Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The murky world of brand names

Once upon a time, when you shopped in a Soviet store, meat was just plain myaso, and milk was moloko.

Today, with brand name products making a comeback, brand identification and brand loyalty are still murky concepts for most Russians.

It's not as though Russia in the Soviet era was entirely devoid of firmenniye nazvaniya ("brand names"). It's just that no one really paid any attention to them unless they absolutely needed to.

For one thing, the choice of brand names was limited to a few optimistic words that fit the socialist ideology: voskhod ("sunrise"), salyut ("salute"), vityaz ("warrior"), and so on. A voskhod, for example, could be anything from a pair of shoes to a notebook to a movie cinema.

For another, Russians had other ways to distinguish products.

Back in the days before inflation, when Russians bought ice cream, they didn't ask for an Eskimo ( a popular, chocolate-covered ice cream bar) or a Plombir (a bar of vanilla ice cream). They ordered by price: Daite w 20 ("Give me one for 20 kopeks"), which meant an Eskimo, or Daite za 48 ("Give me one for 48 kopeks"), which meant a Plombir.

Today, despite the growing number of Russians who recognize the difference between Reeboks and Adidas, or between Panasonic and Sony, these and other brand names mean only one thing to the large majority of consumers, who cannot afford such high-priced goods: "imported".

A recent trip to the local food store revealed the word importnoye as the preferred substitute for most Western brand names.

We found importny sok ("imported juice") for Del Monte pineapple juice, importnoye detskoe pitaniye ("imported baby food") for Gerber's baby food, and importnoye moloko ("imported milk") for Parmalat long-life whole milk.

Clearly this is an attempt to simplify the task of choosing products with long names written in a strange alphabet (imagine how you would react if all the product names in your hometown supermarket were written in Cyrillic).

The more complicated and exotic product names are, the more general the information - thus Queen brand Kiwi-flavored soda from Hungary is rendered importny napitok ("imported beverage").

This last example also proves how importnoye does not always mean "recognizable brand name" or "Western good of comparably high quality". We also found importoniye nylons made in Syria that run when you look at them, and even an importny umbrella from Odessa, Ukraine, that requires the strength of 10 to open and close.

Russians get around this problem with geography. Products are assumed to be of high quality if they come from a country famous for their production. This explains dukhi it Frantsii ("perfume from France") for Channel No. 5, and shokolad iz. Shveitsarii ("Swiss chocolate") for Lindt chocolates, and steitsoviye dzhinsi ("jeans from the States").

Freedom of choice brings with it so many complications. One can't help wondering how many Russians long for the days when meat was simply myaso, and milk moloko.