For nearly a week now, food products that fall under sanctions have been destroyed in Russia. Obviously, such a decision has provoked massive dissatisfaction among Russians and for the first time in the last year and a half, has shaken the government’s authority.
Even so, the opinions of analysts differ on the situation. Some researchers believe that the decision to destroy the products will lead to the inevitable collapse of the Putin regime or at a minimum, to a palace coup. Others are certain that the dissatisfaction is limited to the Internet. In fact, in trying to predict the reaction of the public to the “reprisals against the sanksionka” (as Russians have now dubbed such banned food), it is important to take into account several factors.
1. Russian society’s traditional means of perceiving unpopular government decisions.
In order to try to answer the question of whether popular uprisings as a response to the destruction of the food are possible, the phenomenon known as the mechanism of adaption by Russians to the most wild and sometimes absurd decisions of the government must be noted in particular. In recent years, we get the impression that the main function of Russian propagandists, ideologues and political analysts has been not only the creation of virtual reality but the creation of explanations for any whim of the ruling elite.
Interestingly, such justifications are most often created “after the fact” when the decision is already passed and it becomes clear that it did not receive the desired approval of the population. Such was the case with the infamous “anti-orphan” law, when in response to people’s outrage at the fate of orphans taken away from foster families, one after another film began to come out on the “horrors of foreign adoptions.” It continues to this day.
Even so, we cannot say that only the government and their staff propagandists are to blame for the situation as it has developed. In this case, the demand not only does not meet the supply; it sometimes exceeds it. Unfortunately, even after the taking of decisions by the State Duma or Putin himself which clearly are at odds with the public interest, the main instinct of most Russians is a desire not to change the situation, and burning need will get an explanation as to why it was done.
In fact, conformism is peculiar to human nature and is one of the most necessary conditions for survival both for the human being and the animals. The ability to reconcile oneself to what is impossible to change is a kind of transformed instinct of self-preservation providing a person with the ability to survive in conditions that are at times inhuman. However, Nature has wisely provided for other no less important methods of adaptation, for example, the sense of alarm, of a clearly abnormal situation, “red flags” for common sense, morality and conscience; the instinct to fight in the event of an attack on your rights, a mechanism for rational thinking and doubts and in the end, the elementary borders between the norm and pathology.
Unfortunately, all instincts of the majority of Russians (most often by virtue of their irresponsibility, inertia and profound fear before the ruthless and unpredictable state machine) are atrophied, except for conformism. The citizen of a totalitarian state is convinced that he cannot change anything, nor does he have the right; struggle against the state for him is perceived as something like sacrilege, but nonetheless, certain government decisions knock him out of a rut – less often in the realm of morality, more often in the sphere of personal comfort.
Even so, such people are more often bothered by a sense of discomfort than the essence of the decision made by the government. The illusion of comfort and stability for a person of this type is the only compensation for non-freedom and lack of rights and the sense of flimsy protection – the last refuge where he flees from frightening reality. Therefore, his main wish becomes the need not to change the situation and just return to that lost comfort. The main means of such return is the slightest logical explanation for the latest blow to his normal life – that it was correct, true and aimed at his welfare.
As a result, explanations, justifications, and belated vindications are as necessary as air to the majority of the population of Russia. A person from a totalitarian society sees in them the only means for psychological survival in the world gone mad. He doesn’t care that such explanations cancel out objective reality, legal and moral standards and even sometimes cross the line that separates a sane mind from schizophrenia. The need for rationalization of what is happening, taken to extremes blocks all other instincts, needs and rational conclusions.
Accordingly, the work of all analytical and media organizations in such a country are aimed not at the solving of problems but the explanation of the “normality” of their emergence. Russian officials realize full well that in practice, until for the majority of the population, the explanations will be more important than changes, nothing threatens the existing regime.
2. Position of the Government
Russian scholars also understand this mechanism. Thus, the sociologist Vladimir Sokolov in his interview with the BBC, speaking of the destruction of the food noted:
“People are against this. The government doesn’t have to listen to the people, but it certainly must explain to people why it is doing that. It is very bad when government officials, especially from the very top echelon, have not made any statement, and have not said that destroying the food products is very bad, but we must do this for such-and-such reasons.”
Soon such explanations really were forthcoming. The first formulations “rationalizing” the reprisals against the food were formally by analysts loyal to the Kremlin and then began to be actively broadcast on the media:
“The passage of the decree could not be more timely. In the political sense, it demonstrates the president’s resolve to act in the chosen direction… The government’s position must be firm – an unlawfully imported commodity is destroyed, all the expenses are assumed by the merchant…These goods should not be in Russia. Therefore for lawful reasons they cannot given to the needed. The point of charity and help to the needy is not only material but spiritual. This should be done voluntarily and consciously. Therefore, humanitarian aid must be paid from lawful sources. Attempts to speculate on these issues should be studied. It is quite possible that a thorough analysis will enable us to reveal some interesting facts – from populism to lobbying,” reports Maksim Vilisov, a staff member of the Center for Crisis Society Studies, close to the government, in the bold Komsomol manner completely consistent with the spirit of the 1930s.
