After the Soviet collapse, the United States managed to pay sustained attention to the former Soviet Union for at least four years straight—a post-Soviet record that will only be beaten if Donald Trump is elected to a second presidential term. In 1992, out of concern that newly-impoverished citizens might be tasting “freedom" only to starve for food, the Bush administration inaugurated a program to airlift food and medical supplies to dozens of cities in the Commonwealth of Independent States under the name “Operation Provide Hope.”
If the phrase sounds vaguely familiar, there’s a good reason: the project used the same naming conventions that became famous during the First Gulf War, when Operation Desert Shield gave way to Operation Desert Storm. Thus what was most likely an earnest attempt at humanitarian aid did little to alleviate the sense that the victors were showing self-satisfied noblesse to the benighted residents of the countries they had conquered.
To make matters worse, the food, which was meant primarily for the consumption of the elderly, was not simply culturally inappropriate: a large portion of it consisted of MREs (“Meals Ready to Eat”) left over when the Gulf War proved to be a much shorter conflict than anticipated. In Moscow, I worked briefly for the program, and found myself in the absurd position of explaining to the local babushki the finer points of vacuum-packed chili. Given that the average Russian senior citizen recoils from any hint of spice like vampires exposed to garlic, this was a losing proposition.
Operation Provide Hope followed on the heels of the infamous “Bush legs,” the frozen chicken quarters supplied to post-Soviet counties as part of a 1990 Soviet-American trade agreement. The popular press repeatedly published stories about the hidden dangers of American chicken, from antibiotics and hormones to possible allergic reactions to chlorine. Meanwhile, stores and stands were inundated with American products, including fast food and junk food. Snickers quickly became a symbol of this phenomenon: their advertising was pervasive and catchy, their claims to provide “energy” were puzzling, , their ubiquity was annoying, and their taste was foreign and odd while also being immediately popular.
These new, imported foods were themselves advertisements for a longed-for prosperity, and their sheer variety could only be confusing. In the very first episode of the hit television series Менты (Cops) (1995/1997), a team of police officers arrives at the scene of a murder in a communal apartment. A nosy old lady provides color commentary while snooping around the apartment of her much richer, and now deceased, neighbor. Attracted by a colorful bag, she reaches in to sample a snack, only to exclaim "Тьфу! Этот "Кити-кэт" совсем не вкусный!" ("Ugh!! This "Kitty-Cat" stuff tastes awful!").
Tabloids went beyond simply decrying foreign imports as unnatural or unhealthy, because their threat was on the cusp of nutrition and information. Not only were the products themselves new, but the means by which they entered popular consciousness were a shock to the (post-) Soviet informational ecosystem: bodies were polluted with chemicals and empty calories while minds were hijacked by jingles and catchphrases.
In 1994, Komsmol’skaia pravda published an article on mind-altering effects of advertising, including a reference to the “Uncle Ben Effect,” which caused children to vomit after repeated exposure to the American rice company’s commercials. The metaphor of mental and physical consumption becomes literal, with the body in revolt expelling harmful informational input as poorly digested physical output.
America, then, tempts the former Soviet Union with tasty ideological poisons. Which brings us back to Ukraine. And to the Notorious Victoria Nuland.
Tuesday: Cookies from Hell