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    Deeper Than Oil: A History of Russia in Plastic Bags

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    Plastic bags just aren’t as popular as they once were in Russia. I mean, don’t get me wrong, people still use them to haul their shopping home from the shops and killers still wrap body parts up in them for easy disposal before they get too smelly - but there just isn’t the aura of wonder about them there was in the 1990s.

    Plastic bags just aren’t as popular as they once were in Russia. I mean, don’t get me wrong, people still use them to haul their shopping home from the shops and killers still wrap body parts up in them for easy disposal before they get too smelly - but there just isn’t the aura of wonder about them there was in the 1990s.

    Back then, as Russia emerged blinking from over seven decades of communism into a world of bandit capitalism and shiny new products that transfixed and bamboozled the first post-Soviet generation, plastic bags were an essential part of this new society.

    In the Soviet Union, plastic bags were so rare that – I hear – people lucky enough to get their hands on them washed them after use and then stored them away for their next visit to the shops. One of Russia’s richest men, Uzbek-born Alisher Usmanov, made his first fortune in plastic bags, including a now collectable item featuring a butterfly with the Soviet and American flags on each wing to mark a summit meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1988.

    But the collapse of the Soviet Union saw a veritable plastic bag boom, with both domestic and imported versions on sudden and ready display all across this vast nation. By the time I arrived in 1997, plastic bags were a staple part of consumer culture. And, in the best tradition of that cunning old demon that is capitalism, producers of the humble polymer container had begun thinking up ways to make their offerings stand out from the crowd.

    In a remarkable twinning of the then almost blind worship of Western pop culture and marketing, Russian plastic bag makers came to the remarkable and logical conclusion that the best way to sell more of their products was to stick someone popular on them. Michael Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bon Jovi, Cindy Crawford, all these world-famous names and faces were unwillingly and unknowingly drafted into the battle of the Russian plastic bags. (Just to clarify – no, they never received a ruble for using their pictures.)

    There was also a plastic bag featuring the silhouette of a woman dressed in, if I recall correctly, a particularly large hat. The bags had the name “Marina” written on them and were extremely popular, despite lacking any famous faces.

    Other bags featured cute animals, babies, pictures of food, and semi-naked girls. All tastes were catered for. Irina, a friend of mine at the time who had been experimenting with a Christian sect in St. Petersburg, told me that the plastic bags with topless girls on them had irked the holier than thou sentiments of the group.

    “They used to use the bags to line the inside of garbage containers,” she told me. “But whenever they had one with some nude girl on it, they would turn it inside out so as not to tempt or distract the faithful.”

    Of course, the famous and the infamous weren’t just press-ganged into serving the makers of plastic bags. Condoms also used to feature some pretty famous faces. Friends star Jennifer Aniston was a pretty popular choice for contraceptives at one point, as I recall. I always used to wonder about how she would have felt if she had known her trademark grin and “Rachel” haircut were stuck in the pockets of suitors all across Russia. I guess it’s just as well she never found out.

    But let’s get back to plastic bags.

    In the years after the collapse of the Soviet system, Russia suffered from a distinct lack of confidence as it tried to find its way in an unfamiliar world. This was manifested in an automatic disregard for anything domestically produced. In many cases, this suspicion of Russian-made consumer items was perhaps justified, but the distinct lack of trust in domestic production even extended to the plastic bag.

    “Take this bag – it’s more expensive, but it’s German,” I remember being told by a woman at a market in Moscow in 1998. “The other lot are all made by our lot – no good.”

    But Russians are no longer crazy about plastic bags. And you no longer see plastic bags with Hollywood stars on them. No, in a sign of Russians’ broadening horizons in the twenty years or so since the Soviet Union imploded, bags that were obviously bought abroad seem to be the new fashion. I even saw a Harrods bag on the Moscow subway recently. But the glory day of the plastic bag is well and truly over in Russia. And no amount of bags from Paris, London, or New York can change that…

    The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

    *

    From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

    Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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