Hard times call for sacrifices. That was the message of Ilya Gaffner, a legislator in Yekaterinburg, on a recent visit to a local grocery store, where he told TV cameras that Russians should consider going on a diet, when faced with rising food prices. “To put it bluntly, if you’re short on money,” Gaffner said, “you need to remember that we’re all Russian citizens—Russian people—and we’ve survived hunger and the cold. We just need to give some thought to our health and eat a bit less.”
Elected to his current post in 2011, Gaffner joined United Russia, the country’s dominant political party, in 2012. Since April 2014, he’s been a member of United Russia’s “Popular Control” project, which conducts “raids” on stores, monitoring consumer prices and compliance with different business laws. Between 2010 and 2011, for instance, United Russia claims to have coordinated almost 2,000 such raids.
On the website for United Russia’s Yekaterinburg regional branch, there is a video of Gaffner’s January 21, 2015, raid, though the embedded news report does not include his controversial advice to “eat less.” Instead, Gaffner can be seen explaining that the steep rise in food prices is a result of Russia’s currency woes.
While Gaffner has refused to talk to the press about his remarks, United Russia’s Yekaterinburg regional director, Viktor Shepty, told Kommersant newspaper that Gaffner spoke “incorrectly,” stressing the need to “think seven times before speaking once.”
On YouTube, the local television report containing Gaffner’s full remarks now has more than 53,000 views and almost 800 comments. Probably because Gaffner emphasized his audience’s “Russianness,” many YouTube users are busy speculating about his ethnicity, suggesting that he might be Jewish (and therefore somehow “compromised,” presumably). Other commenters appear to represent different sides of Russia’s endless Ukraine War trolling. “Hey, Russians, you’re always growling, ‘Everything is ours! We’ll do it all ourselves! We’ll put up with anything for Crimea!’ So what’s up now? Why all the whining?” writes “Stas Gerstas,” attracting 384 “up-votes.”
Still others have found enough fodder for political humor, without turning to the war in Eastern Ukraine. For example, Aleksandr Makhorin, with 305 “up-votes,” writes:
Далее он наверно посоветует гражданам поменьше пить, аккуратнее носить одежду и обувь чтоб поменьше покупать, а также поменьше ходить в туалет, дышать, разговаривать и, наконец, оптимальный вариант, поменьше жить.
Next he’ll probably advise the public to drink less, and then to wear our clothes and our shoes more carefully, so we don’t have to replace them as often. Then, he’ll tell us to go to the bathroom less often, to breathe less, to speak less, and, finally, the best option of all, to live a bit less.
As Russia’s economy struggles amidst low oil prices, Western sanctions over Moscow’s policies in Ukraine, and internal political stagnation, episodes like Gaffner’s slip-up are becoming a regular feature of local politics. Earlier this month, a similar episode took place in St. Petersburg, where the lieutenant governor came under fire for telling citizens to clean up their own streets, when snow-removal crews don’t show up. As Russian consumers continue to feel squeezed by rising prices, and the country’s politicians adjust to the public’s rising expectations of the government, the year promises more gaffes ahead.