Antonius Caviar

Russia, part 2: The power struggle

For the last tsar – Nicholas II, 11 tons of caviar were brought from Astrakhan to St. Petersburg each year. In 1917 – the year of the revolution – Russia had the largest number of wild sturgeons. Thus, one day, the irony of history made Communists the leading world producers of “bourgeois” caviar.

The revolution in the caviar world began with nationalization. In 1919, the takeover of Caspian fisheries by the Bolshevik authorities was announced and, regardless of the victims, to make it a reality, bloody battles were fought. However, the state monopoly on sturgeon fishing and caviar production was only part of the plan to raise substantial funds to build a new reality. Very soon the USSR became open to cooperation with foreign distributors. Soon a cooperation with Armen Petrossian and German company Dieckmann & Hansen was established. Petrossian took over export to the French market, and Dieckamnn & Hansen for the German market. The first specialized in selling of caviar as an elite product, packed in small, fancy tins. The second focused primarily on quantity and supplied black gold to airlines and on board cruise ships. Exports were therefore diversified and brought more and more income.

Analyzing the actions of the Soviet state itself one must admit that the communists implemented numerous production improvements: they used devices that helped in fish breeding, introduced a three-level categorization of caviar (the blue label was dedicated for beluga, the yellow – to Russian sturgeon, and the red – to sevruga), and finally – they supported research projects. Professor Igor Burtsew managed to create a completely new species of sturgeon by combining a huge beluga with a small sterlet – the new was called bester. It looks like a beluga, but grows faster, as a sterlet. Burstew also contributed to the method of obtaining roe without killing the fish.

On the other hand, one of the main slogans of the revolution was electrification. Massively built hydropower plants had a devastating effect on the number of sturgeons. Fortunately – construction of dams on the Volga river was stopped by military operations, which helped the fish rebuild their population, and in later years – due to income from caviar exports, more attention was paid to caring for the ecosystem. Protective periods were introduced, the fish fry were replenished annually and water purity was taken care of. Caviar became more and more clearly a Russian national good – also in a symbolic dimension. On May 9 (the Victory Day), veterans of the Great Patriotic War received caviar allowance. Nevertheless, most of them would  exchange the voucher for a precious half a kilo on the black market, for example for a carton of original Marlboro on the black market.

The significance of caviar for the Soviet trade balance was also demonstrated by the tenacity of the USSR in seeking the most convenient strategic position in the Caspian Sea basin. This applies not only to the conflict with Iran, which has been intensifying since the 1950s, but also to intense efforts to gain control over fisheries located within the territorial waters of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Finally, one could ask – did the collapse of the Soviet Union provide fish with more favorable conditions for their annual migration up the rivers? Unfortunately not. In the 1990s, sturgeons had to face even greater industrial water pollution and, most importantly, poaching. Catching younger and younger fish and thus preventing them from reaching maturity led directly to the extinction of the species. At the same time, it is also hard to believe the data showing a decrease in caviar production – for example, in 1990 Russia produced about 770 tonnes, but six years later – only 82 tonnes. It seems that such a decrease was the result of omitting in official statistics the quantities obtained by poachers and delivered to global markets by smugglers.

Fortunately, to protect sturgeons from total extinction (also associated with ecosystem disturbances in the Caspian Sea), they were included as endangered species under CITES (also known as the Washington Convention). The regulations, however, do not cover domestic activities and significant part of Russian caviar sold in Russia, is still not subject to restrictive control.