In Saint Petersburg, Russia, the words ‘traditional cuisine’ stand guard on so many restaurant signs. They are so pervasive that to long-term residents of the city, I figured, they seem ambient. But as a foreigner, still working to understand the culture that manifests on signs, they struck me whenever they met me. Down the street from my place, this red-white-and-blue-colored phrase announced a café that peeked out from under a tall metal scaffold, on which construction workers climbed and breathed in dust. Clinking hammers corresponded.
The words appear silently too, resisting signage. The chain store across the street from me sells ten brands of pel’meni, two domestic types of hard white cheese. Traditional cuisine looks like an embrace of staple foods when imports from the rest of the world are forbidden. This lack exists in my plans to expedite a friend some Reese’s cups at the UPS store; she hasn’t seen them on Russian shelves since 2014. Three years ago, the United States and European Union issued economic sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Crimea and its backing of separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine. In response, Russia banned American and EU food imports; hence, the hegemony of East-Slavic dairy products, the dearth of peanut butter candy. Traditional cuisine is equally a lack and a presence—cheerleading for your country’s traditions when globalization’s luxuries disappear.
I lived in St. Petersburg this summer, three years after the sanctions were issued. Upon learning where to buy produce, I found that root vegetables and cabbages were king. They were the most affordable, least rotten vegetables in the Admiralteyskiy District, a site considerably more cosmopolitan than the rest of the ex-Soviet Union.
More curious to me than costly dead lettuce is the representation of choice in this economy. No market is equipped to provide variety under the sanctions. Shops try to differentiate themselves nonetheless, decorating their windows in superlatives like “best,” “tastiest,” “freshest,” and “Belarusian.”
Belarusian. The word “Belarusian” appears in a white knit font reserved otherwise for the glorification of words like “homemade,” “folk,” and “cottage cheese.” Sometimes the words come with a cartoon of the perfect countryside, with straw-patch cottages, with rolling fields and a fat yellow sun. Or the store-front’s graphic design might look like a hand-stitched tablecloth, as if one could just rotate the store 90 degrees west about the axis of the street and eat off it.
I call ‘Belarusian’ a superlative because it is, like ‘traditional cuisine,’ an advertising ploy, a form of ventriloquism. Belarusian imports line the grocery aisles of every grocery store in Russia: this ‘import store’ is no different from anywhere else.
Belarus and Russia maintain a tighter bond than any other ex-Soviet states. The two countries share an open border; any foreign national crossing another border risks detainment upon entering the Russian Federation. Ex-Soviet populations from the Caucasus and Central Asia are denied the same right of entry and pathologized as non-white and as undocumented immigrants. As the Soviet rhetoric of communist cosmopolitanism has been replaced by Putin’s nationalist, Russia-first rhetoric, Belarusians are able to live within Russia on the merit of percieved common values, a Slavic ‘brotherhood’ predating the Soviet Union.
It’s helpful to view this reality as the legacy of failed Soviet ethnic policy. While the USSR was founded upon Marxist theory that considered national identity regressive, Lenin felt that it was necessary to promote national identity, citing concerns over the ‘oppressed nation.’ He felt that colonized people of the Russian Empire, and thus the Soviet Union, were valid reclaiming their identity as Kazakh, Uzbek, Georgian. This meant that the Soviet government initially encouraged its republics to speak their own languages, to interrogate their specific class structures, and ‘modernize.’ However noble, this notion of progress implicitly placed Russia at the top of its vision of ‘development.’ Only ethnic Russians were discouraged from celebrating their ‘narodny’ (folk) identity. Why would the Soviet government discourage Russians from embracing their heritage, but encourage Belarusians and Ukrainians—two ethnic groups whose peasant communities shared a common Slavic culture with Russians—to embrace their own? Lenin’s support for ‘colonized people’ really meant that he considered non-Russians ‘backwards’ in the context of inevitable Russian political dominance. The revolution took place in Russian. The capital spoke Russian and always would. Sure enough, by the 1940s, any ethnic policy attempting to uphold ‘colonized people’ exhausted itself as Russian became the USSR’s official language.
The complex history of this ethnic policy continues to play out in the post-Soviet era. Lenin’s ethnic policy demarcated the borders between Soviet republics that exist to this day as national borders. And, as Russian became the language of communist, cosmopolitan assimilation, today’s ex-Soviet states must assimilate into Russia’s vision of the former empire. A ‘good’ relationship with Russia is still vital throughout the ex-Soviet world, manifesting in large part through trade deals that prioritize Russia’s economy.
The goods for sale right now in Russia persist as they do because Russia’s stable trade deals are a sort of necropolis: skeletal, grand, retrospective. The ideal to which Russia aspires is a free trade zone across the former USSR. In 1995, Russia took its first step towards amassing such a zone, signing the Customs Union Agreement (CUA) with Belarus. The 2000s saw the birth and death of the Eurasian Economic Community between full-members Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan as well as ‘observers’ Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Today, the original CU persists as the CU/SES (Customs Union/ Single Economic Space) between Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
The current state of Ukraine shows what happens when an ex-Soviet state tries to break away from Russia. Though Ukraine never belonged to the Customs Union, it had always supplied Russia with arable agricultural lands in exchange for Russian oil. Ukraine’s pro-EU revolutions of 2013 sent its Russian-allied president, Viktor Yanukovych, into exile in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Ukraine’s civil war continues between pro-EU, pro-Russian, and Ukrainian white nationalist factions.
Belarus shows no such signs of revolution. The country has not seen a new president since its first and only ‘free and fair election’ in 1994, when popular support determined Alexander Lukashenko Belarus’ president. Lukashenko campaigned on a rhetoric of ‘better times’ under the Soviet Union, making him a sort of maverick in the genre of ‘good old days’ politicians, if only for decorating a history that had been daily life just three years prior.
Between 1989 and 1999, 81,000 more Belarusians died than were born. The life expectancy in 1998 was 68.5, the lowest it had been since 1959. During this decade, the suicide rate among men quadrupled.
In a 2004 report titled “An Almost Doomed Country,” economist Mikhal Zaleski attributes the nation’s population decline and social problems, like rampant drug use and alcoholism, to its continued reliance on Soviet-style collective farms (the kolkhoz). This, he states, led to a youth exodus from the rural countryside, as young Belarusians were not afforded the promises of perestroika, the set of policies reforming the now more liberal Russian state after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990.
In English, I’ve often heard Belarus referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” in reference to Lukashenko’s 23-year-long presidency. But this phrase wrongly assumes Belarus as European, with all the implications of liberalism that an association with the EU connotes. President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994, has spent all of those 23 years upholding Soviet infrastructure and ensuring a tight relationship with Russia.
Yet Belarus’ persistent Soviet structure is not matched in Russia. The Russian kolkhoz system vanished by 1993, when President Boris Yeltsin issued an edict that split collective farms into shares of equal portions. Each member of the former collective was suddenly allowed to run their share independently.
Russia’s departure from communism brought it slowly into the sphere of the globalized free market. Yeltsin’s presidency, supported by Ronald Reagan, allowed for the introduction of goods, such as mangos, avocados, and lemons, that were once considered as luxurious and bourgeois as rock music and jeans.
Meanwhile, the regressive Belarusian kolkhoz feeds Russia, through agricultural exports the Belarusian economy depends on. A World Bank Group report revealed that “57 percent of Belarus’s merchandise trade and 67 percent of non-oil exports depend on the market sentiments in the Russian and other CIS economies.” Here, Belarusian trade sits within the necropolis of Russia’s trade networks. Belarus cannot afford to turn away from Russia —it depends on Russia for natural resources. Tradition dictates the relationship between Belarus and Russia, but affects each nation differently. In Belarus, tradition means a regression towards Soviet systems that no longer work because, under the dominance of Russia’s new economy, regression means the subjugation of non-Russian neighbors, a maintenance of empire.
In 2017, I am reading a post on the anonymous P_Sutkin’s LiveJournal blog “The History of Russian Cuisine;” the website’s wallpaper is a blown-up, big-pixeled oil painting of an Orthodox feast in what appears to be Kievan Rus, an ancient Slavic federation encompassing modern Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.
