Books Are Not Bombs

Sergey Golubok’s letter to the customs post at Pulkovo Airport in Petersburg, dated 14 November 2018. Courtesy of his Facebook page

If you order a Masha Gessen book and have it sent to Russia via DHL, you might be asked to write the letter civil rights lawyer Sergey Golubok was asked to write today, confirming that the Masha Gessen book in question contained no calls for “extremist” and “terrorist” actions, did not vindicate terrorism, and would cause no damage to the economic and political interests of the Eurasian Economic Union’s member states and their national security, or the health and morals of its citizens.

The letter was addressed to the Russian customs post at Pulkovo Airport in Petersburg.

I hope the book Mr. Golubok ordered was the one about Ms. Gessen’s remarkable grandmothers, my personal favorite. {TRR}

“We Are Going to Die of Hunger in October”

“We Are Going to Die of Hunger in October”: A Fruits and Vegetables Vendor on What Is Happening at Moscow’s Markets
Sasha Shevelyova and Asya Yemelyanova
August 12, 2015
The Village

A year ago, Russia imposed a ban on the import of produce in response to economic sanctions by the US, EU, Canada, Australia, and Norway. Meat and dairy products, fish, fruits, and vegetables from these countries were embargoed. As conceived by legislators, it was simultaneously supposed to deprive western producers of a significant market, and also to give an additional opportunity for domestic producers to develop.

The Village decided to find out whether the fruits and vegetables now sold in Moscow’s markets are really grown in Russia, and what market vendors think about the anti-sanctions and the destruction of contraband food. Unfortunately, the majority of vendors we asked for commentary refused to speak to the press, so we are publishing the monologue of a female vendor who asked not to be named.

still-life-peaches-1916.jpg!LargePyotr Konchalovsky, Peaches (1916)

I have been selling fruits and vegetables for seven years running. I sold baked goods before, and a girlfriend of mine who sold vegetables said to me, “You work sixteen hours a day. Why do you need that? Come work with us!” I worked in a pedestrian underpass, and the hours there were seven in the morning to eleven at night. Now they are eight in the morning to eight at night. The work here is also hard. Everything has to be sorted by hand and dragged around.

Our market has its own laboratory, and we submit produce for testing every three days. It is not cheap, a test costs from 300 to 800 rubles [approx. 4 to 11 euros, as of this writing], and we pay for it ourselves. If the tests come back negative, the produce itself and what was lying next to it are discarded.

On the Fad for Domestic Products
There is now a fad for everything domestic. There were good strawberries from Poland or Greece, but no one was buying them. But if you say they are Russian, they get bought up. But where in the heck does our produce come from? On the other hand, I have to make sales and make my wage, and so I have begun saying they are from Krasnodar or Crimea, and people buy them. They come back, saying, “Oh, they were so delicious!” and buy them again. You get asked, “Whose peaches are these?” and you say, “They’re Crimean.” But can you imagine how they would get here from Crimea? There is no way you could ship them here. They would spoil and get crushed. It is impossible to ship them.

No one knows where fruits and vegetables are imported from today. “Turkey” is printed on all the crates, but such large quantities do not grow in Turkey.

It works like this. You go to the warehouse, and a semi-trailer truck with, say, Belarusian plates is parked there. Crates from “forbidden” countries are removed from the truck and poured into others crates with no coding. Ultimately, they write, “Grown in Russia.” I really like it when they say it was grown in the Moscow Region. Are you serious? The entire Moscow Region is built up with the dachas of oligarchs, who is going to grow produce there, and where? Take Moscow’s near suburbs. Go there and see how much is being grown. You won’t find much of anything. Either you will find what gets sold in really expensive shops or what gets grown for reference, for show.

The onions, potatoes, carrots, and beets are mostly from China. We try and buy high-quality produce, and we press the wholesalers to tell us where things are from, but no one knows. You watch as cherries are poured into other boxes, and peaches are put into different crates.

The tomatoes are transferred to Russian boxes, and vendors say they are from Krasnodar, but I know I am eating a Ukrainian tomato. But I don’t know how it got here.

The tomatoes, say, have been grown in Ukraine. They were shipped to Belarus, transferred to a truck with Moscow plates, and driven further down the road.

We do not sell Polish apples. They were banned back in March. But then unmarked boxes started showing up, and no one would be able to prove they are Polish. Of course it is illegal. It is even worse in the grocery stores. They ship produce illegally directly from Belarus. Moscow has eaten Ukrainian produce its whole life, and then it suddenly became bad.

