Russia's economy is in free fall. Last night the government took emergency measures to stop the bleeding by hiking interest rates, but it didn't work. Problems run too deep. Part of Russia's pain is due to dramatically declining oil prices. And part of it is due to international sanctions against the country. This cheese story is about the latter part.
Back when the EU, Australia, Norway, Canada, and the US placed economic sanctions on Russia, Russia responded by banning a bunch of imports from all of them. That ban included a lot of food—meat, dairy, vegetables, and so on. Unfortunately, people really like food—especially cheese. So in Russia, they've devised ways to circumvent this inconvenient ban when it comes to the good stuff.
Corner stores have become black-market cheese dealers.
"A sort of speakeasy scene for French and Italian cheeses evolved which was akin to buying drugs from 1980s bodegas in Brooklyn," one Moscow banker told Business Insider. "First, you walk into the bodega slowly, trying to wipe any suspicious look from your face. Then you pretend to look around the shelves for a while until the clerk recognizes you, at which point you and the clerk make eye contact and establish that metaphysical connection that signifies to both of you 'I'm here to cop an ounce.' You wait until there are no customers around, approach the clerk. He takes you to the back room, shows you the goods, you haggle over the price, shove the bag in your pocket, hand over the cash and bounce. Except here you're leaving the store with a ball of fresh Italian mozzarella..."
Or some amazing camembert, or brie ... You get the picture.
All this suffering, however, isn't necessarily making Russians dislike Putin. On the contrary, says our source, they're buying Putin's message that the country's economic woes can be blamed on a Western plot to hurt Russia.
"If you look at the way the elite that emerged from the '90s made their money, you'll realize that they essentially capitalized on ignorance by cheaply scooping up newly-privatized equity from an uneducated public," the banker said. "Physical certificates of stock were often exchanged on the street for bottles of vodka and that's not an exaggeration. In that sense, Russians are much less inclined to side with financial logic and more inclined to buy Mr. Putin's emotional message."
As long as that message remains, Russians will stay on Putin's side.
See Also: Russia Is Militarizing the Arctic