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By John Helmer in Moscow

It is now official – this month of July is the hottest in Moscow since the Russian Meteorological Service began keeping regular daily records and issuing temperature measurement bulletins. That was back in 1872. Since then the heat-wave years have occurred in 1885, 1920, 1938, 1939, 2001, and 2002.

If the warming effect is sustainable in Russia, it is going to be possible to eat Made-in-Russia bananas.

The horticulture of bananas is not as difficult or rare as bananas themselves have been regarded in Russian history. According to guidelines issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “banana can grow in many types of soil and it is specially productive in deep soil with loam or clay loam textures; it can thrive at an elevation of 1.5 to 1 000 m above sea level and produces sweeter fruits at 600 m and above. The density of planting can be from 1 500-2 000 plants/hectare and it is harvested 11 to 13 months after planting and then, every 9 months can produce bunches in good growing condition. It tolerates wide soil pH, but 6.5 should be ideal.”

These conditions can be found in southern Russia and in other parts of Europe. But in the table of the top-20 banana growing countries of the world, India leads with 30% of global volume of more than 70 million tonnes; followed by China with 11%. There is no European country which makes it into the top-20, but three European countries do grow substantial numbers of bananas – Spain, Portugal, and Greece (Crete). Spain was the Arab gateway for the introduction of bananas to European eating in the 13th century, and the Portuguese created banana plantations for export to Europe in the 15and 16th centuries.

What these places shared in common with the Asian and African origins of banana cultivation was a combination of heat and humidity – an average temperature of around 27 degrees Celsius, and a minimum of 75 mm of rainfall per month. This is more difficult to find in Russia. But at Malia, in Crete, bananas flourish even when the average minimum temperatures through the winter months drop to around 10 degrees C.

In the entire revolutionary literature of Russia, including Karl Marx’s monumental oeuvre and the letters between him and Friedrich Engels, and in the works of Lenin and Stalin, there is not a single mention of the banana. Just one Russian revolutionary mentioned the banana. That was Leon Trotsky, a native of the warmer climate of Odessa, who wrote to Ivan Smirnov in 1928:

Dear Ivan Nikitich, I have finally received your letter from Novobayazet today. Well, I thought, you have tropical nature there, bananas for dinner, tame leopards in the garden, etc. Alas, alas. The good-sounding name ‘Novobayazet’ covers, as it now turns out, a sorrowful hole…”

Novobayazet was, as Trotsky knew, to the east and not far from Yerevan in Armenia. But at almost 1,800 metres above sea level, with semi-arid conditions, hot summers, and snowy winters, it wasn’t banana-growing country. Either Trotsky was making a grave climatological mistake, or else he was speaking metaphorically.

In pre-revolutionary times, Russian aristos had been showing off the wealth necessary to cultivate rare flowers and fruit since the 18th century. That form of conspicuous consumption was typically cultivated in orangeries built out of glass and steel, heated and irrigated.

But the orangeries at the well-known Moscow estates at Kuskovo and Arkhangelskoye are reported to have grown oranges, lemons, watermelons, grapes, and pineapples for the delectation of the Sheremetyev and Yusupov princes (right image) and their hangers-on – but no bananas.

The banana also has red, revolutionary significance, but not in Russia. Fidel Castro’s father Angel, for example, was a worker in the United Fruit Company (UFC), the US corporation which dominated central American and Caribbean plantation production of bananas, and the political regimes conducive to UFC’s profitability. UFC’s banana plantations in Guatemala, for example, were the target of two attempts at nationalization and redistribution to the locals, but on both occasions the US intervened. In June 1954, US military intervention to overthrow the government of Jacobo Arbenz was ostensibly launched to protect Guatemalans from communism, but it saved UFC’s lands from expropriation, and saved US banana-eaters. Most of the evidence for Soviet interest in what was happening inside Guatemala was planted by the CIA. There is evidence that the Guatemalan Communist Party, supporting Arbenz’s land reform plans, asked for advice and assistance from Moscow, but they were turned down. When the Soviet Union began importing large volumes of bananas in the 1970s, they came primarily from North Vietnam, then Ecuador.

A declassified CIA study of 1970 reported that for the Politburo in Moscow the imported banana had become a new weapon “since the Soviet Union shifted its tactics toward the Third World away from exclusive emphasis on subversion to a more sophisticated approach which included economic and military trade and aid. Over this period, the USSR has shown a growing awareness of the potential of foreign trade as an instrument of foreign policy and an increasing skill in using it for political objectives.”