“Destroying the fruits of one’s labor – whether of one’s own or another’s – is always regrettable. But sometimes it is necessary. When fleeing the advancing Nazi hordes, our people destroyed everything with their own hand that they could not manage to evacuate – they burned wheat fields and gasoline tanks, they blew up bridges and factory buildings…I think now, too, the extreme measure will show people: the battle is seriously underway – they are fighting with us in such a way that we have to gather up all our forces for victory. Thus with an intelligible explanation of the reasons for the actions that seem barbaric at first glance it can be hoped that it can be turned into a source of moral strength so necessary for us in opposing those who usually call themselves “the whole world,” Anatoly Vasserman reflects.
“All our measures are aimed at preventing the access of such produce to the market. So that business people understand that economically, they will suffer a serious blow. And it is not the country’s business to decide that it would be good to hand out the banned food to poor people….,” Sergei Dankvert, head of Rosselkhoznadzor, the Russian agricultural inspection agency noted in an interview with Gazeta.ru.
Of course, the authors of the texts and their “patriotic” colleagues have not placed under doubt for a second the stupidity and baseness of such a decision regarding the “anti-sanctions,” just as they don’t dare permit themselves thoughts about the justification for the original sanctions of the West, not at all tied to produce, as a reaction to Russia’s war crimes. Neither questions of morality or law or elementary common sense are here raised here. The task of such speakers is only to convince people that the destruction of food was a correct and logical act.
3. The Peculiarity of the Current Situation
The customary model of behavior of “decision plus explanation” in this case, however, obviously broke down. Thanks to the extreme conformism of the Russian majority, many people really could be convinced of the necessity of the war with Ukraine while retaining faith in the fact that there was really no such war, and in militarism, the need for lies and justification of crimes and repression and even the renunciation of Western produce (which, as we recall, took place a year ago).
Unfortunately, the average Russian person has learned not to react to the lies, the murders, the unleashing of war; in a word, to phenomena in the realm of law, morality and even logic. But he has two limits, at a minimum, however: primitive instincts of survival in the given situation and concepts to which society has become accustomed to regarding as sacred. As for the latter, things of particular value in the eyes of the population on the one hand, are made sacred naturally (as a result of family and social traditions, experience acquired by people, historical realities) and on the other their significance is particularly emphasized by the government.
In this case, food meets all the enumerated criteria. On the one hand, in a country that suffered the most severe years of hunger, war and devastation puts a great price on produce as such. In food, the Russian person sees not only a means of sating hunger but a symbol of other’s and his own work, a symbol of civilian life and abundance, a treasure which must be valued and which not everyone in life receives.
On the other hand, those events in the history of Russia which led to such an attitude toward produce (at least, to some of it) are actively made sacred by the government itself and is no less actively used by Russian propaganda. These include the Great Patriotic War (World War II) and the Leningrad Blockade (the Siege of Leningrad). Accordingly, even people who did not suffer anything like this and have no living relatives who lived through the famine, the associative values range is preserved related to the protective attitude toward food.
Third, even in today’s Russia, according to sociologists, no less than 16% of the population live below the poverty line; therefore food is not only precious in the country, it meets the immediate instincts for survival – at least for those who cannot indulge in all the produce they wish.
All of these factors are at odds with the traditional habit of society to treat decisions of the government in a conformist manner and look for an explanation of their necessity. Virtually everyone was indignant about the destruction of the produce.
“The destruction of produce is an insane thing in a country where people survived the famine by a miracle and still remember cannibalism…Rulers of Russia, cold-heartedly ordering the destruction of food, you are committing sacrilege, since food is life and many people in the world are dying of hunger, and repeating the crimes of your fathers and grandfathers, dooming to torturous deaths by starvation millions of our citizens in a Russia abundant with food,” Prof. Andrei Zubov, the Russian historian, called the government to conscience.
“When President Putin signed the decree to destroy contraband products, I was very surprised. I wasn’t even outraged, but in fact surprised. A Leningrader? The son of a woman who had survived the blockade and a man wounded at the Nevsky Pyatachok [bridgehead]? The brother of a child who died in the besieged city? He would destroy food? How can that be?” wrote Valery Panyushkin, a Russian journalist, in his blog at Snob.ru. Many other bloggers are saying the same thing.
Also illustrative is the fact that the destruction of food has become hardly the only government decision in recent times which was not picked up with enthusiasm by television propagandists. If the federal television channels still maintained a united policy on this issue, the regional media behaved much more freely. Thus, the Amur News Service on channel ASN24 covered the events with a spirit of democracy rare for Russia. Along with the news show on the liquidation of the produce, cartoons about this event were shown and a petition with a request to give the produce to the needy which gathered nearly 350,000 signatures was shown. Furthermore, no offensive propagandistic clichés or other hints in the style of the already-mentioned Vilisov about “base goals” and “hidden enemies” among the signers.
