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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • 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 Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?