined, can read these seemingly endless stories of Russian official malfeasance, thuggery, and gangsterism until they are blue in the face in publications running the gamut from the high-toned mags for which Ioffe writes to the crap blogs about Russia I’ve been editing for ten years.

I don’t think these hypothetical Americans would be “scared” after doing this extracurricular reading.

If anything, they would conclude (rightly) that Russia is a basket case and should not scare anybody but its own people, who have had to put up with this incompetent, larcenous tyranny 24/7, 365 days a year, year after year, for almost two decades.

The least anyone with a heart and, one would think, in Ioffe’s case, detailed knowledge of these circumstances, should do is avoid cheap whataboutism and extrapolating a media and political non-event (“the new Red scare”) onto an entire country of 325 million people.

I imagine most Americans could not really care less about Russia and the non-Red non-scare. They have things closer to home to worry about. Unlike Russians, ordinary Americans are definitely not obsessed with thinking about what Russians think about them.

But a good number of Russians, including Russian immigrants like Ioffe, are obsessed with thinking about what Americans think about them, and this is especially true among the intelligentsia and elites. (Trust me on this: I’ve been watching it at close range, fascinated but baffled, for almost twenty-five years.) Hence, I guess, Ioffe’s sudden, angry conversion to Russian Worldism. TRR

A Colossus with Feet of Clay

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It looks scary, but it’s only a computer-generated image.

“The tumultuous poll in Catalonia left more than 800 injured and pretty much everybody with mixed emotions which offers a perfect opportunity for Russia. Russia has no particular interest in Catalonian independence but Russian media were actively promoting the narrative about Spanish authoritarianism and Russian hackers helped the organizers keep their websites up. Russian interest lies in shifting the narrative around Crimea, keeping the EU busy with other topics than Russian aggression, and mainly in dividing Europe as well as undermining Europe’s democracy and institutions.”

This was written by the European Values Think-Thank, which operates out of Prague and runs a useful program called Kremlin Watch.

Nevertheless, an argument like theirs should be backed up with lots of facts and quotations, not just rolled out as a bald-faced assertion we must either accept or reject.

Russian trolls can, in fact, troll and dispatch bots on any subject they like. It doesn’t necessarily mean, however, their actions will have a decisive effect on every conflict in which they intervene.

True, in the body of the newsletter, there is this follow-up on the story.

“Referendum in Catalonia: The Crimean spring has moved to the Pyrenees… Not.

“Despite Dmytry [sic] Peskov’s statements that the Catalonian referendum is an internal Spanish matter, Russia would not want to miss a chance to bring its alternative point of view on the Catalonian referendum or extend a helping hacking hand to the referendum organizers either. Spanish media have been on high alert. El País blatantly stated that Russian news networks are using Catalonia to destabilize Europe. These accusations have been thoroughly investigated by the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab, focusing on the role of Sputnik and RT. Russian media spread stories about a violent and repressive Spanish government and warn that a civil war is imminent as the EU passively stands by. Russian creativity is legendary and the media managed to find similarities with the situation in Crimea and Kurdistan.

“According to the Russian press, independent Catalonia might recognize Crimea as part of Russia. The benefits of doing so are not very clear, Russia might in exchange push Nicaragua to recognize Catalonia? “This does not mean that Russia wants Catalonia to be independent at any cost. What it fundamentally seeks is to create division, in order to slowly undermine Europe’s democracy and institutions,” says Brett Schaffer, an analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund. And we can only agree with that.”

There are only three hyperlinks in the entire passage, no other references, and one of the links reiterates the article in El País. It is not enough to convince even a true believer in Russian troll farms like me.

Why not?

Because just the other day I read the following article, published on the excellent Russian charity and investigative reporting website Takie Dela, about the huge numbers of dilapidated residential buildings in Barnaul, capital of Altai Territory. The article details the considerable inconveniences and humiliations faced by the tenants, who are more or less stuck in their flats until the mayor’s office does something, although it is clear to the residents that the mayor’s office would rather the buildings all collapsed, killing the tenants in the wreckage.

Degradation of postwar-built housing stock is a severe problem not just in Barnaul, but all over Russia, a problem the central government (since under Putin 3.0 there is no such thing as local government anymore) has been doing a really bad job of solving.

I could make a list of a hundred other problems plaguing “mighty” Russia right now that the government has pointedly failed to address, because its priorities have been elsewhere (e.g., Crimea and Syria).

Russia is a colossus with incredibly fragile clay feet.

This means three things. First, its active measures operationd involving trolls and bots intervening in the affairs of other countries is one way Russia can assert itself as a supah powah (but not a super power) on the cheap, without spending a lot of money.

Second, since it is doing this on the cheap, the “global vision” guiding its creepy efforts is likewise fragmented, impatient, contradictory, and severely misinformed at times. The Kremlin just wants to make trouble somehow.

Finally, it hasn’t been conclusively proven these operations have been decisive factors in altering the outcome of any election, referendum or conflict.

It’s an invidious comparison, of course, but I hgve been blogging for nearly ten years, and during that time over half a million viewers have read my posts. Does that mean I have been a decisive factor in Russian politics or how the west views Russia? As much as I would like to say, yes, I have been, I cannot say that. I would be happy if I have changed a few people’s minds now and then and, especially, if I have showed them aspects of the Russian grassroots they had never heard of before.

The Internet Research Agency or whatever the Russian trolling and botting campaign now calls itself, has a lot more resources at its disposal for winning hearts and minds, but it is not operating in a vacuum.

Instead, it is operating in an incredibly dense media environment where domestic media outlets, of different political stripes and shapes, will be more persuasive to Catalonians and Spaniards, say, than Russian goofballs smacking away at keyboards wherever the IRA has been hiding out lately and posting dipshit memes and one-liners in comment threads, because the Spanish and Catalonia domestic media understand the issues, speak the languages fluently, and do not speak them with accents.

Do you really imagine that all Catalonians, Spaniards, Americans, Germans, Belgians, etc., are so gullible and incapable of critical thought they cannot tell the difference between a sound reportage or analysis, written by a real local reporter or op-ed columnist, and a pile of crap whipped up by a Russian working the late shift at IRA and loopy as a kite on energy drinks?

Trolling and botting as a way of regaining supah powah status is, in fact, a “weapon of the weak,” but not in the sense James Scott meant the phrase. We should deal with the weapon as such, instead of worrying its mere presence is decisive and disruptive everywhere it rears its puny, feeble head.

To argue otherwise is to imagine that Spanish national cops could not have beaten independence-minded Catalonians over the head, although it was probably not such a smart move, or those same Catalonians were not capable of holding their perhaps illegal referendum without being hypnotized by outside Russian agitators.

Let the Russian trolls pretend they are really shaking up the world with their teenage pranks. In the meantime, competent technicians and hackers should devise a technical solution that would deal a knockout punch to the Russian IRA.

That would be more efficient and make for less panic mongering, which, alas, is not in short supply these days. TRR

Image courtesy of i.imgur.com

Alexei Navalny and Two Million Catalonians

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Two million Catalonians

Russian anti-corruption crusader and opposition politician Alexei Navalny has been sentenced to 20 days in the slammer for “repeated appeals to take part in unauthorized rallies.

That “repeated appeals” business sounds like a particularly pernicious crime.

What is the difference between messing with Navalny this way constantly and beating Catalonians over the head?

I don’t see any.

Or, actually, I do.

At the end of the day, after the Madrid government’s fine performance in Catalonia yesterday, with the whole world watching, the Catalonians might get what a lot of them seem to want: independence.

But they will get it, if they do, because millions of them have united and fought for it.

Alexei Navalny, on the other hand, has to pretend to be “two million Catalonians” all on his lonesome.

“Russia will be free” someday, but at the moment only Navalny and a handful of his countrymen want to act in a concerted, deliberate way to end the Putinist tyranny.

Everyone else is—to tell you the truth, I don’t know what they are.

What they definitely are not (at least, so far) is “two million Catalonians.”

So, my reaction to the savage behavior of the Spanish police yesterday would definitely not be to gloat and suggest the police in so-called democratic countries are worse.

Actually, the police in Russia are much worse.

When push comes to shove, they wouldn’t hesitate to outdo their Spanish colleagues. And in any case there is a whole army of police, investigators, and prosecutors in Russia who could only be termed “political” police, because they spend all or most of their working days pursuing, interrogating, framing, trying, and imprisoning various “extremists.”

Tell me this hasn’t had a totally chilling effect on grassroots politics in Russia. It has. Why else would I, more or less a nobody, personally know so many Russians who have fled the country in fear of arrest and persecution or because they had simply been prevented by government agencies like the Justice Ministry, Center “E”, the FSB, and the Investigative Committee from doing the social justice or political activism they had been doing in their own native land for years?

But Russians are people like everybody else, and people sometimes are way too inclined to let their country’s powers that be off the hook, when they should be fighting them in the streets like “two million Catalonians.” TRR

Thanks to Erik Syring for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Life on the Left

 

Leave Our Governor Alone!