This particular post’s headline reads: “Belarusian Guava Imports Have Fallen by 69%.” “On Unity Day, we root for our Slavic brothers,” P_Sutkin writes. “And there is reason to be worried for them.”
Rooting for one’s “Slavic brothers” by purchasing sickly northern guavas does not accomplish any pan-Slavic goal, but the gesture speaks for itself. Right after Russia banned Western imports, it began importing mangos, avocados, and other tropical fruits from Belarusian communal farms. Here, Russia’s advantageous relationship with Belarus supplemented its own inability to produce these geographically unorthodox fruits. Belarus, whose subordinate relationship to Russia finds validation in ‘tradition’—be that Soviet or Slavic—suddenly had to provide goods once considered ‘luxurious’ by both metrics of tradition. The Soviet-style kolkhoz, in order to be profitable, relies on Russian markets.
In 2015, Moscow grew suspicious of Minsk; Belarus had not joined Russia in sanctioning European or American goods. A Belarus Digest report dated from August 18, 2015 calls Belarus the “primary beneficiary of the food embargo.” The piece cites smuggling, above all, as the reason for Belarus's gain—Belarusians serving as middlemen in the illicit movement of European potatoes, tomatoes, pork, and other goods into Russia. A brief trade war, from November to December of 2014, saw Russia banning 23 Belarusian meat producers from importing products. They also banned the movement of all non-Russian-approved goods into Kazakhstan, the third member of the CU/SES. Again, Russia calls the shots within this three-nation trade zone.
The trade war is over, but Belarus is still exporting 69 percent fewer guavas to Russia. These fruits are tricky to produce in Belarusian greenhouses. They are not a staple food; they did not exist in Russia prior to 1991, when the country began importing goods previously deemed bourgeois. It is hypocritical that Russia would punish Belarus for engaging with European markets, when its evolution over the past 30 years has been defined by an embrace of Western-style free market goods.
Sanctions have hurt Russian people. Consumer prices rose 26 percent from 2013–15, as the ruble devalued. Regrettably, the reactions to this economic instability do not engage with its root causes (Russian economic violence, Russian empire-building). Instead, backlash appears in two major ways: as P_Sutkin’s populist Slavic nationalism, or as the aspirational adoption of Western European values so popular among young people, restless in their unchanging Russia.
Like young people during perestroika, my friends in Russia don’t care for traditional anything. They want Russia to be more like Western Europe, or they want to get out. On the day of a naval parade, we got lunch at a Chinese restaurant with tofu on the menu. I told a friend some things that suck about America; he told me that he’s dodging the draft. This conversation continued until a family of three chased us from our booth, ordering us to “leave Russia, if we don’t like it.”
None of my Russian friends have left the country—a visa is too expensive.
Leaving Russia, I spent two nights in Warsaw waiting for a plane. I sat in a hostel kitchen eating European cheese. A Russian man named Sasha stood by with a silent woman whose name I never caught. We talked. He told me that she was from Ukraine, and that they got along great.
The unnamed woman laid plain steaks in tin foil over a hot pan and cooked them. Sasha cackled and drank beer from a plastic bottle and she did not.
Sasha told me that he’d be leaving Warsaw soon, then visiting Minsk, then going home. He told me that Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia are natural-born friends: historically, three brothers.
The ‘three brothers’ comment reminded me of P_Sutkin’s blog post. I wanted to know his real allegiances—with Ukrainian independence? With white nationalism? With the Soviet Union? And why bother engaging, I thought—these categories are not mutually exclusive. I knew that, as a traveler on a visa to an EU country, Sasha was unlike the average Russian. He later emailed me an invitation to his home in Nizhny Novgorod, citing ‘nice cafés, parks, bookstores.’
I already knew that Belarus doesn’t look like it does at the import store. And I knew what Minsk looks like: World War II memorials, streets named after Lenin, an occasional McDonald’s. “Do you like Belarus?” I asked. Sasha laughed again, drinking more beer from the plastic bottle. He kept laughing. “What is it like in Minsk?” He cackled harder.
“Minsk is shit.”
SIGNE SWANSON B’19 does love root vegetables.