Russia: Reactions to the “Buckwheat Panic”

Buckwheat porridge, photo by Laitr Keiows

Buckwheat porridge, photo by Laitr Keiows

The heatwave and the subsequent drought in Russia's central regions haven't only resulted in wildfires [EN] and increased death rates due to smog [EN] in Moscow, but also in the government's decision to ban grain exports [EN]. The latter caused several bursts of food panic, the most important of which became known as the “buckwheat panic.”

Buckwheat porridge is considered a unique Russian dish. In 2008, Russia produced [EN] almost half of all the world's buckwheat, while 21 percent of Russians prefers it to any other cereals.

Food prices in Russia have been constantly rising throughout 2010, although none of the previous rises had caused such a powerful media impact. The current online ‘panic’ started at the end of August (the first messages related to the topic can be dated back to August 20-22).

Pulse of the Blogosphere:

LJ user sova-sp wrote:

…гречка за 76 рублей
–дикий скачок цен за последние 2 недели
…что никого не волнует как будут выживать пенсионеры и люди в регионах

Buckwheat for 76 rubles [about $3, almost 3 times the regular price]
— a huge price hike within the past 2 weeks
… no one cares how seniors and people in the regions are going to survive

Similar thoughts can be found expressed here, here, and here.

On August 23, the article “Farewell to Porridge” was published in the oppositional magazine “The New Times.” It analyzed the growing buckwheat prices and concluded that there was not enough buckwheat in the country. Despite the emerging number of worried posts in the blogosphere, the newspaper had been criticized for disseminating online panic. Evgeniya Albats, executive editor of the magazine, later argued that unlike in the case of grain, the government doesn’t have a strategic reserve for buckwheat, and that the topic should have been exposed by TV channels, and not just by her publication.

Some bloggers have been distributing a Greenpeace video [RUS] with the evidence of the loss of major grain crops in Voronezh region and a declaration that the lost crops were due to the global climate change that can't be ignored.

Other bloggers, however, weren’t terrified by the unusual price escalation. Popular blogger drugoi wrote [RUS]:

ЧуднАя у нас страна, все-таки. То соль пропадала, помню. Теперь вот какие-то проблемы с гречкой, говорят. Зашел сейчас в ближайший от меня магазин. Цену на гречку подняли неделю назад. На тридцать рублей, как сказала кассирша. Потому что поднялась оптовая цена. Гречку привозят со склада где-то в Подмосковье. Управляющий говорит, что склад его оптовика этой гречкой забит под завязку. Хоть завались этой гречкой. Хоть выкладывай этой гречкой дорогу до Владивостока. Но пошла волна и на этом оптовом складе тоже подняли цены. Почему, зачем — никто не понимает. А вы понимаете?

What a strange country we have! Salt disappeared once, I remember. Now, they say, there are some problems with buckwheat. I went to the closest shop. The buckwheat price grew significantly a week ago. [One dollar more], a cashier said. Because the wholesale prices had grown, she explained. Buckwheat comes from a storehouse close to Moscow. The manager of the storehouse says the storehouse is full of buckwheat. There’s so much of it, you can pave the road to Vladivostok with buckwheat. But the wave had started and even at this storehouse they raised the prices. Why? What for? – no one understands. Do you?

Another blogger wrote [RUS]:

Сейчас был в магазине – продавщицу доставали вопросами о гречке: что случилось, когда будет и как блять жить дальше. Причем вопросы задавали не бедные пенсионеры, а люди среднего возраста и вполне состоявшегося вида. Ну вот нет гречки, и что? Все умрут нахер? Рис, картошка, макароны, горох и прочее в горло не полезут?

I’ve been to a shop today – everyone was asking the cashier about buckwheat: what happened, when will they have it and how to live now. And it wasn’t that the questions were asked by the poor seniors, but by middle-aged people who look affluent enough. Well, there’s no buckwheat and so what? Everyone will die? Rice, potatoes, spaghetti, beans – won’t they fit all that into their mouths?

