Noontime Scholars Lecture: Tricia Starks, “Tobacco as Product, Producer and Saboteur of Empire”


Prof. Starks giving her Noontime Scholars Lecture

On June 16, Tricia Starks (Associate Professor of History, University of Arkansas) gave the first Noontime Scholars Lecture of the 2016 Summer Research Laboratory. Entitled “Tobacco as Product, Producer and Saboteur of Empire,” her lecture traced the history of tobacco advertising in the Russian Empire. She specifically focused on the images of smoking in posters for tobacco products, especially the links between smoking, militarism, and masculinity. She began her lecture with the myth of the zoave (a North African soldier fighting for the French Army) as the origin of the cigarette. The zoave invented the first cigarette when he needed another way to smoke tobacco after his pipe broke. He filled a paper cartridge, which usually held his gunpowder, with tobacco in order to smoke. Although this was not actually the first appearance of the cigarette, the zoave was widely used for tobacco advertising.

In Russian advertising, the zoave was transformed into a Russian military figure whose only weapon was a cigarette. Reflected in the context of Russian imperial quests in the Black Sea and Ottoman regions, this Russian military smoker was enmeshed in Russian myth and embodied the Russian hero. The language of Russian tobacco was embedded in Russian militarism. Even the Russian word for cigarette (papiros) was derived from the word for cartridge. The advertisements reconstructed the military and imperial imagery of cigarettes (papirosy).

According to Starks, cigarettes represented the products, producers and saboteurs of empire. In her lecture, she outlined how tobacco played those roles. Tobacco was a product of empire because it was a New World product. It was introduced to Russia in the 17th century, and cultivated in the Crimea, the Caucasus, and Ukraine. Russian tobacco was unique in its sourcing, taste, and strength. While the original tobacco brought to Russia was a variety grown in Virginia, Turkish tobacco eventually became more popular. It was acidic, aromatic, and less addictive than Virginian tobacco. To ease any harsh effects, it was sauced with vanilla, lavender, and other ingredients imported from international trade. Additionally, Russia’s access to some of its best tobacco was uneven because of wars, specifically with the Ottoman Empire, which influenced the portrayal of tobacco in advertising.

Starks next demonstrated how the Russian military influenced the cigarette’s use and image by describing the advertisements from various brands that were popular during that time period. She discussed the Balkan Star brand with a military Cossack on its seal. The Cossack was a figure of national importance who directly connected tobacco with Russia’s imperial intentions in the Ottoman region, such as eliminating Muslim threats and defending the Black Sea. Starks then presented on the Ottoman brand. Its symbols represented Cossack bravery, success, freedom, and defense of Christianity. The smoking depicted in its advertisements was made into a political act that connected the defense of empire with the defense of faith. Not only did tobacco advertisers use Cossacks, but they hearkened to an even earlier period, the Middle Ages, with its portrayal of bogatyrs (Russian knights) as military men smoking cigarettes. That image further connected smoking to empire, juxtaposing the modern with the past. Like the Cossacks, the bogatyrs secured the frontier and defended the empire against all threats. Even prominent Russian generals were used in cigarette advertising. Alexander Suvorov, the hero of the 1878 Russo-Turkish War and the Polish insurrection, and Mikhail Skobelev, the “White General” who was famous for conquering Central Asia and also for heroism in the Russo-Turkish War, were two important military officers whose images were used in posters. Although they were not physically smoking, their image allowed the consumer (the smoker) to steal their value by smoking the brand. By smoking, the consumer could become admirable like the generals. The generals’ images were used as recruitment not only for tobacco products, but also for imperial military quests.

The last point Starks made was on tobacco as saboteur – how it was sometimes portrayed as a harmful substance that would destroy the Russian population’s health. Already in the 19th century, some medical authorities were aware of cigarettes’ harmful effects. However, they also linked those medical dangers with moral dangers. Some people asserted that tobacco would be the empire’s undoing. Nicotine was thought to be a poison, a form of suicide that poisoned the blood, destroyed the nervous system, caused sexual dysfunction, led to miscarriages and infant death, and resulted in madness and fatigue. In the late 1800s, tobacco was also connected to neurasthenia, which was considered the leading cause of degeneracy (a fear rooted in racial insecurity and the belief in Russians’ declining numbers in the empire).

Finally, Starks concluded that Russian tobacco played a vital cultural role in defending and promoting empire. It was a product filled with political meaning. Tobacco was the empire. Even much later, during the Soviet era, tobacco was still associated with and even extended the idea of frontier.

Stephanie Chung is a Ph.D. Candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests are in Soviet literature and culture, Russian women’s writing, and Czech literature. She received her B.A. in Plan II Honors/Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2007; and her M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 2009 from the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently writing a dissertation on Soviet women’s memoirs as literary and media texts.

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