Magazine | September 22, 2014, Issue

Golden Oligarchy

The world is a curious place where coincidences abound, but there’s something suspicious about the timing here: As relations between the West and Russia curdle and rot, McDonald’s restaurants are being closed in Russia over “health concerns.”

You ask: Is it because of the superior standards of the Russian diet, which has enabled the menfolk to live to the ripe and golden age of 64? Why, that’s four more years than the last czar got, although his diet at the end was mostly lead.

Perhaps it had to do with the Happy Meal. “Such associations are antithetical to the historic Russian character,” a spokesman might say. “The soul of our people was forged in sorrow and tested in strife, and to imply that a sack of foodstuffs can gladden the essential nature of our people is to deny the depths of fatalistic gloom that define us.” Perhaps if McDonald’s offered Difficulty Meals, with figurines of Disney characters staring blankly into an empty future, they could reopen?

Probably not. An article notes: “The Russian government has a history of using health-code violations for political ends.” You could take out “health-code violations” and just put “insert pretext here.”

And now, anecdotal evidence from a brief trip, magnified out of proportion to buttress a preexisting belief. In St. Petersburg, our minder took us to the New Russia and the Old. The former was a shopping center that was nice enough, if a bit small. It had luxury boutiques full of dreadful, gaudy clothes, and rather hard-looking beautiful women in the company of louche glowering toughs. There was a supermarket in the basement with European goods, bright labels and nice pictures. Not many items appeared to be of Russian manufacture, but I don’t know what I was expecting modern Russian packaging to look like. At least in the Communist days, you assumed, products had names like Soap #2, and the breakfast cereal was made of crumbled bricks and hard nuts with Lenin Chow on the box. Surely today they can hire some good graphic designers who can steal some good Western ideas.

The tour guide — this was during the happy, bygone days of 2013 — said that their weekends were like ours. Cook out the boar-bay-kqu, shope at the moll. Then now she takes us to see typical store from Soviet time, eh?

We walked down the street to the People’s Subsistence Distribution Center, or whatever it was called. It was a museum of 1960s refrigeration display units, bent and dented, their motors making a labored chut-chut-chut sound. They looked like something built for a Potemkin market that would impress foreign visitors. Now? Concrete floors; crumbing pillars; ancient roof braced with thin metal beams, the roof punctured with grimy skylights. Water pooled on the floor here and there, trickling into tiny drains — and in a nice symbolic touch that reminded you of the end of the evil empire, the drain’s rusty grill was stamped with the hammer and sickle.

If you wanted to remind people that freer markets produced nicer results than top-down command economies, this museum was a fine job. It was also an actual market, in business, selling fish and meat. I still wonder why they took us there. It’s like inviting tourists to view the old interrogation cells where prisoners were beaten until they confessed and you still hear moans from the basement.

No doubt the market is still in business, health concerns aside, and the McDonald’s we passed en route is wondering whether someone in dark glasses and a sharp suit will be around to shut it down because the ketchup is simply Fancy instead of Extra Fancy.

It seems like an odd way to boost your government’s domestic popularity: ban the good things your own country can’t produce. It’s not the first such move. In response to international sanctions after the first round of Ukraine meddling — if you can call moving into your neighbor’s yard and taking a crowbar to his windows and shooting at his relatives “meddling” — the Putin Joy-Machine banned many Western products, including Jack Daniel’s whiskey, French wine, Dutch cheese, American chicken, and so on. The image of Cleavon Little holding a gun to his head in Blazing Saddles comes to mind, except with Yakov Smirnoff in the role: “In Soviet Russia, government sanction itself!”

Perhaps we’re supposed to think, Man, Ivan’s nuts. Who knows what he will do next? If we ban imports of Russian vodka, he might just impose petrol rationing on his own people and close several newspapers. Heaven forbid we freeze any oligarch lucre in foreign banks; he might put everyone on a diet of beets and thistles for a month.

The ban was popular at first; 87 percent of Russians approved, which suggests that the share of the population that can afford Jack Daniel’s and Dutch cheese is 13 percent. But prices have soared; potatoes are up 72 percent since the start of the year, and food prices overall have risen 10 percent. If Russia annexes eastern Ukraine and the West gets serious about sanctions — say, giving the Russian representative to the G8 the hotel room with the toilet that runs all night unless you get up and jiggle the handle — then Putin might ban access to Western entertainments like movies and music, insisting that the people are best served by home-grown balalaika ensembles that sing recipes for turning antifreeze into cocktails. The sturdy stuff that made the nation a world power.

When we walked past the McDonald’s, I remember thinking: We won. Which makes you wonder how many people walked past and thought: We lost.

Eighty-seven percent, perhaps.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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