Videos of Russian shoppers fighting over sugar in supermarkets have gone viral, showing just how scarce the staple food has become in the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine.
In videos coming out of towns and cities across Russia, crowds of people are shouting, jostling and climbing over each other to grab the last bags of sugar in barren shops.
Some stores have imposed 10kg rations per customer, and there have been reports of people attacking anyone they think is panic-buying. In one scuffle in the northern city of Severodvinsk, a man with five packets of sugar in his shopping basket was punched five times in the face during a confrontation with an angry shopper.
Russians who remember the turmoil of the last few years of the Soviet Union know only too well the importance of grabbing rare goods when you see them, particularly in a crisis. Sugar is usually bought in bulk by Russians who are going to preserve large amounts of fruit, or make samogon, high-proof moonshine popular in the countryside.
“It’s a madhouse,” one shopper in the southern Russian city of Volgograd told a local media outlet last week. “The shop assistants say sugar is re-stocked every now and again, but it’s immediately snapped up — people are deliberately standing watch in order to buy it all.”
Sugar shortages have been the first major material consequences of the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine felt by many ordinary Russians. It’s been caused by a cocktail of factors that include government attempts to regulate prices, skyrocketing demand and a crash in the value of the Russian currency. Although Russia imports a relatively small amount of sugar, the gyrations in the value of the ruble mean foreign companies are suddenly unwilling to sign contracts with their Russian counterparts.
Similar shortages are almost inevitable as Western sanctions and the continuing fighting in Ukraine isolate Russia from the global economy. Inflation in Russia is rising rapidly and a cost-of-living crisis is looming.
Sugar shortages are not confined to one particular region or Russia's major cities — there have been reports of empty shelves as far away as the island of Sakhalin, a Russian territory in the Pacific Ocean. Some neighbouring countries that import Russian sugar, such as Kazakhstan, also have a sugar deficit, and rising prices and supermarket scuffles to go with it.
The shortage of sugar is already being felt by sweet manufacturers and confectionery outlets, with brands such as Ferrero Rocher set to ramp up prices by 20 percent. “Our suppliers don’t have any sugar,” Arthur Borodin, the administrator at a vegan cake shop in St. Petersburg, told VICE World News. Even though the shop only needs 40kg of sugar a week, they haven’t been able to find a supplier.
Russian officials insist there’s no sugar deficit and that the crisis is an artificial one, caused by consumer panic-buying and unscrupulous manufacturing and distribution companies hoarding sugar in an attempt to push prices higher. Even so, the government last week imposed a temporary ban on sugar exports.
"Of course not everyone can cope with their emotions, but if you know the real information, then you understand that there is absolutely no need to run around the shops to buy toilet paper, buckwheat, sugar, and so on," said Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesperson, on Friday.
Russian law enforcement agencies have warned that they are investigating companies in regions suffering from sugar deficits.
The cost of sugar went up as much as 31 percent last week, but it’s not the only thing becoming hugely expensive. With an exodus of foreign businesses and Western sanctions expected to lead to shortages of foreign goods, the price of imported cars and household items, like hoovers and televisions, has also shot up more than 20 percent since the war began.
Despite an emergency rate hike and the imposition of currency controls, it looks unlikely the authorities will be able to bring inflation under control. Prices in Russia rose 4.3 percent, more in the two weeks following the invasion than the government hoped they would over the entire year. Predictions for Russia’s annual inflation rate now range from about 15 percent to as high as 30 percent.
Those currently experiencing difficulties getting sugar are at the sharp end of what is likely to be a protracted and painful economic crisis. Yevgeniya Buldakova, head of a boutique chocolate manufacturing company in St. Petersburg, said she was still receiving sugar deliveries, but that her suppliers had raised prices about 8 percent since the start of the war. Judging by the lack of sugar in local shops, she believes her company will soon face shortages. “We’ve had no problems yet, but I think we will do soon,” she said.