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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Tobaccophiles Don't Light Up My Life

It's best not to hate anything about Russia. No one asked most of us to live here, after all, so it's probably only fair to maintain a stance of benign moderation, at least publicly.

Ranting and raving in the privacy of your own home is allowed, and probably even medically necessary. But out on the street, it seems polite to act as though you simply couldn't be more delighted by things like Soviet salesgirls, or falling icicles, or the smell in your elevator. In fact, there is only one cultural thing in Russia I openly damn with impunity, and only because it is a damnable aspect of life just about everywhere: cigarettes.

Nicotine is as much a part of life in Russia as vodka and canned sprats, and just about as nutritious. It's hard to find a person who doesn't smoke here, or a stairwell where oxygen has done battle with carbon monoxide and won.

To make matters worse, most foreigners cowed into clean air camaraderie by regulation fever at home eagerly pick up the habit once they hit this country. (This can actually be said of a number of, shall we say, dubious leisure activities -- Mother Russia just loves a good vice, I guess.) In America, smokers are left to languish, gills flapping, in tobacco-free restaurants and airports, or forced into civic fishbowls to puff away desperately, glaring out as the pink-lunged majority passes them by.

That's of course a slight exaggeration, because smoking seems to be enjoying a heady comeback in the States, but it's no wonder expats light up with such brazen abandon here in Russia. They can smoke virtually wherever and whenever (and whatever) they want. I'm all for utter lawlessness, but the allure of smoking will eternally elude me. Raised by a father whose favorite cautionary tale, How I Gave Up Filterless Camels, was nothing short of a campfire horror story, I have become one of those dreary holier-than-thous who wrinkle up their noses the minute a person starts tapping at their breast pocket, checking for the pack.

The end result of which is that I now have to go home to get the wrinkle surgically removed, because this is a scenario that plays itself out on a minute-to-minute basis. Even so, Russians are among the most considerate smokers around, maybe because they don't have the pent-up defensiveness that most embattled American smokers do. They invariably excuse themselves to balconies and courtyards, and always ask before they light up -- even taxi drivers (at which point you say no and they push you out at the next corner).

Considering how much they appreciate tobacco, it's surprising that they haven't branched out with more enthusiasm into its other wondrous manifestations. The trip from Belomorkanals to Marlboros didn't take long -- cigars and chewing tobacco can't be far behind. Maybe I'll just go stand under an icicle.