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.