Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Great Post-Soviet Wine Debate

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

I don't make a habit of reading transcripts of State Duma sessions, but perhaps I should check in once every few months, for a dose of reality on the ways and means by which my reality is increasingly shaped. Take, for example, the ban on Georgian and Moldovan wines and other Georgian products. The why doesn't much interest me: The reasons for the bans are transparently political. But I found it instructive to read the how: the discussion that preceded the Duma's vote on the ban last week.

In case you missed the great post-Soviet wine debate, here is the gist. Russia's head hygienist, Gennady Onishchenko, declared that wines originating in Moldova and Georgia contained traces of harmful pesticides and could no longer be sold in Russia. The discovery of the pesticides came at a convenient time to punish Georgia and Moldova for recent political actions and statements that Moscow views as disloyal or hostile. The ban on wine imports, instituted last month and later extended to include brandies and sparkling wines, dealt a huge blow to both countries' economies as well as to Russian wine importers.

Last week a resolution supporting the ban came up for discussion in the Duma. It was introduced by a United Russia deputy, who made the following statements. Many Russians deaths -- roughly 13 percent of the total number -- are caused by poisoning by low-quality alcohol. Onishchenko has checked Georgian and Moldovan wines and decided that they are the culprit. The Duma should support Onishchenko.

None of the study results cited by the United Russia representative were distributed among the deputies. And if I were a Duma member, I'd be surprised that relatively expensive imported wines are the cause of alcohol poisoning, which, common sense would suggest, is far more likely to stem from cheap vodka. One of the deputies was surprised, and did ask for documents. The United Russia presenter responded that the Duma had no reason to doubt Onishchenko's word. It was, then, a matter of trust and loyalty.

Several deputies immediately affirmed their loyalty to and trust in the country's top hygienist. Then another deputy, an agronomist by training, stood up and, in a roundabout way, suggested that Onishchenko may not be entirely trustworthy, since he claims to have found traces of pesticides that haven't been used in decades, and indeed have never been used on grape plantations. He got no response at all.

A short while later, a deputy representing the Rodina faction took the floor. "The executive branch made decisions on Georgia and Moldova at the same time," he noted. "It's as if the stuff of winemaking went bad in both countries at the same time. And at the same time brandies and mineral water went bad as well. Isn't that strange? Of course it's strange. Why are we voting on a resolution that's all made up of strangeness? ... And no one is even asking us to do this." This was an important point. There was no indication that the consumer protection service or customs service actually needed a Duma resolution to maintain the ban. But the Duma seemed to need to prove its loyalty and trust to the executive branch.

You have probably noticed I didn't cite any of these people by name. Their names would not be familiar to anyone. These men are virtually anonymous, themselves perfectly aware of the fact that their names, faces and words mean nothing: No one even really needs their resolution. Still, 349 of them voted in favor of the resolution; only two voted against it. That may or may not have anything to do with why you and I are no longer going to be able to buy Georgian wine or mineral water, or -- it now seems likely -- fruit and vegetables, or why a number of Russian importers are now hemorrhaging money, or why we pay taxes to keep the parliament in business, whatever its business is.

Masha Gessen is a Moscow journalist.