“Even propaganda hasn’t very actively supported these measures – the destruction of food. In a country that survived several famines and the Leningrad Blockade, this will be perceived as a desperate move,” Andrei Piontkovsky, a prominent political analyst and journalist maintained.
4. The Reaction of the Population
As for the reaction of ordinary people to the situation, participants in the Urals dissident movement Yekaterinburg for Freedom shared their observations with us:
“My acquaintance, an apolitical vatnik [lit. worker’s cotton jacket, pejorative term for pro-government Russians—Trans.] is in total shock and confusion. She began to read and send me to read various articles about hos THEY are bastards. Apparently that means something,” Aleksei Osadchiy reported.
“While I was waiting for the bus at the stop, I spoke with two cottage-owners, about 50 and 70 years of age. Both were indignant at the destruction of food and the raising of prices,” Yekaterina Nadezhdina recounted.
“Even [Eduard] Limonov is complaining. We were taught to save food from childhood, after all. We were told about the Blockade and the insane imperialists who destroyed food so the price wouldn’t go down. Some people still remember ration cards. Even so, officials are denouncing foreign food and calling it a toxic substance that can’t be eaten,” said Yelena Shukayeva.
“The reaction was shock and more shock. Their Putin! ‘How dare they, in the Kremlin!’ ‘That’s the limit…that’s not our president! We didn’t chose war and hunger!’ Galina Koroleva cited her fellow citizens.
“On the whole , the attitude is negative. Even dyed-in-the-wool ‘patriots’ are wailing: ‘They should give the food out in orphanages or to pensioners.’ With the burning of food, the ‘tops’ increased the gulf between themselves and the ‘bottoms,’ according to the principle ‘a well-fed man doesn’t understand a hungry one.’ The main postulate of Rome – bread and circuses – and been forgotten. The people have become offended without food,’ reasons Yekaterina Vologzhennikova who by virtue of the fact that she works as a sales clerk has the opportunity to observe the most diverse customers.
However, not all those polled agree that the general level of outrage is limited to quite complaining in kitchens and cartoons on the Internet, and will not cross over into the stage of popular uprisings.
“The outrage will not cross into an active stage. The people in our country are no longer surprised by anything. My customers with whom I have had a chance to talk twirl their fingers by their temples, as if to say, the officials have gone completely nuts. But not more than that. It’s important to understand that there is food in the stores. There is cheese, meat, sausage, vegetables, fruits. But food at all times is sacred. People are outraged at the very fact,” Vologzheninova continues.
Yury Kuznetsov is also skeptical regarding any “food riots”: “Many have been subdued by propaganda even here. They are told that not everything abroad is safe to eat, and they more or less believe it. For example, people who watch REN-TV believe that the Rothschilds have poisoned the palm oil and so on. They say that the toxic substances should be burned.”
“For now, it is just complaining. I find it difficult to imagine these cottage-owners at a rally,” Yekaterina Nadezhdina said.
“I haven’t heard approval of the new decree although there is an awful lot of obedience on the principle, what can you do, we’ll live. Activism on the topic ‘We demand to end the outrage,’ is only on the internet. I very much doubt there will be any hungry uprisings. At least, not know,” says Yelena Korableva.
There are those who openly support the scandalous decision.
“In my circle there is primarily a loyal attitude, as if to say, people in power know better how to protect us from the damned Americans who are trying in any way possible to subordinate us, dismember us and burn us down,” says Valeriya Petroskaya.
“In my circle, people do not understand what is happening. They support the dictatorship, one way or another,” Oleg Krayev echoes her.
Similar news comes from Moscow:
“Everybody seems to be outraged by both the housing authority and the produce situation, but verbally, and each one on his own. No one believes that something can be changed,” say observers.
To be sure, in some regions, there are scattered protests regarding the destruction of the sanksionka, although most often they have been organized by opposition political parties. Thus, on August 8 in St. Petersburg, activists of NOD [National Liberation Movement] beat up demonstrators against the burning of food, and police who arrived on the scene detained both attackers and their victims.
Proceeding from all of the above, we can conclude that the current protest moods are not sufficient yet so that the majority of the Russian population seriously wants change, much less actively demand these changes from the government. However, the food precedent has shown that not all decisions by the authorities are capable of being “patched up” by propaganda or patched up by Putin’s personal high rating. The destruction of produce has exposed the vulnerable spots in the propaganda machine which, as has been said, are the most basic consumer instincts and concepts that are sacred in the eyes of people.
Accordingly, the collapse of the current regime will ensue when base instincts or some concepts that have still not been devalued in the eyes of Russians prevail over conformism and the yearning for explanations and excuses. Whether this will occur with the produce situation or somewhat later, time will tell, but it seems that the given need for propagandistic explanations of the insanity and crimes of the authorities is still very strong among the population.
By Ksenia Kirillova, Free Russia
Ksenia Kirillova is Publicist, journalist of the New Region
Translation by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick