Cookies from Hell, or, More Wrongs about Buildings and Food (Part 3)

Any consideration of culinary diplomacy must reserve a special place for former US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, whose world-famous cookies were either a colossal PR miscalculation or an ill-conceived attempt or an inept show of soft power strength to observers in the Kremlin.  

Nuland was one of the many Obama administration figures the the Russian media loved to hate.  Her leaked January 2014 telephone call, in which she and a colleague discussed their preferences for positions in the post-Madian Ukrainian government, only reinforced her image as the face of American imperialist overreach (her casual dismissal of Europe—“Fuck the EU”—did not help matters).  But what she is best remembered for in Russia is her bag of snacks.

On December 11, 2013, three weeks into the Euromaidan, Nuland is filmed making her way to Maidan Square, accompanied by her staff. Initially she has the look of someone about to go on a dreary shopping trip, carrying a plastic bag filled with food and wearing a look of grim determination. After a cut in the video, she is smiling at the camera, walking up to protesters to shake their hands and talk to them (in English): “We’re here from America.  Would you like some bread? Take something.  Please. Take something.  Guys, are you hungry? Take something. Take some stuff.”   Nuland hands out the food with all the grace of a Soviet shopkeeper.

It is a bizarrely staged event: Nuland extends holds out her overflowing bag to everyone she meets (culminating in an offer to the Berkut officers on duty), as though she were on some sort of reverse trick-or-treating expedition.  The Russian media and Internet loved it, but not in the way Nuland must have intended. “Nuland’s cookies” became a persistent meme, with headlines referring to “Nuland’s poisoned cookies” and one blogger referring to "Victoria Nuland with her cookies laced with hallucinogenic drugs in order to subvert Ukraine."

The entire situation is thoroughly gendered, and played into the anti-Nuland diatribes.  Sexism may not have been why Nuland was so disliked (it would be hard for any Obama official to hear a kind word in the Russian media), but it certainly colored the way in which she was disliked (see under: Hillary Clinton).  She was performing a traditionally feminine task (feeding people), and she was terrible at it. 

Nuland soon found herself disputing the characterization of her Maidan expedition "First of all, to correct some disinformaciya, they were sandwiches, they were not cookies.” As I watch the video, I would split the difference and call them crackers, but no one asked me, and thus the tragic events in Kiev unfolded without my Solomonic mediation. 

...he'll probably ask you what the hell you think you're doing.

...he'll probably ask you what the hell you think you're doing.

Nuland explained her actions by appealing to her own Slavic roots (her father apparently has relatives in Ukraine): “I couldn’t just leave, so in keeping with Slavic traditions, I handed out sandwiches to hungry people  but they were meant not just for the demonstrators, but for the Berkut soldiers as well.”[1]

Nuland’s appeal to “Slavic tradition” to justify a media event that looked very much like American partisanship in an internal Ukrainian dispute is rather odd, especially since I’m not aware of any sandwich-distributing rites in the Primary Chronicle.  What, then, could she be thinking of? 

Probably the traditional greeting of guests with an offering of bread and salt (a ritual played and replayed in countless Soviet broadcasts of leaders being received in towns throughout the USSR).  Nuland’s actions were in fact an inversion of hospitality, the assumption of local prerogative: the Assistant Secretary of State was the guest, not the host.  

The Obama administration’s handling of the Ukraine crisis seemed so inept that one could suspect them of simply trolling.   You think America is secretly masterminding all anti-illiberal movements in the former Soviet Union?  Fine, let’s give you Victoria Nuland, welcoming Ukrainian protesters as if she were on her own turf. 

Next:  Veggie Tales


[1] I have only found this quote in a Russian translation, which I have rendered back into English.