My friend Denise pointed me to this somewhat amusing piece in the Washington Post about Gennady Onishchenko, the Russian public health commissioner (or “head sanitary doctor,” if we are translating literally from the Russian)/Consumer Safety Commission head, and his crusade against hamburgers – specifically, hamburgers from that beacon of global capitalism, McDonald’s.
Instead of citing specific health concerns connected to the consumption of processed meat and/or deep fried potatoes, he invokes the idea that hamburgers are “not our food,” playing off some Russians’ vague sense of superiority of their diet over the American diet – a sense that is deeply ingrained in the culture (after all, Viktor Pelevin in Homo Zapiens famously and evocatively coined the term “govnososy,” or “shitsuckers,” to refer to young Russians swilling Coca-Cola) and has undoubtedly been fed (ha) by exactly this sort of official propaganda.
I say “vague sense” because I have found, personally, that Russians who express these feelings of superiority tend not to know much about either what Americans actually eat, except “fast food all the time;” or about what, specifically, makes their own diet better. Like Dr. Onishchenko, they tend to believe that their diet is more natural, even sometimes using the word “organic” to describe it. (Onishchenko: “If you are fond of American chicken legs, you will get them soon. But Russian legs are better. There are less antibiotics and hormones in them. Our legs are better. Buy our legs.”)
But since all the eggs and chicken I ate in Russia came from establishments called “ptitsefabriky,” or “bird factories,” and since the Soviet agricultural system from which the current Russian infrastructure and farming practices are descended did not exactly prize environmentally sustainable, low-output but high-quality techniques, I think I’ll hold out on believing that one until faced with some evidence. Not that the U.S. food supply chain doesn’t produce foods full of chemicals, preservatives, hormones and antibiotics – it just seems likely that the Russian one does as well.
This sort of culinary jingoism is excusable coming from businesses that have to compete against American mega-corporations in a globalized market – take Nikola, a Russian brand of kvas (bubbly fermented rye drink – I promise it’s tastier than it sounds). Nikola sounds like the Russian for “not cola,” and that’s exactly how the drink positions itself in commercials like this, showing the humiliation of an Uncle Sam lookalike circus ringleader by a bear and a guy whose shirt somehow becomes a traditional Russian peasant shirt when he takes a swig of kvas:
Appropriate for a commercial venture, but for the Kremlin? Fortunately, as the Washington Post article points out, Russians aren’t just naively swallowing (oh the puns) what Onishchenko is dishing out. I’d say that they don’t exactly naively swallow McDonald’s, either; my experience is that attitudes toward it are far more ambivalent than WaPo lets on. But in any case, wouldn’t it be more effective and responsible of the country’s head public health official and head of the consumer protection agency to offer data supporting his claims, and not just medically inaccurate claims about Russian DNA (“We are people with established traditions and must not fall for exotic types of food – eat what is inherent to your genetics”) and sales pitches?
(BUY OUR LEGS.)