Nationalists smoke themselves to death for Mother Russia

And their favourite brand makes big profits for a US firm, reports Phil Reeves in Moscow

Imagine you are a tobacco baron. Western markets are stagnant, throttled by new laws, lawsuits, and anti-smoking lobbies. So you are hacking a path towards the Third World and the former Soviet Union.

In Russia the market's crowded and you need a new brand. So what do you do? Maybe find a rival to the Marlboro Man - a quintessentially American Mr Cool who can stalk the billboards in the hope of lassooing millions of new smokers in a country which cares less about abstract matters of health and the environment than the daily struggle to survive? Or perhaps lure them in with a cartoon character like Joe Camel?

But that's not so easy these days. There was a time when your clients were crazy about Americana, but not any more. Cynicism about the West has taken root amid the social despair that followed the end of the Soviet Union. Nationalist sentiment has uncoiled, a longing to become a great Russian empire again. Yet there's also money to be made. Russian men are excellent potential clients, though they are dying like flies, and have an average life expectancy of only 58. Two out of three smoke. Some 250 billion cigarettes are consumed every year; more and more are foreign- made. So what do you do?

The answer for the US tobacco giants, R J Reynolds, was to go native, by appealing to the new mood. Manufactured in St Petersburg and released nationwide last year, their brand of "Pyotr I" cigarettes - in other words, Peter the Great - has taken the lower end of the Russian market by storm, becoming one of the top brands in the "economy" sector. Peter was, after all, the tsar who popularised smoking; earlier in the 17th Century, tobacco had been condemned as "unholy herb" by the Orthodox church; smoking was punishable by death or, for the more fortunate, slit nostrils.

The new brand is not subtle. The packet is jet black, decorated with a gold double-headed eagle, the national symbol, in which are inset the words "Great Russia". The blurb on the back promises to satisfy those who "believe in the revival of the traditions and grandeur of the Russian lands".

The company's explanation of its strategy is simple: "Our job is to bring to the market something Russians want to buy," said Andre Benoit, director of external relations at the St Petersburg plant.

He believes one should not judge a person by his or her smoke. "It's very difficult to say why people make decisions about what they buy. General Alexander Lebed, for instance, smokes Camels, and yet he is often perceived as a nationalist".

Others disagree. "This is a blatant attempt to appeal to Russian nationalism," said Karen Lewis of the US-based Advocacy Institute, an anti- tobacco group. "Tobacco companies study what's going on in politics and try to exploit these sentiments."

Two months ago a rival to Pyotr I appeared on the streets called "Imperator" (Emperor). It features a portrait of the last tsar, Nicholas II, a figurehead for monarchists and assorted right-wing groups. The Russian makers say the former tsar (himself a smoker) now arouses negative sentiments among only one per cent of potential consumers.

A third brand launched this year, Russian-made "Peter the Great" cigarettes, are also selling well. "People identify with him as a great Russian symbol," explained an industry insider. "Five years ago it would have bombed. But now - while the American images are still strong - market research shows Russians are looking to their European heritage."

Ten years ago, this pro-Russian phenonemon would have been unimaginable. Soviet cigarettes were seen as evil-smelling and second-rate. Russians had already seen clumsy attempts to use their fondness for tobacco to foster patriotic impulses. Take, for example, the Belomorkanal, one of 20 brands of papirosy cigarettes, which looked like roll-your-owns but were manufactured.

Launched in 1933 under Stalin, they commemorated the opening of the White Sea - Baltic Sea canal, a project that cost the lives of some 300,000 of the Gulag prisoners who built it.They are still for sale, though no longer popular.

Now it is Peter the Great, not Stalin who sells cigarettes in Russia. You could argue that this is an improvement. A few years ago, tthe newly independent former Soviet states were swamped with fake American brands, with names like Kennedy, Clinton, and Johnson. Even this month the markets of Armenia were stocked with packets invoking the joys of democracy and consumerism: New Freedom, Taste of America, American Dream and Business Class.

No holds are barred when it comes to making money in a world which is learning to fight back against tobacco. It could be worse. The kids behind Russian bike sheds could be smoking Thatchers.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Support Engineer

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Support Engi...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence