A bulldozer destroys illegally imported European cheese in Russia. The so-called fromagicide was carried out in conjunction with heightened Russian sanctions on other European countries. Reuters

In the first instance of "fromagicide" on record, Russian authorities destroyed 20 tons of cheese using a bulldozer Thursday, mowing down foods that were imported despite ongoing Russian sanctions on Western nations. The public display sparked outrage in Russia and around the world, especially from ordinary citizens who missed their cheese and were critical of food waste in a nation where several million people live below the poverty line.

Attempting to ban everything from French cheese to Dutch flowers to Western condoms, Russia's sanctions against the West this year have been a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to assert the country's self-sufficiency amid growing tensions with the European Union and the United States. For millions of Russians whose diets once relied on European imports, however, the sanctions have greatly affected daily life. Russians love their cheese, and while some of them may have been supportive of the sanctions as a matter of national pride when the food ban was announced in 2014, many average Russians have been changing their minds in the wake of recent public demonstrations of food destruction.

"If they start destroying food, what next? It's like our authorities don't care about the people," said Olga Saveleva, a Moscow-based activist who has launched an online petition to repeal the sanctions, the BBC reported. More than 315,000 people have signed the petition.

The series of events that led to the fromagicide began with U.S. and European sanctions on Russia over Russia's reported military involvement in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine between Kiev and pro-Russian rebels. The U.S. and Europe imposed the sanctions on Russia in March 2014 soon after Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula. The West saw the annexation as an escalation in Russia's involvement in Ukraine, as well as a disregard for international law. U.S. sanctions against Russia were particularly strict and included sanctions against business leaders, as well as private companies, in an attempt to cripple Russia's economy.

Russia introduced retaliatory sanctions against the U.S. and Europe in August 2014, banning all imports of Western food. At first, the sanctions were met with support from Russians with a strong sense of national pride who were willing to make sacrifices for their country. The sacrifice was not small: Russia used to import 300,000 tons of European cheese a year before the sanctions, according to Jean-Michelle Javel, the president of a French milk cooperative.

Russian Imports and Exports over Time | FindTheData

“Good, good! They were right to ban them," said one Russian man in an interview with the Moscow Times in August 2014. "[Foreigners] dump all this crap here while our own Russian products are the best,” he said.

Russia threatened to withhold oil from Europe the following month, inciting Europe to retaliate with even stricter and more expansive sanctions. Last month, Putin signed a decree calling for the destruction of confiscated Western food.

'It's A Status Symbol'

The so-called cheese execution is a symbolic severing of ties with Europe, experts said. “The West is the center of civilization: Good food, good wine, sensual pleasures,” said Faith Hillis, a professor of modern Russian history at the University of Chicago in Illinois.

Russia has a long and complicated history with European culture that stretches back long before the Soviet era. European food and art were considered a symbol of refinement and modernity, as well as a potential threat to Russia’s traditional way of life as early as the 18th century. In the 19th century, some Russian nobles were criticized for speaking French better than they spoke Russian.

Under Soviet rule as part of the USSR, the borders between Russia and the rest of the world were tightly sealed. There was a higher demand for foreign cigarettes and forbidden literature than for Western food, according to Hillis.

"The thing about cheese is it’s expensive in the Russian context, but it’s not jewelry or Gucci," she said. "It’s a status symbol that’s available enough.” Because of its accessibility, foreign cheese became a symbol of a new middle class in he 2000s that arose after the fall of the USSR in 1991.

When Putin announced a recent decree requiring the destruction of all foreign food, Russians flocked to Twitter and Instagram, some of them saying they "could not live without cheese," and posting pictures of their contraband. One user on Instagram posted a photo of his stockpile of imported cheese, adding the popular social media phrase #sanctionedproducts.

At one point, the Minister of Agriculture even suggested introducing "mobile food crematoria" that would burn Western products on sight. The measure, which recalls the Nazi crematoria used to burn the corpses of Jewish people during World War II, further outraged many Russians.

Some Russians have protested the ban, noting that it was a waste of good food. One Russian news source tweeted of the cheese destruction: "Remember this day. Six months from now starving Russians will be digging up this buried cheese."

Soviet Memories of Starvation

Russia's growing cheese rebellion is not just about a love for dairy products. For the millions of Russians living below the poverty line, the bulldozing of so much food has been a devastating blow.

Many Russian citizens are old enough that the famine that marked the Soviet era is still fresh in their minds. “The notion that people who can actively remember being hungry would then see these luxurious, nutritious foods being destroyed is very offensive to people,” said Hillis.

More than 22 million, or roughly 15 percent of all Russians, live below the poverty line, according to a report published by the Moscow Times in July. The Russian economy has been in a recession since the beginning of 2015 thanks to lower oil prices and Western sanctions on exports.

Describing the “food neurosis” experienced by those who grew up in the Soviet era, Russian journalist Valery Panyushkin wrote Tuesday about how his grandmother used to sweep even the breadcrumbs off the table after meals to use them again because food was so scarce.

Even leaders of the Orthodox Church who have often supported Putin’s measures have criticized the cheese destruction. “It is a sin,” wrote Archpriest Alexy Uminsky last month for a Russian Orthodox magazine. "In essence, this is a crazy, stupid, vile idea," he wrote.