The destruction of more than 350 tons of food by the government this week angered Russians in a nation where some are struggling to feed themselves and many recall the norm of food shortages just a generation ago.
The food was burned and streamrolled beginning Thursday following a controversial decree by President Vladimir Putin ordering banned products from Europe and the United States to be eliminated before they can seep through the border.
“You can’t just destroy food when there are so many people who have trouble feeding themselves,” said activist Olga Saveleva, whose petition on Change.org has gathered over 320,000 signatures since Thursday.
“The media is gleefully showing how this food is being burned. We have a lot of people going hungry, a lot of people in poverty. There are veterans of (World War II) who remember the blockade” of Leningrad, when hundreds of thousands of people died of hunger, she said. “This is a mockery.”
Moscow banned a wide range of meat, fruit and milk products from the United States and European countries a year ago in retaliation for Western sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and incursion into East Ukraine. Russia denies it is involved in the the ongoing fighting in Eastern Ukraine, despite mounting evidence.
Last month, the government proposed destroying banned foodstuffs that were continuing to seep across the border and onto store shelves. Putin signed a decree, which went into effect Thursday, ordering the destruction of any such products that had made it across the border. The order does not impact food brought in by citizens for private use.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted the incineration of food looked “unpleasant,” but added it was a necessary measure “considering that this is, simply put, contraband,” he said Thursday, according to RIA Novosti. He added the Kremlin would consider the petition.
Since the decree went into effect, Russian state television has been demonstrating how cheese, fruit and meat were being incinerated and bulldozed into the ground. The measures are “absurd and grotesque,” said Saveleva, who plans to forward her petition to Putin and members of parliament.
Saveleva proposes that instead of destroying the sanctioned foodstuffs, the products could be handed over to the needy or sent to residents in Eastern Ukraine, where thousands have been killed in fighting between government forces and Russia-backed insurgents in the past year.
Opposition activists in St. Petersburg, meanwhile, planned to hold a rally against the destruction Saturday, Ekho Moskvy radio reported.
Rosselkhoznadzor, the federal agency tasked with overseeing Russia’s agriculture sector, defended the measures, saying the food products could be unsafe for consumption and should be destroyed rather than given to the needy.
“People have a kind heart, but they don’t understand the nature of (contraband),” agency representative Alexei Alexeyenko told Russia’s RSN radio station, speaking of the hundreds of thousands who signed the petition.
Despite tons of products being destroyed, residents were able to salvage some of the food. Local media in Smolensk in western Russia near the border with Belarus reported people gathering peaches that had remained whole and using them to make moonshine. Alexeyenko said he was “not surprised.”