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People in Russia face the daily reality of living in an isolated nation. Partly sealed off by sanctions from the global economy, they cannot easily get products available everywhere else. Russia's seizure of Crimea several years ago is what led to sanctions and countersanctions. And now many European and American food products are no longer available, which has created an unlikely new mini-industry - Russian cheese. NPR's Lucian Kim paid a visit to Russia's top cheesemaker.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: After turning off the expressway about 30 miles northwest of Moscow, I take a potholed country road leading to Oleg Sirota's dairy farm. He's a 30-year-old former computer programmer who's now Russia's most celebrated cheesemaker. Sirota gatecrashed a nationally televised event last month so he could stand up and beg President Vladimir Putin to both try his cheese and keep the ban on European and U.S. agricultural products. Sirota began his cheese business from scratch a year after Putin introduced the embargo.
OLEG SIROTA: (Through interpreter) I dropped everything. I sold my apartment, my car, my business and moved into a trailer in a field to start my creamery and live the Russian dream.
KIM: Sirota was always interested in working the land, but he dropped out of agriculture school because he didn't see a future for Russian farming. At the same time, the country was swimming in petrodollars, and Russian farmers couldn't compete with the heavily subsidized butter, cheese, even potatoes from the European Union. Then came the sanctions, and Russia was suddenly forced to rely on itself.
SIROTA: (Through interpreter) The old way of doing things was broken. And the government realized we need to make everything ourselves - tractors, combines, cars, cheese, bread, everything.
KIM: Sirota, who sports a bushy beard and suspenders, says there's no sector of the economy more closely linked to politics than farming, and he's not afraid to show it. The flag of separatists in Eastern Ukraine flies over his dairy. And he owns a goat named after Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Sirota shows off a new production line in his creamery, which works 24/7. He says practically all the equipment is Russian-made.
(SOUNDBITE OF COINS CLINKING)
KIM: Outside the glass walls of the immaculate creamery, there's a counter where Roza Nasedkina sells huge chunks of Sirota's cheese.
ROZA NASEDKINA: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: She says she feels pride in her product, a mild, yellow cheese reminiscent of a Swiss Emmental. Sirota has won medals in Europe and is ramping up production to meet demand. Sanctions, he says, are giving Russia a unique chance to revive its tradition of artisanal cheesemaking that was destroyed by 70 years of communism.
SIROTA: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: Sirota says there are now hundreds of Russian cheesemakers, so he's trying to get ahead of the competition and start exporting to Austria, Germany and France. But there's one customer he's still pursuing.
SIROTA: (Through interpreter) I have this hobby. Normal people collect stamps, and I try to give my cheese to Putin. I know about a hundred ways how to get into an event with Putin. But every time, his security takes away my cheese.
KIM: And so for now, the wheel of cheese he's saving for the president has been ripening for three years in his cellar. It has the name Putin etched into its rind. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Dubrovskoye, Russia.
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