Attitudes Towards Foreign and Russian Commodities Over a Decade of Economic
The paper draws on material gathered in the province of Vologda and more specifically in the region of Veliki Ustiug, located on the north of the European part of Russia. I first went to this area in 1992-93 to carry out fieldwork for my Ph.D. thesis. At that time I spent twelve months in a village of 300 inhabitants that I call Borovinka. Then, in August 2000, I had the opportunity to go back to Borovinka. In this paper, I contrast the information gathered during this second fieldwork period with some observations made seven years earlier. Most of the material was collected through participant observation in Borovinka and Veliki Ustiug. I also had several informal discussions with people from both locations. Though I talked to both men and women and with people of all ages, I must specify that the bulk of my data comes from women aged between 30 and 50 years old. All of them are Russian and belong more or less to the same economic strata, that is the middle to lower class.
It is also important to note that most of the commodities I will be talking about fall in the general category of food. This choice is dictated by the fact that in one way or another the production, purchase and acquisition of food has always been, and continues to be the main occupation and preoccupation of most Russians living in the countryside today. It is therefore very difficult to escape this topic when discussing the reception of foreign and Russian commodities locally.
First part: Attitudes
towards Western goods:
The economic reforms of 1991 brought a great deal of changes to the characteristics of both western and Russian goods. Both types of commodities became available everywhere, even in the countryside, and both were expensive. Of course, western goods remained far more expensive than Russian ones, but even the latter, which used to cost next to nothing under the former regime, were now subjected to hyper inflation. Nevertheless, the accessibility of western goods being sold side by side with Russian ones slowly changed people's perception of them. They no longer represented a symbol of resistance to the regime. At first, they arose curiosity among the population. Suddenly having free access to what had been forbidden for such a long time was exciting and disorienting. Every kid in the village wanted to try Mars and Bounty chocolate bars. As one of my informants mentioned: "There was this idea that western products were better than Russian ones. We liked them". However, the early enthusiasm for Western commodities slowly turned to disenchantment and disappointment.
In the majority of the discussions I had with my informants during my last trip to Russia, they constantly emphasized the artificial character of western commodities as opposed to the natural or authentic character they would expect of a "good" product. Talking about perishables such as food and beverages, they all emphasized the presence of chemicals, preservatives and other types of dobavki in the products. Dobavki is the term they used to describe any addition made to a product. For instance, water becomes a dobavki when it is added to juice or alcohol. Commenting on a bottle of grape juice of western provenance she had just purchased, one of my informants stressed:
"This is not real juice! It doesn't taste the way it should. It's written 100% pure on the bottle but I'm sure it's full of chemicals and they added water. The only real juice you can drink now is the juice you make with your own fruits, grown in your very own garden!"
Discussions about clothes, shoes, bags and purses made in Taiwan, China, or Vietnam raised similar comments.
"You look at the clothes and they look quite nice so you buy them. And then you realize that they are not well knitted, they have holes and they are overall poorly made. Once you have wore them 2-3 times, they're just good for the garbage."
My informants definitely
had the impression that the West and other foreign countries were sending
to Russia the worst they had to offer. A lady in the village confessed
to me: "I read an article in the newspaper. They were saying that
the West is sending us food that they feed their pigs with. Since I
read this article, I stopped buying anything that was not Russian".
I would argue that for my informants, two mechanisms were used to reconstruct a more positive identity of themselves as Russians. The first mechanism embraces Juliana Roth's arguments according to which " a positive identification with the "own" can best be achieved through the negation of the "other"" (Roth, 23). This is the mechanism I have just described above. By emphasizing the negative aspects of foreign commodities, my informants make public the fact that they know better and deserve better. The second mechanism is to acknowledge and emphasize the superiority of Russian goods, and this was a growing trend during my last trip to Russia. To the majority of people I spoke with, the rule was clearly: "whenever you can, buy Russian". One of them told me: "It took us five years to realize that our products were better then theirs". (meaning the West).
Second part: Attitudes
towards Russian goods
Interestingly however, though they are definitely preferred over foreign ones, Russian mass-produced food is nonetheless looked upon with suspicion similar to the way western commodities are. You will often hear comments such as "our chocolate is much better than western chocolate, but still, it is not as good as it used to be before". "Before" meaning "under the previous regime". People go on at length discussing how before, everything was more "tchisty" (clean, pure) and lutche (better, of better quality). There seems to be a general perception that the present reforms brought a decline in the quality of Russian mass-produced food and a closer look at the characteristics of these new commodities provide some insight into why people disapproved of them.
