The heated debate on the European “Nutella divide” that hit the news in 2017 only corroborated long-established East European beliefs: After the fall of the Socialist regimes, people did not get the much longed-for western quality products. Instead, substandard goods were shipped eastwards: Adidas trainers that would not sell, Swiss knives with dull blades, expired foods with new sell-by dates. Finally there was official proof that in the East, Nutella was less creamy (smooth), Coca Cola tasted flatter and fish fingers held less fish. The offended Visegrad states complained that they were abused as European dumping ground. The manufacturers first attributed this to adjusting recipes to regional taste preferences, and also – after some probing – to lower spending power.
The history behind the Nutella divide is not only a story of who gets what, when, and why. It is a tale of purity, contamination and fear that reveals the importance of “clean” food in the relations between East and West, State and citizens, the body and the nation.
Russians had reacted early to the perceived supply hierarchies. The kiosks that popped up in the early nineties around bigger cities’ metro stations and in underpasses were flooded with cheap goods. This invasion was called snikerizatsiya, a term that reminds of coca-colonization and cultural imperialism. High import taxes and the dramatic currency erosion of the Ruble caused prices to explode. From the mid-nineties onward, a distinct food patriotism took shape. Former Soviet citizens preferred domestic foods and solid Soviet brands to the expensive, allegedly chemically contaminated and allergenic imported goods: Soviet ice cream triumphed over the Snickers bar, at least morally. Yet on a daily basis, new foodstuffs were adopted and integrated into a diet that, at least in bigger cities, became increasingly international.
Bush’s Thighs: Humiliation Made Flesh
That is, if you could afford to buy food at all – Russia in the nineties was poverty-stricken and far away from fusion cuisine. So it happened that frozen American chicken thighs sent as food aid under the first Bush administration came to symbolize the diminution of a once-great nation to dependence on food handouts by the former enemy. The nozhki busha (Bush‘s thighs) were humiliation made flesh. Their social career is illustrative of post-Soviet food discourse and politics. Their intrusion into the Russian kitchen – and body – seemed to seal the defeat in the Cold War. The chicken parts were strangers in the Russian home: bigger than domestic thighs, and carrying a different taste and smell. The Russian press reported rumors that Americans themselves only ate the pure, white flesh of the breast and sold off their “waste”, meaning the dark meat of the thighs, to Russia (Vesti Nedeli, 10.3.2002). In 2010, the thighs were still rumored to come from U.S. Army surplus.
Chicken Angst and the Caring State Fighting the Other
The poultry had come to stay: Russian producers could not meet the demand, and Russian chicken cost 10 to 15 percent more than American chicken that, in 2010, held 65 percent of the American export market to Russia. In the 2000s, the Russian government repeatedly used chicken as a diplomatic weapon, e.g. 2002 negotiating steel taxes, 2008 during the Georgia crisis, and 2010, when American producers allegedly did not meet Russian food standards. In the Russian media, the reasons given for the ban on American chicken were solely health issues.
Nozhki busha came to be considered a health risk of national importance. In 2002, the press, TV and social media spread information issued by the Russian health ministry concerning high fat content and residues of hormones and antibiotics found in imported chicken. A deputy of the Yabloko (Apple) party was reported saying the thighs were more dangerous than nuclear waste, and Radio Rossii warned that eating American chicken might cause impotence. The meat was said to weaken the immune system and to provoke severe allergic reactions, especially in children. The national body was in danger.
Russian media coverage of the affair stressed the high quality of domestic agricultural production and rigorous controls by state organs. The Putin administration acted as a caring, paternalistic state in the best Soviet tradition. Over the years, President Putin declared in regular intervals that Russia did not need the nozhki busha anymore. Yet the fact that in May 2015 both Prime Minister Medvedev and the representative of Russian poultry producers Vladimir Fisinin still repeated this assertion makes it sound more like an incantation. The long-standing history of the thighs made them into a collective key memory of late and post-Soviet hardship, fears and humiliation.
Patriotic Food Politics and Ice-Cream Nostalgia
When Western countries reacted with sanctions against Russia after the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin issued a ban on western food imports. The measure was in part retaliation, but at the same time it was an act of purification, advertised as a chance for domestic producers. Even when food prices rose by 40 percent, the ban remained surprisingly popular and revealed a soaring desire for a common food-related identity.
Russian food politics under the Putin administration protected and sponsored early on popular Soviet brands that are perceived as healthy and natural. Soviet brands such as druzhba (friendship) cheese, doktorskaya sausage and ptich‘e moloko (bird’s milk) cake stood for the caring Soviet state and one of its basic promises: That he who works shall also eat. They are believed to have been of pure quality and subjected to severe control by the State agency GOST. During the last decade, “Soviet” retro ice cream of legendary “pure milk” quality became a national symbol and a subject of post-Soviet nostalgic longing. Promoted as evidence of a better, homely past, its reminiscence facilitates identity formation and the demarcation between the self and the other. Cultural attributions turn the “cold delicacy” into an emotionally invested Soviet comfort food, a treat offered by the paternalistic state and its food industry.
Figures: “Soviet” retro ice cream of the “plombir” variety is as popular as ever, here in the traditional form of the “stakanchik”, the waffle cup.
Paternalistic Ice Cream vs. Autonomous Pickled Gherkins
However, the Soviet state failed. During its last years, citizens had to stand in long lines for bread. Then the ambivalent imported foods arrived. The experience of shortages boosted another class of foodstuffs, the homegrown variety. Best known is the potato from the dacha plot many claim to have survived on while the Soviet State went under and during the economically challenging nineties. Russian potato discourse more often than not legitimizes and celebrates the population’s ability to feed itself autonomously, “no matter what.” Even so, Nancy Ries has shown in her “Potato ontology” that urban dacha owners rather tend to grow berries and salads and leave sensitive or laborious crops to rural households and small farms who sell their produce on local markets. However, living off one’s dacha plot is a cherished myth. Yet, as Jane Zavisca has argued, the feeling of autonomy has as much to do with purity as with food security: The vegetables coming right out of the Russian soil are the purest foods of all, untouched by additives or trade.
An ample stock of home-made pickles is the pride of many a housewife. Like ice cream, the pickled gherkin is perceived as a Russian national dish, but in contrast to ice cream it is not a subject of post-Soviet nostalgia. Rather it is a symbol of self-sufficiency and independence from the erratic Soviet retail system – or from the failed state altogether. The pickled gherkin is part of the Russian economy of trust, it is offered to family and friends as a sign of love.
This defiance and resilience are cultivated as part of Russian self-assertion and national pride, be it towards the West or the State authorities. Yet the sense of discrimination or humiliation can be easily used to form alliances. Has crumbly Nutella the power to drive people into the arms of radical nationalists? While it may only be one of many factors, I would like to ask another question: Why did rising food prices not stimulate entrepreneurship or political participation? Instead, well educated people rather bent down to turn the soil on their dacha plots, generously provided and enlarged during the nineties by the ruling elites to keep the masses busy. For the dacha people, the purifying forces of the Russian soil keep the filthy realms of business and politics at bay.