The gruesome reason that the meat was so cheap was revealed last week at the trial in Pskov of four petty criminals: they had first murdered a drinking companion and then cut up and cooked his remains for sale in the local market.
The murder rate in Russia has almost doubled in the past decade, but the case of the Pskov cannibals, as they have come to be known, has shocked even Russians who have become used to a high level of criminal violence.
Officially there were 26,000 murders or attempted murders in the first 10 months of the year, though the Interior Ministry is accused of massaging the figures downwards by routinely registering killings as manslaughter. The murder in Pskov last February began with a drinking party in a nondescript three-storey building on Octyabrskyi Prospect, the main street of the town.
Present were four men - Sergei Nikitin, Yuri Kandalov, Gennadi Movsesyan and Radik Matveev - all with criminal associations. The party was joined by Ivan Petku, a homeless man whom the others suspected of being a police informer. They beat him up and decided to drown him in the nearby Pskova river. On the way Petku broke free, but was recaptured. At this point the gang changed their minds, and took him back to the apartment.
It was here, says prosecutor Andrei Pravdivtsev, that Movsesyan handed a knife to Nikitin and said: "Finish the skunk." At first Nikitin refused, but when the others threatened to kill him as well he stabbed Petku twice through the heart.
The group was at first perplexed about how to dispose of the body. But Matveev had once worked in a meat processing plant. He had also been earning money by killing stray dogs and cats and selling them as stewed meat. They agreed the same method could be used to get rid of Petku's remains.
The body was chopped up in the bathroom, and a woman friend was sent out to sell the meat in cans. Given its low price there were plenty of customers, though nobody in Pskov is admitting buying it.
Meantime, however, the goings-on in the apartment attracted the attention of local police. In the attic they found fragments of flesh which had not yet been cooked. When the remains were identified as human, the men were arrested.
Shadowy details of their personalities emerged at the trial. Movsesyan, now starting a 15-year sentence, had once been employed as a specialist in foreign trade. Falling on hard times, he worked as a street cleaner and a driver, but told friends his ambition was to own a farm and keep animals.
Nikitin, who got 18 years for stabbing Petku to death, said his dream was to go to St Petersburg, meet beautiful women and own a car. Matveev, who cut up the body, got a surprisingly light sentence of five years, while the woman who sold the meat in the market was acquitted as it was impossible to prove she knew its origin.
The bizarre method of disposal attracted the attention of the Russian media. But other aspects of the case are seen as typical of crime in the former Soviet Union, not least the fact that everybody involved was highly drunk. The Interior Ministry in Moscow says: "Alcohol abuse is involved in four-fifths of everyday murders."
But there has been a change in motives. Under the Soviet Union, says the ministry's Vladimir Zubkov, 90 per cent of murders were for personal reasons. Now the commonest motive is commercial rivalry. Their impact is greater too: where most murders used to occur behind closed doors today most are carried out on the street.