On the Destruction of Peaches
My personal opinion is that we are going to die of hunger in October, because, two weeks ago, I bought these tomatoes wholesale for 45 rubles [approx. 60 euro cents]. I am not lying. Now we bought the same tomatoes wholesale for 110 rubles [approx. 1.5 euros]. Previously, it would cost 10,000 dollars for a truck to clear customs. The truck would drive up, ten grand would be placed on the custom officers’ desk, and the truck would head on down the road. But we, the consumers, ate normally.

Now it is twenty-five grand just to clear customs. And the drivers said they have been quoted a price of 50,000 dollars just to fly through customs. But then they will be bringing fresh, high-quality, beautiful produce. Meaning, how much are they going to be selling it for? At sky-high prices, so the poor will just disappear. If they continue to let through trucks from “banned” countries, we will survive. If not, it is not clear what will happen.

We have children in the Kursk Region who have seen peaches only in pictures. How many truckloads of peaches have been destroyed now? Would it not have been simpler to distribute them to orphanages? Everything is buried in taxes. As they say, “Russia has allocated so much money.” Do you know the right way to say it? “We have the taxpayers’ money, which we can dispose of in this way.” Because this is our money, after all. It is we who are paying for everything.

On the Market
We pay vendors a wage for their services. For the tax inspectorate, we write 10,000 rubles a month [approx. 138 euros], the minimum wage, but she [sic] gets 1,500 rubles a day [approx. 20 euros]. She works for us on the books, but many people want to work off the books. No one here has believed in pensions for a long time. They are grateful for this wage, because no one can give them more. We are all people and treat each other like people. Holidays and weekends are granted on request. No one tries to kill anyone for anything; everything is negotiable. 1,500 rubles is the stable daily wage, but there are also bonuses and gifts for the New Year.

The ethnic dynasties are still relevant at the market. Everything has been divvied up long ago, things settled down way back in the 1990s. They have their pens there, but they are all in the other hall. (The market has two halls—Editor’s note.) They sort things out among themselves. And they sell their produce for twice as much, of course. The second hall is not our competition. Potatoes cost 80 rubles a kilo there [approx. 1.10 euros], while in our hall they cost 40 rubles. The customers there are loaded. The oligarchs send their drivers and housekeepers there, and they immediately pack them up with everything. That is how they live. We are focused on the middle class; we have a different audience. Now a food fair is opening here as well. We will have zero receipts.

Sometimes, the police organize raids. Half of them need to do these checks for show, half of them, for the money. But raids are unproductive at this market. Everyone has residence permits and vendor cards: market management monitors all that. In the past, it was more frightening at the open markets.

On Price Hikes
What will happen next is unclear; the prices are crazy. It would better for us to close the stall than to listen to what people are going to be saying to us. The prices are such that people simply don’t have the money to buy these things. Either you want it and you will buy it at an exorbitant price (provided you have the money) or there will be no way for you to buy it. But I always think about the elderly and children. How will they manage? A mother who has just given birth doesn’t go back to work. She has to stay home with the child for two or three years. Her husband, working alone, will not be able to manage to pay for all this. So what are they going to do? Steal? People are still surviving in Moscow, but it is terrible to think what is happening in the hinterlands, just scary.

A crate gets more expensive by an average of 100 rubles a day [approx. 1.40 euros], and there are five to six kilos of produce in a crate. For the time being, we are keeping our prices stable, more or less. But what will happen come winter? There are products like pumpkin, zucchini, broccoli, and cauliflower that a child needs to eat up to the age of one. But young families are poor, only the husband works. Prices are not falling, but the child still has to be fed. I pity them the most. And I feel sorry for the elderly, who have monthly pensions of 15,000 rubles [approx. 207 euros] and spend 13,000 rubles [approx. 180 euros] at the pharmacy.

This is how we do it. If people say they are buying produce to make compote, we give them the smaller, less expensive fruit. If they say they are making jam, we give them average-size fruit. If they are saying taking it to their daughter or someone in hospital, we give them more expensive fruit, but really good fruit. We do reorders every day, most fruits do not stay fresh longer than that. We sort everything by hand daily.

Translated by The Russian Reader. Image courtesy of WikiArt. Thanks to Comrade Nastya for the heads-up.

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