Controversial activist ‘pigs’ confront Russian shop workers on video over expired foods

The activist group Hrushi Protiv has made a name for itself conducting "raids" on Russian supermarkets.
The activist group Hrushi Protiv has made a name for itself conducting "raids" on Russian supermarkets.

Videos checking grocery stores for “sell-by” dates may not sound like the most exciting thing to watch for 20 minutes, though a Russian activist group has received millions of views for their supermarket raids in Moscow and other cities around the country.

The activist group Hrushi Protiv, which means “piggies against”, regularly posts videos to YouTube of their exploits checking for expired produce at supermarkets and food shops, with a clip posted from May 29 becoming their most-watched ever, with more than 3 million views.

In this video, a blonde woman in a jean jacket pushes her shopping cart through a Moscow market from the chain Pyatyorochka, while she and other members of her team pick up cans and check the expiration dates. In some videos the activists take a while before bringing their spoils to store workers to throw away, though in this clip confrontation starts early. Tensions continue until ten minutes later in the video, when one of the workers who was made to discard products begins yelling and cursing at his store’s unexpected visitors.

A video posted in May has been viewed more than 3 million times and features tense moments between the activists and store workers.

Svetlana Vasilyeva, one of the group's leaders, said that the organisation's goal was to teach people how to be more conscious consumers, and to hold vendors accountable for selling what amounts to several grocery carts worth of potentially dangerous goods that she and her activists find during each of their episodes:

Our parents lived in the Soviet Union, when there was not such a variety of products, fewer stores, and a priori they didn’t have this problem. Then many stores appeared, a lot of supermarkets, and there was the problem of expired food. No one taught us what we were buying.

A study from the Association of Retail Companies says that 700,000 tonnes of expired products from stores contribute to Russia’s collection of trash each year, part of a global problem with food waste. One businessman told newspaper Vedomosti that it is technically challenging to predict demand, and Russian law also prevents stores from giving expiring products away to the poor. Stores also take advantage of lax control measures by Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing.

Svetlana Vasilyeva says:

The reasons for the appearance of expired products are completely varied. It may be the  vendors' neglicence or selling expired products on purpose with the goal of cutting expenses and making a profit, or just an accident.

She said that in addition to more effective checks from inspectors, she would like to see a law that allows stores to donate expired or expiring goods.

The activists from "Piggies Against," nowadays rarely wear the pig costumes that helped bring them to fame when they first began.

How the pigs took flight

The organization, founded by a member of the pro-Kremlin nationalistic youth group Nashi, received plaudits from viewers as well as officials in the government including Vladimir Putin, who praised it during Nashi’s youth forum in 2011 shortly after its founding. Hrushi Protiv received more than $200,000 in grants from the government by 2015, according to newspaper Kommersant. Vasilyeva said that her organization was independent of Nashi from the beginning, despite the group saying that Hrushi Protiv was one of its projects in 2013. She added that her group had not received any grants since 2016.

She said the money was used to purchase video equipment, storage and costumes of pigs that the group wore during its early actions to protest how consumers were treated like swine:

At the beginning it was about receiving societal attention; so that is why we chose the costumes. After we received attention, we decided to be more ‘constructive’ and get rid of this shock format and we decided to be more settled, more peaceful.

Though the costumes were phased out as Vasilyeva took over in 2016, the group has still encountered criticism for its tactics, which include confronting store workers with the carts of expired produce and arguing with them until they cut open the packages of the goods in front of the cameras to prove that they will not go back on shelves.

The group is led by activist Svetlana Vasilyeva, who searches for expired produce before confronting shop workers.

Vasilyeva said that the group has been trying to take a more constructive approach than their earlier, confrontational style.

Who are the pigs targeting?

In the most watched videos, the confrontations often lead to shouting, pushing, shoving and even large-scale fights such as those that broke out in St. Petersburg in 2012 and Moscow markets in 2013 and 2016.

Yuliya Chernyshova, a spokeswoman for the major supermarket chain and repeated Hrushi target Dixy, said that Hrushi Protiv and others are welcome to come into their stores and point out where workers have made mistakes.

“In middle of it are the workers. When they are working and someone confronts them aggressively, it is understandable that workers sometimes become flustered,” she said.

'Tajiks boil over'

There is also the issue of nationality, as Vasilyeva, the leader of Hrushi Protiv, is a blonde Russian and many of the store workers have roots in the Caucasus or Central Asia, populations that often face xenophobia when moving to large Russian cities.

In the recent video that received nearly 3 million views, one worker from the Caucasus brings up the difference between the film crew and their subjects by insulting the Russian men. The activists responded they did not want to discuss the issue of nationalism. Underneath the video, Hrushi Protiv posted that it was not aimed at inciting inter-ethnic hatred, a crime in Russia.

However, previous popular videos have explicitly mentioned nationality in their titles, such as “Tajiks boil over” in 2013, and “We don’t understand Russian” in 2016.

But Vasiliyeva said of their choice of words: “No aggression, insults or humiliations were ever used in the titles of the videos” and that they were often quotations from the videos themselves. She said that viewers were not attracted to the videos because of nationalistic tensions, but because people like to watch conflicts of all types.

Confrontations with shop workers can get heated, with the most popular videos featuring pushing and yelling.

Most of Hrushi Protiv's most popular videos, such as this one from 2013 that was the most viewed until this year, feature scuffles.

“There are millions of people who will watch these videos with pleasure”

Anatoly Papp, who studies vigilantism and vigilante videos for the Moscow-based organization Public Verdict, told The Observers that he does not believe that Hrushi Protiv are racist or xenophobic as an organization, noting that there are many videos with ethnic Russian workers.

But he did draw attention to the comment sections of YouTube videos featuring shop workers from the Caucasus or Central Asia, which fill up with comments comparing them to animals.

“There is a mass of people who look at [this through the lens of] nationalist conflict even if you did not notice it. For them, everything is nationalistic,” he said.

Papp also compared Hrushi Protiv to other popular vigilante groups that are more violent, such as Stop Ham, which harasses and puts large stickers on the cars of drivers who park poorly, or Lev Protiv, which confronts people smoking and drinking in public.

“The problem is not the organization, but that there are millions of people who will watch these videos with pleasure, where one person messes with the other,” Papp said.

He said that vigilante movements were a “channeling of societal energy,” and noted that authorities in the country largely allowed them in so far as they did not target officials.

This article was written by Christopher Brennan (@CKozalBrennan).