The CIA also discovered that in 1970 bananas were considered a luxury item in Soviet planning, and would be sacrificed whenever the balance of trade between the Soviet Union and the banana-producing country deteriorated on Moscow’s side. “Per capita consumption of tropical foods in the Soviet Union is far lower than in European countries or even in the advanced countries of Eastern Europe, such as Czechoslovakia. These difficulties apparently do not reflect any lack of demand on the part of Soviet consumers, who quickly buy out stocks of tropical foods when they appear in retail outlets. ..wide gaps appear between actual and potential consumption of tropical foods in the USSR at current income levels.”

As they did in Guatemala, the CIA got this wrong. The real banana import figures for the USSR show a sharp and sustained takeoff in import volumes. In 1971, the total banana volume was 19,300 tonnes, way behind each of Yugoslavia, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. But by 1984, the total was up to 100,000 tonnes, equal to Germany and Czechoslovakia combined. Foreign exchange and convertibility remained constraints on the trade, and the banana sources included countries inside the rouble zone, as well as outside – Colombia and Ecuador were outside, Vietnam was inside. It is the lasting achievement of Leonid Brezhnev that he directed the banana revolution, making it a proletarian fruit, and no longer a luxury.

These days, though, a large part of the bananas imported to Russia are grown on Russian-owned plantations in Ecuador. If Brezhnev deserves his laurel, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin deserve theirs for quintupling the Soviet level of consumption, and for the creation of the Russian equivalent of United Fruit and Standard Fruit to feed it.

But now Mother Nature and the Russian weather are combining to liberate the banana from its tie to the Equator. Sergey Semyonov, deputy head of the Institute of the Global Climate and Ecology in Moscow, acknowledges that the rate of global warming is proceeding faster in Russia than elsewhere. “The temperature has grown by 0.75°C over the past 150 years worldwide. In Russia the process has been going faster, and over the same period overall temperature has grown by 1.5°C. There is a mix of reasons for that, both natural and human, but it is certain that the temperature will go on growing in the future. It will not be a steady uniform process, the temperature will fluctuate and growth will differ on various territories. The tree line (the border between the meadows and the forests) is moving up and northwards. Climate change is likely to bring news species of plants and animals where they have never lived before. In this connection, it will be possible to cultivate tropical fruit in the southern regions [of Russia].”

The stretch between the possibility and the new banana reality requires feasibility study. According to Oleg Sirafimenko of the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Agricultural Methodology: “As far as I know, there hasn’t been any serious study carried out on growing bananas in Russia. Theoretically speaking, growing subtropical cultivars in Russia is possible. Turkey grows bananas, and maybe it is possible to do so in the southern parts of the Krasnodar region, or in Abkhazia. But a thorough study is required to find the appropriate mix of soil, irrigation, temperature, and banana species — probably an early-season one. It is difficult to give a forecast in this field yet.”

None of the banana scientists doubts the possibility, or that, with enough money pumped into hothouse cover, heat and water, Russian bananas can be cultivated. Sergei Zolkin, research scientist at the Main Botanical Garden of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that “in a greenhouse environment bananas can show good results in this country. In this case, the territory doesn’t matter, whether it’s Krasnodar in the south, or Murmansk in the Arctic. In fact, the banana is an unpretentious plant. What they need is open space, good lighting and plenty of water. They can use various soils, from sand to peat and moist ground. They can do without fertilization and they don’t require constant care. The shortest banana trees that give fruit are just 2.5 to 3 metres high. A standard automated greenhouse will do.”

Zolkin acknowledges also that there are subtropical environments in southern Russia, where it may be possible to grow bananas in the open, as they are grown in Crete. Zolkin didn’t specify exactly where. The horticultural and meteorological textbooks suggest that Sochi, where the Kremlin grandees have their winter gardens, is one.

And there may be commercial profit in establishing such plantations. Zolkin is skeptical: “Growing bananas in the open air in Russia seems to be economically unprofitable — they grow well only in the tropical and the subtropical zone.

But speaking for the Joint Fruit Company (JFC), Russia’s dominant banana grower (in Ecuador), importer and distributor, Andrei Semyonov concedes: “I’d express doubt as to whether growing bananas in Russia is possible now due to climatic reasons. But we as a company are flexible in studying new possibilities and making decisions, and when we find it possible, we will take it up.”

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