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Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko (right) would rather be somewhere else. Photo courtesy of Turku.fi

I gather that Russia’s president for life is dismissing regional governors at a furious pace to shore up his shaky position against the wildly dangerous non-candidate Navalny in the run-up to next March’s self-reappointment to the post of Russia’s president.

I could not care less about all that as long as Putin leaves Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko alone. (Poltavchenko is the vaguely unhappy looking man on the right, in the picture above.)

Sure, Poltavchenko returned to his adopted hometown of Petersburg, after several years of bureaucratic carpetbagging, as an appointed satrap, who later obtained spurious legimitacy by winning a low-turnout, rigged election against a slate of astroturfed opponents. In a fit of uncharacteristic cynicism, Poltavchenko dubbed this farce “Democracy Day,” but we have forgiven him long ago for that outburst—by default, as it were, because 99.999% of us Petersburgers could give a hoot about local politics and have no clue about the Tammany Hall-style thuggery that once again covered the Cradle of Three Revolutions in shame on September 18, 2014. We are more the artsy, creative types here in the ex-capital of All the Russias. We go in for fo bo, hamburgers, craft beer, and conspicuous hipsterism.

In Petersburg, taking politics seriously is not cool.

But all the Sturm und Drang of 2014 matter less than Poltavchenko’s signal virtue, which consists in his striking tendency not to do or say much of anything, at least visibly or publicly. Unlike his colleague Ramzan Kadyrov, headman of the horrifying Chechen Republic, who is constantly running off at the mouth and scaring the bejeezus out of everyone, Poltavchenko has gone for whole weeks and months without saying or doing anything significant or noteworthy, much less frightening.

Whatever his other vices as a satrap and “former” KGB officer, it appears he would find it profoundly embarrassing to frighten anyone, especially just to show off, the way Kadyrov does it.

In an authoritarian political system in which making news means feigning to be a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth nationalist fascist Orthodox maniac, tabling Nazi-like law bills in the Duma as fast as they can be typed up and printed out, there is something to be said for a guy who always looks as if he is always bored out of his mind, as if he would rather be home watching TV, fishing in the lake next to his dacha or tinkering with his car.

Which, of course, is an old Lada, not a Land Rover.

Or so I’d like to imagine. TRR

 

Annals of Import Substitution: Ricotta Days

Because of the severe if not crippling margarine deficit in this district of the ex-capital of All the Russias, I have been reduced to buttering my toast with ricotta.

Pictured, above, is Unagrande Ricotta, my preferred brand, and the brand all the shops in my neighborhood (half of which are Dixie chain supermarkets) seem to have in stock all the time, suddenly.

Despite the Italian-sounding name, however, and Unagrande’s cutesy-pie Italian-tricolor-as-heart logo, it is manufactured not in Italy, which as an EU member, is subject to Putin’s anti-sanctions against the import of most EU produce to Russia.

What has bitten Russian taste buds especially hard has been the sudden absence of decent cheese, which, before the Putin regime decided to rule the world, had been imported to Russia in large quantities, mostly because the majority of domestic Russian cheeses were neither particularly tasty nor plentiful.

Crimea-is-oursism changed all that.

Russians traveling abroad now consider it their patriotic duty to stock up on cheese before heading back to the Motherland, where they will consume it with relish themselves or, since Russians like to share, to divvy up among their friends or have a cheese-tasting party. Likewise, Europeans welcoming friends from the Motherland have been known to serve their country’s finest cheeses before and after dinner.

There are even black market Estonian and Finnish cheese outlets, practically operating in broad daylight, in the farther flung corners of the city. A friend of mine has bought such zapreshchonka (banned goods) in these establishments, usually housed in inconspicuous kiosks, on several occasions.

No, my daily ricotta is produced not in Italy, as the name and the packaging insistently suggest, but at 130 Lenin Street in the town of Sevsk, in the far western Russian region of Bryansk.

Despite its exalted status as the new ricotta capital of Russia, Sevsk is a modest town whose population, according to the 2010 census, was 7,282.

To their credit, however, the Sevskians produce their delectable Unagrande Ricotta from whey, pasteurized cream, and salt. That’s it.

Unagranda Ricotta contains zero percent of the detestable and environmentally ruinous palm oil that other Russian cheese manufacturers have pumped into their cheeses, also bearing European-sounding names, to make up for real milk and cream, which have been in short supply and are more expensive, of course.

So I doff my cap to the honest dairy workers of Sevsk, who have managed to produce a delightful 250-gram tublet of perfectly edible and utterly non-counterfeited ricotta, which sells for 144 rubles (a bit over two euros) at my local Dixie.

I would still like to know, however, what has happened to all the margarine. TRR

Image courtesy of planetadiet.com