​Mashed potatoes standard fare in Russia’s food ban-hit restaurants


It’s a euphoric feeling stepping into Russia’s below freezing weather. But the feeling wears off quickly, as the body slowly adapts to the piercing, icy winds. And there’s little comfort to be found in the slim pickings on menus across the capital city of Moscow.

A three-course feast begins with a salad made up of lettuce, cucumber, feta cheese and onions – with tomatoes missing. Then comes the soup. “It looks as if they just threw in anything they had,” soon became the refrain from the delegates of international media from 19 countries in Russia by invitation from the state news agency, Sputnik.

The main course was standard too: waiting-staff dressed in the country’s traditional Sarafan attire delivered plates consisting of a basic starch component – usually mashed potato – boneless chicken or beef pieces, and either a mushroom or sour cream sauce. Blini, the traditional Russian pancake, seems available in abundance for dessert.

A quick study of Russian cuisine points to borscht, smoked salmon, stroganoff and little pies as firms favourites. A glance at the list of restricted food items banned by the government following the Ukraine crisis offers insight into why these popular dishes are absent from menus.

In 2014, the European Union agreed to economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia in response to escalating violence in Crimea, in eastern Ukraine. On March  14 of that year, the first travel bans and asset freezes were imposed on people involved in what the EU’s website described as “persons involved in actions against Ukraine’s territorial integrity”. Four months later the EU imposed economic sanctions “in view of Russia’s actions destabilising the situation in eastern Ukraine.”

Russia responded by banning imports of beef, pork, poultry, fish, cheeses, fruit, vegetables and dairy products from Australia, Canada, the EU, the United States and Norway. The ban was extended to the import of salt in September this year. The EU sanctions are effective until January 2017, which means the ban on food imports is set until that date.

A day after the imports ban was announced, more than 10 000 people joined a protest against the destruction of Western foods. Images of government-sponsored bulldozers driving over large blocks of cheese, burning and burying other foods went viral online and across Russian television stations.

Moscow citizen Olga Saveleva’s petition to President Vladimir Putin against the food bans was signed by about 285 000 people but had no effect.

After the widespread destruction, Russian citizens were photographed apparently inspecting the foods in grocery stores to ensure no banned items were being sold.

Russian food outlets have been creative in their attempts to escape the effects of the ban, yet can’t help but fall short. Shelves are stocked with locally-produced goods and employees repacking the aisles quickly “forget” how to speak English when asked where they keep European items.

The wine menu rarely extends further than the harvest from Chile’s vineyards, and as people sit around in the evenings, there will be some reminiscing about the wines they once enjoyed.

Though the food ban created by the diplomatic fallout became a standing joke among the Russians in our group, one Moskovite made a telling comment: “It may sound funny now, but when you leave we still won’t have the food.”

Govan Whittles attended the international Sputnik journalism workshop, held in Moscow from October 30 to November 3.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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