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Sep. 23 2009 - 5:12 am | 192 views | 1 recommendation | 5 comments

Russians’ inexplicable love for Belgian Sprite

Blagoveshchensk, where I’ve spent the last three days, is a fascinating Russian city located directly across from a similarly sized Chinese city, Heihe. As such it’s a great place to look at the complex and developing relationship between Russia and China, a real geopolitical fault line.

But I’m not going to write about any of that now; you’ll have to wait for my “real” stories. But I will tell you about what must be one of the stranger chapters in the annals of consumerism, which I’ve discovered here: imported soda (i.e. pop, as proud Iowans will tell you).

Coca-Cola is of course globally ubiquitous. It’s bottled all over the world, and its popularity depends in some part on the perception that the Coke you buy in Beijing or Blagoveshchensk is the same as the Coke bottled in Atlanta. But Russians, through some combination of paranoia, cynicism and conspicuous consumption, apparently believe that is not the case.

At one grocery store here in Blagoveshchensk, you can buy Coke in a can, produced in Russia, for 20 rubles, about 70 cents. But to the true Coca-Cola connoisseur, Russian Coke doesn’t pass muster. So the store also sells Coke bottled in Germany, for 78.60 rubles (about $2.50) in a tiny 0.2 liter (about 6 oz) glass bottle. There is also Coke Zero bottled in Great Britain, for 71.70 rubles (a little more than $2) for the same sized bottle, or Diet Coke bottled in Belgium or Sprite from Australia for the same price. Schweppes Ginger Ale from the Netherlands is slightly more, 73.10 rubles. Orange Fanta from the Netherlands is 80.40 rubles (about $2.70) for the same little bottle.

These are terrible photos, but you can see the prices and the countries of origin listed under each bottle:

pop1

pop2

And if you’re thirstier, it’s going to cost you: a half-liter (16 oz) bottle of Coke from Belgium will cost you 143.50 rubles, or $4.75. The same sized bottle of Sprite, also from Belgium, is 161.50 rubles, or $5.30. The Orange Fanta from Great Britain is cheaper, for some reason, only 109.15 rubles ($3.60) for a half-liter bottle. And you can buy cans of Dr. Pepper from the Netherlands for 122.70 rubles, about $4 each. It’s no small thing to import something from Belgium here, incidentally: we’re 8 time zones away, 1/3 of the way around the world.

My translator tipped me off to this phenomenon, and explained that it’s a widely held belief in Russia that the soda/pop sold here is not as good as it is in western Europe, or even China. I have no idea how common it is to buy this stuff.

And although I think it’s ridiculous to buy imported Coke for this much money, the Russians could be on to something. Obviously water and other basic ingredients can taste a little different in different parts of the world, and the forumulae (at least for Diet Coke) can differ, as well. (For example, Hugo Chavez was widely mocked when he banned Coke Zero, but it turns out the Coke Zero sold in some parts of Latin America use from a different formula from that in the U.S., which contained a chemical that was banned in the U.S. for causing cancer.)

Anyway, has anyone seen imported soda/pop anywhere else?


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  1. collapse expand

    So i’m guessing more than one unwitting foreigner has done a double-take after overhearing a conversation in which a Russian boasted about getting the high grade American Coke.

    All ham aside, down here in South Florida many of los latinos (as well as los gringos) love their Materva and Ironbeer; which technically aren’t imports as they are produced in Miami, but they originated in Cuba and only came here after that infidel Castro had his Revolucion. I guess you could say the soda companies themselves are imports.

  2. collapse expand

    I have seen Fanta in Liberia, despite the fact that I cannot find Fanta here in Cali. There was a Coke bottling factory in Liberia, and pretty much anywhere we went, we got a Coke, or Fanta. It was nice. The third Coke in 2 hours is a little hard though.

    Cheers for calling carbonated sweetened beverage by its proper name though. Pop all the way!!

  3. collapse expand

    Ironically, many people are willing to pay more money for imported coke in the USA. A lot of foodies in the United States prefer Mexican Coke, because it uses cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, and so is slightly less sweet. When I was in LA last year I tried some at a Mexican restaurant and I thought it was a lot better.

  4. collapse expand

    Jeff — yeah, I just heard about the Mexican Coke, and I’m curious to try it. And I wonder what kind of sugar German Coke is made with. I suspect what’s going on in Russia is not a foodie phenomenon, but I don’t know…

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    I'm a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to Slate, EurasiaNet and U.S. News and World Report. But before that I was a high school teacher in Bulgaria, an illegal day laborer in Tel Aviv, a wire service reporter in South Dakota, a war correspondent in Iraq and a Pentagon hack. And as often as I can, I try to get myself on a bus or train in a new country, looking out the window and trying to figure out what it all means. (See more at www.joshuakucera.net. And follow me on Twitter.)

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