A 30-year-old former computer programmer became Russia’s most celebrated cheesemaker after he appeared at a nationally televised event last month, where he praised President Vladimir Putin’s ban on European and U.S. agricultural products, NPR reports.
Russia banned European food imports in retaliation for Western sanctions that followed the Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
The Kremlin vowed the move would boost “import substitution.” In other words, local firms would fill the consumer void. Companies in the agricultural sector were promised financial and infrastructural support from the state.
Oleg Sirota began his cheese business from scratch a year after Putin introduced the embargo.
“I dropped everything. I sold my apartment, my car, my business and moved into a trailer in a field to start my creamery and live the Russian dream,” said the young farmer, adding that he was always interested in working the land, but he dropped out of agriculture school because he didn’t see a future for Russian farming.
Before the ban, which Putin recently extended until the end of 2019, Russian farmers couldn’t compete with the heavily subsidized butter, cheese, even potatoes from the European Union. Then came the sanctions, and Russia was suddenly forced to rely on itself. The government raised subsidies in all stages of agricultural production, creating opportunities for locally-oriented businesses like Sirota’s dairy farm.
“The old way of doing things was broken. And the government realized we need to make everything ourselves – tractors, combines, cars, cheese, bread, everything.”
Sirota says there are now hundreds of Russian cheesemakers, so he’s trying to get ahead of the competition and start exporting to Austria, Germany and France.