Parmesan and the burning of the Russian border

Not long ago a friend emailed to ask what was even going on with Russia. “Why would they destroy food, of all things?”

It’s a troubling sight, even at a transoceanic distance. Russia has a wealth of such things as energy, timber, and space, but many Russians are quite poor, and most of the rest have at least memories of hunger. Even my youthful activist friends in interviews shared childhood memories of families scrimping and scraping between paychecks in the crisis years of the 1990s. Older generations remember the shortage economy, not to mention family histories of wartime disruptions, Stalin-era famine, and perhaps more. As Masha Gessen writes, the Kremlin’s wanton and joyful destruction of Spanish ham and French Brie is no joking matter in such a place. (Though of course a dark streak runs through Russian humor, as in this video of a patriot “doing his part” for the country.)

Eliot Borenstein describes the sight of food crematoria as “a grotesque parody of consumption and digestion… a perfect symbol of an overreaching state, arrogating the most basic human processes to a vast, inhuman mechanism.”

The grotesque continues. In the name of protecting the health and life of the national economy, the state now proposes to reject technologies of health and life: foreign-made condoms and bandages, X-ray machines and ultrasounds.

But it is Borenstein’s final point that I think needs elaborating, what he calls “the Putinist obsession with sovereignty,” a central dynamic in the state’s nationalist project that I have previously written about as it poses dilemmas for LGBT and feminist activists in the opposition. In that context, I explained how highly visible violence committed against LGBT Russians—from the symbolic exclusion represented by the “gay propaganda” ban to anti-gay vigilantism filmed for YouTube—was a means of constructing and revitalizing a Russian national community in opposition to the threatening (alleged) foreignness of homosexuality.

In his Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (1969), a foundational text in nationalism studies, Fredrik Barth noted that the perception of difference between ethnic, national, or cultural groups did not persist through the simple ignorance of one group about the other, nor through a lack of contact or exchange:

First, it is clear that boundaries persist despite of flow of personnel across them. In other words, categorical ethnic distinctions do not depend on an absence of mobility, contact and information, but do entail social processes of exclusion and incorporation whereby discrete categories are maintained despite changing participation and membership in the course of individual life histories. Secondly, one finds that stable, persisting, and often vitally important social relations are maintained across such boundaries, and are frequently based precisely on the dichotomized ethnic statuses. In other words, ethnic distinctions do not depend on an absence of social interaction and acceptance, but are quite to the contrary often the very foundations on which embracing social systems are built… (9-10).

National borders are dynamic things, not mere lines on a map or straighforwardly inherited beliefs. The Kremlin’s politics of destruction are not only a dramatic exercise of power—a grotesque, perhaps, not only of eating but also of political rituals of spectacular consumption like the anthropologists’ favorite potlatch. The elaborate and televised destruction of the foreign, whether it takes the form of nourishment or health or people, outlines the boundaries of the nation in fire.