Where have all the flowers gone? In Russia, they’ve been burned, along with the food.

In earlier blog posts (5/28 and 8/13), I wrote at some length about how food has become an issue not only about our sustenance and survival, but also about how it can be used as an instrument for intrigue and government policy, as seen in the recent actions/reactions by Russia as regards its recent intervention/invasion in Ukraine. Such stories have been cause for incredulity; it does not seem possible that there would have to be a reason to write about such things again, but the occasion has arisen, given the recent news reports from The New York Times and The Associated Press

Unbelievably, Russia is continuing with the program of destroying food, food which could be used to alleviate the physical hungers of untold numbers of people. And not only that—Russia is now bent on destroying those things of joy and beauty that only the earth can provide, things that “the good earth” (as Pearl Buck would say) can offer for those who long for such ethereal visions: flowers. That is, flowers from the Netherlands (an act that has become known as “the flower war”).

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First the burning of precious food and now the burning of beautiful and delicate flowers. Such actions by the Russians have been but an ongoing policy of retaliation on their part toward sanctions imposed by Western nations concerning Russia’s behavior in Ukraine. All of this has resulted in an unfortunate policy of “tit-for-tat,” which has become a way of life now for over a year. When dialogue and statecraft ought to be the instruments of governmental policy, the deliberate destruction of food—and now flowers—have become the means to achieve dubious ends.

According to the AP, the Russian police have busted “an international ring in producing contraband cheese worth about 2 billion rubles ($30 million), arresting six people.”  Apparently, this has been part of an organized effort on the part of the Russian authorities to enforce a ban on Western agricultural products. It is, as the Russians claim, a crackdown on illegal and counterfeit operations whereby foreign cheese producers since March (or the “ring” as the Russians have described them) have been supplying “as cheese a product made from cheese rennet whose import into Russia is forbidden.” (Rennet is a complex of enzymes that are produced in the stomachs of ruminant animals which are used in the production of most cheeses.) These cheese and other agricultural products (with counterfeit labels) were destined for Russian markets, supermarket chains and distribution centers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. As a result of the investigation—in addition to the arrests—17 homes, warehouses and offices around Moscow were raided, where they confiscated 470 tons of the rennet product. Rosselkhznadzor, the oversight agency, has been publicizing the destruction of the contraband food. As the AP reports, 321 tons of animal products were seized and of that 48 tons destroyed. Also seized were 592 tons of fruit and vegetables, of which 552 tons were destroyed. The reason given for these actions? The foodstuffs are rancid and unfit for human consumption and must be disposed of. Of course!

And why are the willful destruction of beautiful flowers suddenly an instrument of governmental policy? Because they come from the Netherlands, a country that dared to question—and demanded answers from—Russia about its involvement in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, from over a year ago (on July 14, 2014) which was due to fly from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and never made it past the Russia-Ukraine borders, only to be controversially shot down over the Donetsk region of Ukraine (by a surface-to-air Russian missile given to eastern Ukrainian separatists). The shooting down resulted in 298 victims, the majority of which were Dutch. Since that time, the Dutch Safety Board had been investigating the incident and is expected to issue a final report this coming October. And this past July, the Malaysians proposed a United Nations resolution to have an international tribunal set up to prosecute those responsible for that reprehensible action. A majority of the UN Security Council voted for it, with 11 countries in the affirmative with 3 abstaining. Not surprisingly, the only country to veto the measure was Russia. In retaliation for that, Russia is “putting to light” the flowers of the Netherlands, giving the derisible reason that they were “insect ridden.”

As the Times reports, the Russians have finally “dropped the pretense” and is in fact warning the Dutch to basically stop investigating the Malaysian plane incident or risk trade disruptions. And this is no idle threat—approximately 40% of all fresh-cut flowers and houseplants that are sold in Russia come from the Netherlands, a business which amounts to about €283 million, or $314 billion in sales. Thus, the commencement of “the flower war,” as it is becoming known in Russia.

To some in Russia, all of this is part of a power-play, a show, a means to illustrate that Russia won’t allow herself to be ignored or denigrated by “outsiders,” that she can do as she wishes. And for some—as the thinking goes—it will all blow over and it will be back to business as usual and will be soon forgotten and life will proceed on to other things. The only unknowable—and proper—response to that optimistic view is: will it?

No one can know for sure. It has happened too many times now for it to be merely just a “show” or a “power play,” something to be brushed off, like a flake of dandruff on one’s shoulder. How unfortunate it is that the state of human affairs has come to this. For some, this may actually seem as an improvement, that actual weapons are not used in the resolution of disputes and that innocuous “weapons”—like food or flowers—are used instead as instruments of policy. That still does not make it proper—or right.  

It is also hypocritical. As The Times reports, a Russian opposition leader and anticorruption activist, Aleksei A. Navalny, noted in his blog that Russian officials, notably Moscow’s mayor, have availed themselves of the officially banned food items, such as Brie, Gruyère, Roquefort and Dorblu (at a cost of $71,500). And the Ministry of the Interior also requested such delicacies as mozzarella and Parmesan. As Mr. Navalny says, “They eat Dorblu cheese, dab their mouths with a napkin, and then turn to the camera and talk about how right it is to destroy European products.” No wonder that such behavior has given rise to derision by people in general and to the very popular satirical video in particular, “Death of a Parmesan.”

When nuance, balance, fairness and right-thinking are called for, only petulance and pettiness are presented as the solutions for vexing, intractable problems. Surely this should not the behavior of statesmen who profess to be believers. It should be the behavior of the past and not of the present and it certainly should not be the behavior of the future. “Where have all the flowers gone?” sang Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960’s. Today, the answer to that would be that they’ve been burned, along with the food.

G. K. Chesterton was once asked why Jesus (as often recounted in the Gospels) went up so often to the hills. The expected and likely answer would have been that Jesus went up to the hills to pray or meditate or rest. But Chesterton—being Chesterton—had a different answer. And given the proclivities of human behavior—in biblical times and in the times since then—Chesterton gave what was an astute reply. He said that Jesus had to get up into the hills in order to give release to the laughter within him (which he could not contain) at what he saw as the folly of the world. Were he were around today and saw how so-called statesmen are behaving, Mr. Chesterton would have to amend his original answer. Were Jesus to go up into the hills today, it would not be to release gales of laughter at the folly of man; it would be to weep at the continued indifference and contempt of man toward his fellows.

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