MOSCOW • As poverty rates soar and memories remain of famine during Soviet times, Russian officials have steamrolled tonnes of cheese, fruit and vegetables in a controversial drive to destroy Western food smuggled into the crisis-hit country.
President Vladimir Putin has provoked outrage with his order to trash all food that breaches a year-old embargo on imports imposed in retaliation to sanctions by the United States, European Union and others over the Ukraine crisis.
Even some Kremlin allies are expressing shock at the idea of "food crematoria", while one Russian Orthodox priest has denounced the campaign, which officially began on Thursday, as sinful.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who normally toes the Kremlin line, said the move was "extreme" and proposed sending the food to orphanages and to the separatist pro-Russian regions of eastern Ukraine.
However, the authorities consider illegal imports "a security threat" and Russian television showed truckloads of round bright orange cheeses dumped on a patch of wasteland and then crushed with a steamroller in the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine.
AN UNCIVILISED ACT
This is no ordinary measure. This is a display of barbarity, a challenge to society, a refusal to see the ethical side where it is most important.
VEDOMOSTI EDITORIAL, on President Vladimir Putin's move to destroy the food
Even before the official start, zealous workers threw boxes of European bacon into an incinerator.
Many Russians say the government has lost sight of the everyday struggles faced by ordinary citizens.
"This is no ordinary measure. This is a display of barbarity, a challenge to society, a refusal to see the ethical side where it is most important," Vedomosti business daily wrote in a front-page editorial.
More than 285,000 people have backed an online petition on Change.org, an international website that hosts campaigns, calling on President Putin to revoke the decision and hand the food to people in need.
"Sanctions have led to a major rise in food prices on Russian shelves. Russian pensioners, veterans, large families, the disabled and other needy social groups were forced to greatly restrict their diets, right up to starvation," the petition said. "If you can just eat these products, why destroy it?"
The Russian Orthodox Church did not look kindly upon the destruction of food, either. "In essence, this is a crazy, stupid, vile idea," Father Alexi Uminsky, a Moscow parish priest, wrote on the Orthodox site Pravmir.ru. "There are lots of people in our country who could benefit greatly from these goods."
With annual food price inflation running at more than 20 per cent, public indignation has been deepened by Russian media reports that the Agriculture Ministry was tendering to buy "mobile food crematoria" to speed up the destruction.
By the end of Thursday, a total of 319 tonnes of food was destroyed, including some meats from Italy which were burned in a garbage incinerator at Saint Petersburg's Pulkovo airport.
Two truckloads of European tomatoes and three of nectarines and peaches were smashed with a tractor and bulldozer in the Smolensk region after they arrived with fake documents, the food safety agency Rosselkhoznadzor said.
One truck driver carrying a cargo of tomatoes turned his vehicle around and made a getaway back into Belarus to prevent them from being destroyed, the agency said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the food is "pure contraband", while Russia's Agriculture Minister Alexander Tkachev said the destruction was necessary as the food was of "dubious quality".
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG