Never mind the lungs, strike a match for the economy: Moscow: Russians are long-suffering, but when fags run out, they riot. Andrew Higgins on a national addiction

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CROUCHING on the steps of the Pushkin Square Metro station, a stone's throw from the Moscow McDonald's, a battered old woman in a torn coat hawks her wares from a sheet of grimy plastic. It is a pathetic display: one dried, very skinny fish and three packets of Belomor Canal, a poisonous Russian cigarette named after one of Stalin's more demented slave-labour projects.

A few hundred yards away, along Tverskaya Street towards the Kremlin, a freshly painted kiosk plastered in the red and white logo of Marlboro caters to a more prosperous clientele. It sells American cigarettes for six times the price of the earthy local brand.

These are the two ends of the vast market for cigarettes in Russia, where the number of smokers is going up instead of down and where tobacco has become the most visible focus of free market zeal. Two years ago, as Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms sank into a bog of confusion and doubt, tobacco was the one issue that jolted people out of their long-suffering torpor. A population that had somehow managed to cope with shortages of everything from food to soap exploded over a sudden dearth of cigarettes. The crisis arose from a slump in output by Russian cigarette factories and a sharp drop in imports of tobacco from Bulgaria. The result: riots and strikes across the country.

The government learnt its lesson. It made a deal with Philip Morris for delivery of 20 billion cigarettes and allowed the free market to invade the state's control of distribution and sales.

Today, everyone sells cigarettes: state shops, private kiosks and half-starved hawkers like the woman in the metro. A housewife wanting to buy bread must still join a queue stretching out of the door; smokers, though, never wait.

This plentiful supply, in itself a small triumph for the prophets of capitalism, is matched by an even more remarkable break with the grim habits of Moscow's fractured central plan: variety. For most goods Russia remains a land of take-it- or-leave-it socialist shopping, of generic brands carted from factory to shop in trucks labelled not with manufacturers' names but a single word - 'bread', 'milk', 'petrol', 'products'. For smokers, though, the choice seems endless. On every corner there are Russian, British, Bulgarian, American and even Chinese brands on sale. The range of prices is equally wide. Balomor Canal, fiercely strong with a long cardboard filter, costs only 20 roubles (under 5p) for 20. Opal, a mid-range Bulgarian brand, costs the equivalent of 10p, while a packet of Dunhill sells for 150 roubles or 35p.

Converted to hard currency, the prices are ridiculously low. But for Russians earning increasingly worthless roubles they are a painful reminder of the inflationary chaos engulfing their economy. Take, for example, a pack of Balomor Canal, still marked with the old price of 25 kopeks - an 80th of its market price today.

But the cigarette market, wheezing and distorted by organised crime and corruption, does work. The problem, of course, is that this narrow sphere of economic health is steadily destroying the country's physical health. Cigarette packets bear a health warning and each year authorities make a token attempt to fight the habit on anti-smoking day. Otherwise, though, no one seems to care.

It was not capitalism, however, that turned Russia into a country of chain smokers. The free market merely increased the range of imported brands. Russians smoked long before the collapse of Communism.

The last comprehensive survey of Russia's tobacco addiction was carried out in 1987. It covered the whole Soviet Union and put the total number of smokers at more than 70 million, or nearly half the adult population.

The foreign share can only increase. One reason is changing tastes. Many younger smokers complain that Russian brands are too strong. But there is a more important reason: nearly all of the tobacco used in Russia's domestic cigarettes is grown outside Russia. Supplies are becoming ever more uncertain, particularly as two of the principal tobacco- growing regions, Moldova, and Abkhazia in Georgia, are being torn apart by bloodshed.

A severe shortage of cigarettes in Moscow and other cities could well spread such turmoil into Russia itself. Boris Yeltsin will not have forgotten how tobacco riots in 1990 helped defeat the Communist Party.

In the struggle to salvage Russia's economy and hold Russia together, therefore, one task at least is clear: keep the cigarettes burning.

(Photograph omitted)