How Much Have Food Prices Risen?

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In August 2014, I lived on 1000 roubles for one week in the centre of Moscow and wrote about it for this column. This budget included only transportation (the metro), food (very little), and entertainment (none). It worked out, apart from the deleterious effects on my mood and productivity, which plummeted faster than the crashing rouble did in December. By the December printing of the experiment’s results in the winter issue of Moscow Expat Life, I found myself qualifying the findings with, “— but this was before the economic crisis.” 

In February 2015, I retraced my steps to the low-cost food retailers in Moscow and re-priced most of the products and household goods that I had bought six months ago. The objective was to see how much prices had changed on the basic goods in my August 2014 ‘basket.’ 

 Since the time of writing, data published by MosRosStat, Moscow’s arm of the federal statistics agency, confirmed that: ‘The cost of a minimum set of food in the consumer basket of people of working age, calculated on the basis of single consumption volumes, set in Russia as a whole for comparison of the level of consumer prices December 2014 was in Moscow 3918.12 roubles per month.’ That’s about 980 roubles per week for food.

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This month, I found that most basic household goods like sponges and soap remained at or near the same price. However, I try not to poison myself with cheap, chemical dish detergent – still a steal at 99 roubles – and the imported ‘eco-friendly’ brand that I use has doubled in price.

 The imported tomatoes at a ‘budget’ type of supermarket were almost ten times more expensive than this summer, as were watermelons. Produce prices do depend on the season, and the change in the way some embargoed foods are imported might have affected the prices as well. Interestingly, Russia’s federal prosecutor made noises in January 2015 about cracking down on food inflation reported to be as high as 150% at some retailers. 

Six months ago, certain imported foods became ‘unavailable.’ Even before this announcement, Russians on an average salary were not able to afford Parmesan at $100 per kilo imported from Italy, not counterfeited in Minsk. Also, to be fair, many European countries protect their domestic production in various ways. Personally, I snapped last week at Heathrow and bought a block of Parmesan which I personally transported to my fridge in Moscow. Even though bringing in embargoed food in small quantities for personal use is legal, I felt like a smuggler. Factoring in the price of the flight from London, and admitting that this was my own choice, it was the priciest Parmesan I have ever eaten. 

In the city, using my refillable Troika card for public transportation has kept my costs down while the price for single bus and subway rides have increased. Like in most other cities, users have clear disincentives to buy single rides in Moscow. To my chagrin, coming back into the city from Vnukovo airport on the Aeroexpress now costs 450 rubles, up from 320, and the trains still only run every hour in the mornings when I arrive, grumpy, on a red-eye. I am told that the shared minivan taxi to the end of the red metro line is still the cheapest way to go. A popular mobile phone taxi app has increased rates from 999 to 1500 roubles from the airport, but I found a regular taxi service for 850 roubles.

As ever, Moscow forces its residents and visitors into two choices. The first is to pay a premium for anything they touch for a life bearing some semblance to Western convenience. The other is to twist, turn, and experience considerable discomfort scrounging up the affordable options in the city. Not to mention, the time spent finding reasonable prices for goods and services in Moscow will probably cost more than any kopeks saved. Nebulous pricing policies, sporadic regulation, and a volatile rouble all make smart budgeting an onerous task. Sure, living on buckwheat, kefir, and bananas will save you money anywhere in the world, but why would anyone want to do that? I’d rather eat fresh berries, quinoa, and Italian Parmesan. None of which I will find in Moscow at a reasonable price anytime soon, if at all.

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