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

Hunger Games

Yesterday, August 8, 2015, Democratic Petersburg held a series of solo pickets on Nevsky Prospect, near the preserved WWII street warning sign that reads, “This side of Nevsky Prospect is the most dangerous during shelling.”

repina-protest-1A protester holds a placard featuring an image of Tanya Savicheva, a young girl who recorded the deaths of her family members during the Nazi Siege of Leningrad in the Second World War. Savicheva herself died from intestinal tuberculosis in 1944, two years after being evacuated from Leningrad.

repina-protest-2The total quantity of produce destroyed in Russia on August 6 exceeded 300 tons. “The destruction of embargoed products is implemented by all available means.” Russian Federal Government Decree No. 744, dated July 31, 2015

repina-protest-3In the difficult social and economic circumstances, destroying produce is a crime against the citizens of Russia. Russia in 2014 (according to preliminary statistics from Rosstat): 16.1 million people earned less than the minimum subsistence level, and 22.9 million people lived on the brink of poverty.

repina protest-4Destruction “by all available means.” Is this gratitude?! Between January 2 and January 9, 1991, 21,400 tons of foreign food aid were delivered to Saint Petersburg.

Source: Alla Repina (Facebook). Thanks to Comrade ASK for the heads-up

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[Russian] producers have mastered technologies for producing sour cream from soybeans, caviar from seaweed, and even meat pasted together from scraps as ably as producers in other parts of the world. According to Rosstat, Russia imported thirty-seven percent more palm oil in January and February of this year than during the same period last year. At the same time, domestic production of milk fell by nearly two percent, while the production of the “cheese” grew by approximately thirty-three percent. The experts have concluded this means the volume of counterfeit products has grown along with the increased production of cheese products.

The companies engaged in this business are the very same “domestic producers” whose profits are the cause of the comedy with the produce crematoria on the border. To assure yourself this is the case all you need to know is that the man who encouraged Putin’s decree, agriculture minister Alexander Tkachev, is a major latifundista. (Some label him one of the largest landowners in Europe.) Relatives of the former governor of Krasnodar Krai own 450,000 hectares of farmland. When they speak of defending Russia’s economic interests, they are talking about defending the sharks of Russian agrobusiness from foreign competition, not about the welfare of consumers, the plight of the poor or the salaries of farm workers. How import substitution has affected the condition of farm workers can be seen from the Timashevskaya Poultry Farm (the largest poultry producer in the Samara Region), where an attempt by workers to organize an independent trade union has met fierce resistance from the farm’s prosperous owner.

Of course, the destruction of produce appears cynical given that seven percent of Russians suffer from chronic malnutrition, an even greater number of people have been forced by the crisis to save on food, and there are three to five million homeless people, of whom over fifty thousand are children. However, the reaction of public, who have demanded the confiscated produce be given to orphanages or sent as humanitarian aid to Donbass, is insufficient, despite its moral validity. To deal with the social consequences of the crisis, what we need are not random acts of charity but consistent policies of redistributing incomes, defending jobs, and providing assistance to the poor. We must introduce progressive taxation, provide citizens with social benefits on which they can live, index pensions and wages, and regulate the labor market and prices of essential goods. In other words, we have to reject neoliberal policies that deliberately lead to the destruction of the welfare state. The issue of social welfare should not be an appendix to Internet discussions of the plight of Spanish ham and parmesan, but the central point in the agenda of all opposition forces claiming popular support.

Meanwhile, as bloggers crack jokes about the cheese Auschwitz at the Russian Customs Service, the government is preparing a draft budget for 2016–2018. It provides for measures such as raising the retirement age, reduction of the number of free tuition spots in universities, higher taxes and charges on ordinary citizens, a freeze on social benefit payments, and a refusal to index pensions, benefits, and teachers’ salaries. The specter of austerity has risen in Russia. Against this truly ominous threat, the games at customs appear to be nothing more than a red herring.

—Excerpted from Ivan Ovsyannikov, “Charity Cheese and the Budgetary Mousetrap,” anticapitalist.ru, August 7, 2015

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vasya lozhkin-peskov watch

“So ordinary people live like crap / And there is no cheese and sausage / But Crimea is ours, and Peskov / Has a beautiful watch.” Cartoon by Vasya Lozhkin