I was recently turned on to this website, where a man named Igor Sergeev has, since 1976, collected thousands upon thousands of cigarettes, and archived images of them for our viewing pleasure. Obviously, I turned directly to the Russian ones. I've always admired Russian cigarette package design, and now I can share it with you! All images are courtesy of Mr. Sergeev, of course.
Беломорканал (Belomorkanal) are the cigarettes I grew up around. They weren't exactly cigarettes in the Western conception, but papirosi: a long filterless tube with the top quarter stuffed. Stuffed with what I can only assume to be the tobacco shavings collected off the floor of company making more tolerable cigarettes. I remember my mother's stories of her youth, of sons-of-bitches at parties putting these things out into empty sardine tins, stinking up the house to no end. When I asked her to pick me up a pack as a souvenier, she gaped, asking “you want a pack of the cigarettes that killed your father? She got them anyway. They were godawful. I never thought I would encounter a cigarette so foul I'd rather go through nic fits than smoke but here they were, in all their horrendous glory.
Now, on to more exciting territory. The first thing you should be aware of is that many of these are novelty packs. They're not all the Marlboros or Camels or Newports of the USSR/Russia. One of the first things I noticed was that animals, apparently, sell cigarettes. That makes sense. Who wouldn't want to buy a pack with an animal symbolizing strength and power. Like a wolf, or bear, or … penguin?
Ships and seafaring vessels are popular too. When I was a kid, Robert Louis Stevenson was the man to be reading. I love the gold-and-black “Corsairs brand the most. They're so classy.
The biggest constant theme, outside of “pictures of landmarks,” (which I'm not really going to go into as my grasp of pre-Cold War Russian history is tenuous at best) is SPACE. I'm not sure what America was like during the late 1980s, but in the Soviet Union, kids were absolutely inundated with space-related books and toys. At the age of four, I already knew who Yuri Gagarin (featured in the blog logo) was, and why he was important. The first package is a little blurry, but I'm almost entirely sure that it's Russia's old space station Мир (Mir):
Along with space technology, there are also the heavenly bodies. The red-and-white one is Mars:
Лайка (Laika, “Barker”) the Soviet space dog, makes it into a number of designs and even has a brand named after her. One of the things which never fails to break my heart is knowing that at least one of the scientists admits that “we did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog:
On to lighter faire, here's a few packs clearly marketed toward women. The zebra print one, particularly, reminds me of just about every young woman I've ever seen outside of a Russian restaurant:
Here's a few celebrating the mainstays of Russian popular culture, with no particular political bent. The chess one is my favorite, having grown up losing match after match after match to my grandfather, frustrated at the idea that I showed no interest in his hobby:
America Chic was in its prime during the Perestroika period. We had American Stores opening up all Leningrad, where you could buy imported goods, no longer solely available on the black market. They were, of course, inordinately expensive. The name of the cigarettes in the black pack is “Jeans.” Jeans were considered a uniquely American fashion choice, although they widely available since the 70s.
The single funniest results of the America Chic fad, is the following packet of “Brighton Beach" cigarettes. Brighton Beach is an area of Brooklyn which has been populated by Russian emigres since the 70s and has a unique culture that does not resemble modern Russia at all. Meanwhile, “Beach," being part of a proper name, is spelled phonetically, so the actually translation is “Brighton Scourge."
Ironic Soviet Chic, of the sort we see in the U.S., was not far off from the collapse. Strangely enough, far from being angry about the past, my parents' (although not so much grandparents', who bore the full brunt of Stalin) generation is delighted in the fact that their American-raised kids wear Che and Hammer and Sickle t-shirts. Probably because it is a complete capitalist dismantling of the sacred cows of the USSR, which anyone not fond of the place is glad to see. The last pack is a parody of this poster warding off idle chatter. The original said “Don't Gossip," the cigarettes say “Don't Smoke." Double reverse irony, indeed:
That's all! Make sure to check out Igor Segeev's site for more designs from around the world.
The Flintstones, its well-earned merits notwithstanding, was a cartoon focusing on socialization towards suburban consumerism. While it may have been based on The Honeymooners - which focused exclusively on blue-collar urbanites - the Flinstone family always had the latest cold- and warm-blooded pieces of consumer technology available. Yes, they made for some brilliant “it's a livin'!” sight gags, but it also reinforced the necessity for having all these items in your new Levittown home. Considering this, I am still amazed that anyone is shocked when they see these commercials for the first time: