Putin's Past Explains Russia's Future

What to Expect After the Election

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly, including the State Duma parliamentarians, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and other high-ranking officials, in Moscow, March 2018.  Maxim Shemetov / REUTERS

For anyone observing Russia’s current political trajectory, a sudden shift in the country’s consumer food preferences two decades ago is surprisingly revealing. Among the products burgeoning on the once barren shelves of Russian grocery stores in the late 1990s appeared a new brand of butter. Called Doyarushka, or “Little Dairy Maid,” it was purported to be made according to a traditional Russian recipe. In fact, the butter wasn’t at all Russian but exported from faraway New Zealand—which made the branding seem counterintuitive, if not outright bizarre. After all, Russians had stampeded to buy foreign goods since the Soviet collapse opened the floodgates only a few years earlier.

But market researchers had stumbled on a new trend. Their focus groups were revealing that Russian consumers believed homemade products to be superior and better tasting, and to have more natural ingredients, than imported ones. It soon became clear that the trend ran deeper than the choice of what to put on the breakfast table. After years of wrenching westernization had wiped out Russians’ savings together with their certainties, and shaken almost every other aspect of their lives, they were now increasingly looking inward and to their own past.

Yury Luzhkov, Moscow’s then mayor, was among the first of the country’s leading politicians to exploit the growing penchant for tradition. He took to dressing up on holidays in a costume portraying himself as Yury Dolgoruky, believed to be the city’s twelfth-century founder. But Luzhkov didn’t discriminate among historical periods in his efforts to boost his own popularity: banners also went up on central city buildings depicting Soviet military medals, when glorification of anything associated with communism was still largely taboo. Other politicians soon joined the effort to cobble together a new identity from a pastiche of clashing symbols from tsarist as well as Soviet history.

It was an early indication that rather than successfully reform, Russia would eventually take its place at the vanguard of right-wing

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