Where forbidden is a possibility; Rules: In Russian society, prohibitions are nonbinding if one has the desire and is willing to pay the price.


MOSCOW -- One of the unwritten but strictly observed rules of the social contract here goes like this:

If something is prohibited, but you really, really want to do it, then go right ahead.

The latest affirmation of the anarchy that lies deep in the Russian soul exists in a new billboard advertising a German-made cigarette called West. In the United States this ad would be considered scandalously salacious at worst and in dreadfully poor taste at best.

A beautiful flight attendant is sitting in the cabin of an airplane next to a handsome passenger. The stewardess has one hand resting provocatively on her hip. Her smile exudes sexual invitation. Her crisp blue uniform and white blouse are unbuttoned, revealing most of a blue push-up bra. A pack of cigarettes sits on the arm rest between them.

"Anything Is Possible," the ad promises in large black letters from above.

On a hot summer afternoon, three jovial construction workers are taking a break for water across the street from one such billboard. They have been working on the corner for a month, passing the billboard every day for at least two weeks. They haven't really noticed it.

"I saw it, but I didn't pay any attention to it," says Nikolai Alexeyev, 51, who studies the billboard for a moment before offering his opinion about the message.

"Well," he says, "you can see quite clearly what it means."

His co-worker, Alexander Dyakonov, 37, brings up the old Russian adage to explain the message. "If it's prohibited," he says, "but you want it very, very much, then of course you should do it."

Smoking is being banned on more and more Russian airplanes, Dyakonov points out, but that doesn't mean people have stopped doing it. Smoking, being romanced by a flight attendant, anything is possible here. (The Russian word for flight attendant, by the way, is stewardessa, pronounced stu-ahr-dessa.)

"We smoke in the toilet," he says. "We drink too much. We don't obey rules. A Russian isn't like an American. We live another way. Our behavior is different."

This renegade streak permeates life here, says Georgy Satarov, a former adviser to President Boris N. Yeltsin who runs a foundation called Information for Democracy. He adds that it can lead to all sorts of undesirable social consequences.

"If I really want to, I can break the law and exceed the speed limit," says Satarov. "But I have to be willing to pay, and the policeman has to be willing to accept it."

This is the logic that allows Russians to bribe their way through numerous official encounters, large and small. They break the rules if they really want to, and if they get caught, they pay for the privilege.

"A bribe is a payment for permission to violate the law," Satarov says. "And this is the main difference between Russia and Western countries. Maybe at the top corruption is less than in some countries, but on the bottom it's much more serious than in the West."

If the billboard offers an interesting insight into Russian character, the construction workers say, they are sure it will fail at its attempt to sell more West cigarettes.

"It's not a good ad for cigarettes in Russia," says the third construction worker, Sergei Goredikov, 29. "They're not smoking. It should be advertising a restaurant. The ad should say, 'Come to our restaurant. We have a lot of stewardesses drinking here.' "

Besides that, Dyakonov says, Russians have still not gotten over the Soviet-era perception of advertising.

"We used to have shortages of anything that was good," he says. "They only advertised what they couldn't get rid of.

"We depended on our friends and neighbors for everything, to tell us what was good and where to buy it. Our tradition is that if something is advertised, it isn't any good."

And people who walk by the ad every day, in fact, seem to have reacted very little to it.

"It looks very pleasant," says Vyacheslav Ushakov, a 52-year-old construction engineer. "They are not drinking. They are not fighting. It's promising many nice possibilities."

Lena Nikolayeva, a teacher, studies it at length. "Of course, it's about sex," she says. "It doesn't seem to say much about cigarettes."

Nikolai Popov, editor of Advertising World magazine here, agrees.

"People will remember the picture but not the brand," he says. "And they will enjoy the picture. In the U.S., they control the ads more strictly. That's why the Americans don't get enough humor and positive emotions from advertising."

Here, Russians wade through a gantlet of advertising every day, so it's not easy for one brand to stand out.

Within a few blocks on one street, there's a dashing, virile Camel man paddling a raft through white water. Another handsome young man strides out from a billboard where he's just won a lottery because he bought L&M; cigarettes. "Old Friends Are Best," proclaims a billboard for Bulgarian cigarettes. Across the street, a Marlboro man lassos a handsome horse.

"Just think whom you're calling," says Sergei Kirevnev, a spokesman for Reemstma, the German company that makes West cigarettes. "It's a tobacco company. We're not going to give out information about our advertising. It's a commercial secret.

"Maybe you have never dealt with tobacco companies before and you do not know that we keep everything secret here," he scoffs.

Back on Dolgorukovskaya Street, Galina Motorina, an 18-year-old student, is walking past the West ad. She is wearing a very short skirt. A black-lace stretch blouse clings to her buxom figure, her skin translucent underneath.

"I don't like the ads," she says, "but I'm conservative myself."

Pub Date: 7/11/99

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