The first striking characteristic is that Russian commodities look less and less "Russian" and more and more foreign. Though they are made in Russia, they are now produced and marketed in a foreign fashion. For instance, they are now nicely packaged. Under the former regime, packaging was minimal. People had to bring their own jars or bottles to buy milk or sour cream and their own bags to purchase cheese or meat. Now, most Russian goods are packaged in separate units, just as they are in western countries. Not only are they sold in packages, but there is definitely an attempt to make these packages attractive to customers. While Russians find "doubtful" and "likely to cause illness" (Humphrey, ?) nicely packaged imported products, they are now confronted with Russian goods being packaged and sold in a similar fashion.
Another characteristics of these new products is that as foreign ones, they are now full of chemicals, preservatives and other dobavki. An article published in the newspaper Izvestiya is quite illuminating on this respect. The article is about smetana which is a product similar to sour cream. According to the author, smetana is a completely natural product, essentially made of fermented cream. Analyzing the content of the various brands of nicely packaged smetana now available on the market, he notices that they are made of vegetable oil, soya protein, skimmed milk and citric acid. He writes (my translation):
"It seems to me quite cynical to imitate products such as smetana. It appears that it is a pure Russian products that for many years was produced only in our country. It is not surprising that in the West, they often referred to it as "Russian cream". For us, these "vegetable" smetani look like, for example, what cognac would look like to French should it be made of potatoes instead of grapes. ( ). These products have the right to exist, but why labeling them with a pure word such as smetana" (Mel'nikov, 2000).
Here Russian-ness is associated with nature and purity, smetana being a natural products made through natural processes with no unnecessary additions. However, through new ways of producing and packaging, smetana has lost its authenticity and with it, a little bit of its Russian-ness.
In fact, for many of my informants it seems that the closer the origin of a product is from them, the purer, the safer, the better and the more authentically Russian it is. In a conversation I had with an informant in Veliki Ustiug, she told me that the province of Vologda was far better off than any of its neighboring provinces. In her opinion, this was due to the fact that they were lucky enough to be able to produce almost everything they needed and consumed within the province. "Y nac vsio svoio." (everything is ours). She was categorical, Russian products were of a much better quality then foreign ones, and even more so those that were produced in the province of Vologda and in the region of Veliki Ustiug. I went around shopping with one of my friends. At one point he said: " I could buy all I need at once in the same store, but I prefer to go around in many different stores because I know where the best products are sold. For instance, in that store you find sausages from Nikolsk (which is another town of the region) and they are the best. In that store, they sell vodka from Veliki Ustiug and that's the best. Here people consume only vodka made in Veliki Ustiug." In the end, as the woman quoted before stresses, the only real juice you can drink now is the one you make with the fruits grown on your family plot of land!
Products from the family plot of land are "theirs". They are the results of their labor. Symbolically they can be seen as an extension of themselves. They are natural, pure and produced the "Russian way". In fact, the family plot of land is an age-old practice in Russia. It existed before the revolution and was the only compromise Stalin made to peasants after his imposed mass-collectivization. The practice was maintained throughout the former regime despite the government's various attempts to eliminate it. And it was quickly revitalized following Yeltsin's land reforms. Though the rationale behind this practice is mainly economical, the family plot of land also encompasses a symbolic value for my informants. Under the former regime, products grown on the family plot were "theirs" as opposed to state products (eto svoio: it is ours). Today, these products are theirs as opposed to all the others that have made their appearance on the market but have little in common with my informants' traditional production and consumption practices.
Of course, what I have depicted here is only the tip of the iceberg. Many aspects of consumption of foreign and Russian commodities remain to be explored. My analysis has mainly concentrated on what people say as opposed to what they actually do. Further analysis of this latter aspect is needed. By the same token, I have produced a fairly homogenous picture of a situation which, I'm sure, is far more complex. Though I am convinced that what I've discussed here is representative of the attitudes of an important part of the rural population, nuances following gender, generation and class lines are necessary. Finally, it will be interesting to see to what extent the present conclusions can be applied to commodities other than food. These are the various directions this work will be taking in the near future.
Mel'nikov, Alexandr. 2000. Chepukha na postnom masle. In Izvestiia, June, 30.
Roth, Julianna. 1999. "Us" versus "them": Communication Barriers in Post-Socialist Russia. In European Journal of Intercultural Studies. 10:1. 17-30.