A pro-Kremlin blogger pro-kurator summarized [RUS] the skeptical blog posts against the panic:

Кстати, совершенно достоверный факт – в одной из торговых сетей […] продавцам рекомендовали делать озабоченное лицо и рассказывать о возможных (“это мое личное мнение”) проблемах с поставками. Потому что испуганный покупатель сметает всё. Называется “искусственно созданный ажиотажный спрос” – как с солью. Когда народ покупал её мешками, а потом сидел и думал – “И нахрена я купил 52 кг соли? Что, 100 рублей не нашел бы, если бы подорожала? Теперь за 10 лет не съесть!”.

Понятно, что с урожаем-2010, мягко скажем, проблемы – но “продовольственная паника” их только усугубляет. Давая поставщикам и торговым сетям прекрасный повод задирать цены – вызывая новую волну истерики “видите, дорожает!”. Кстати, если статистика не врет – продажи круп, макаронов и муки за последнюю неделю (!) выросли впятеро.

It is an absolutely trustworthy fact – in one of the chain stores […] staff were advised to make a worried face and talk about the possible (“this is my personal opinion”) problems with supplies. Because a frightened customer would [eagerly buy] anything. It is called an “artificially created, roaring demand” – the way it was with salt. When people were buying it by sacks and only afterwards they were thinking: “Why did I buy 52 kilograms of salt? What, wouldn't I find 100 rubles if it did get more expensive? And now I won’t eat it in 10 years!”

No doubt there are, to put it mildly, problems with the harvest of 2010 – but the “food panic” is only making them worse. It gives the reason to suppliers and chain stores to raise prices, causing the new wave of panic – “Look, it’s getting more expensive!” By the way, if the statistics doesn’t lie, the sales of cereals, spaghetti and wheat have grown 5 times in the past week!

Blogger lindenss [RUS] commented:

мне всегда интересно в такие вот периоды всеобщей паники – а что, реально все эти люди, которые с вытаращенными глазами скупают гречку пакетами, ее едят регулярно в промышленных количествах?)
у нас единственный пакет гречки живет… эээ.. ну больше года точно)

It's always interesting to me in this time of general panic – all these people who are buying buckwheat in packs with goggled eyes, do they eat it regularly [in extremely large quantities]?
In our house, one pack of buckwheat survives for… well… definitely for more than a year )

Some bloggers mocked [RUS] the inadequacy of the Russian political life and this local crisis in the form of Haiku [EN]:

Путин спокоен:
“Все под контролем”
Народ раскупает гречку

Толкает фуфло
Народ раскупает гречку

Putin is confident
“Everything is under control”
People are sweeping away buckwheat

Pushing bullshit
People are sweeping away buckwheat

Some bloggers, however, argued that it was the blogosphere that had triggered the panic (although such a point of view can hardly be valid):

Может вы не в курсе, но сейчас все бабульки у подъездов ссылаются в разговоре на Интернет.
– Слышали, послезавтра будет дождь. Интернет обещал.

Завтра ждите рейдов по магазинам-будут сметать с прилавков все, чем там полагается перед войной запасаться: солью, мукой, спичками. Ну и гречу, конечно, скупят. Ту, которую еще не скупили. Ибо Интернет сказал: немножко паники.

Maybe you don't know that, but all the old ladies sitting by their houses are now referring to the Internet.
– It's gonna rain tomorrow, did you hear? The Internet promised so.

Tomorrow expect raids on the shops – people will be sweeping away everything that one must store up on before the war: salt, wheat, matches. And of course, they'll sweep away the buckwheat. The buckwheat that hadn't been bought already. Because the Internet said: a little bit of panic, please.

Later, it was widely recognized that the main beneficiaries of the “buckwheat panic” were wholesale grain suppliers who were happy to sell cheap buckwheat for “astronomic” prices.

The story of the “buckwheat panic” illustrates the ability of bloggers to critically analyze the information and approach even quite disturbing topics from a distance. The general understanding of the problem and common sense has prevented the dissemination of panic any further. The blogosphere has once again presented an example of the intelligent media, where false information is being refuted quickly, while trustworthy information, even if it's unpleasant for the authorities, is viable.


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