. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Condom Market Rising

There was a time when a Soviet condom was as likely to be found covering a jam jar or a bottle of moonshine as on a man's pride and joy. Poorly made, drab and hard to wear, Soviet condoms were, as a line from a popular Russian movie had it, "like swimming in a pair of rubber boots."

Nowadays, it has become practically hip for the young and sexually active to wear condoms, preservativy in Russian. That's partly because of a fierce war between condom manufacturers -- foreign and Russian -- that has spawned an awesome selection of man's rubber friend.

"Condoms are now an element of style," said Sergei Korotonozhkin, head of the Moscow office of the British condom manufacturer, Parma Medical. Korotonozhkin added that his firm sold 4 million of its "Playboy" condoms last year alone and has developed a special line of large, red, ribbed condoms to cater to the tastes of Slavic men.

On the domestic front, the Bakovka Rubber Factory outside Moscow has seen its sales figures swell from 110 million in 1985 to 150 million in 1995. The factory's chief engineer Nikolai Anosov said his firm, with the help of Vietnamese partners, has started to overcome the public's doubts about Bakovka condoms.

"Our condoms already have reached a high level of quality," said Anosov, with a hint of pride in his voice. Anosov added that the boom in sales has been fueled in part by the introduction of all sorts of novelty products, ranging from condoms shaped like forest animals (bears, hares and snakes) to condoms perfumed with the provocative smells of wild coconuts and blooming roses. These items, he said, are designed as souvenir and gag gifts but may be used in a pinch.

With the influx of products from the West and the entrance into the Russian market of giant condom makers like the Malaysian-based Simplex and the South Korean Green Cross brand, Bakovka is trying to position itself on the lower end of the price scale, offering one "Intimacy" condom for 250 rubles (5 cents) as compared to 5,000 rubles for a single "Playboy."

Russian prophylactic makers say the principal difference between their product and those of foreign interlopers is not in quality but in packaging. But when it does come to aesthetic considerations Russian manufacturers enjoy an advantage in the former Soviet Union, said Vyacheslav Shepilov, director of sales at Bakovka, adding that his firm's principal outlet outside Russia is Ukraine and Belarus. "We are all Slavs, so we all have the same tastes," said Shepilov, who added that he is often mystified by customers' preferences, including a tremendous demand for a newly introduced all-black condom. Such distinctions are pointless, he said, because, "At night, all cats are gray."

Despite Moscow condom purveyors' contention that Slav men like their condoms big and red, an American woman distributing condoms as part of a public health project in Yekaterinburg said that city's residents seem content with plain, white condoms. And, Elizabeth Gardiner added, Russians' preference in size seems little different than that of men elsewhere in the world where she has handed out prophylactics. "We distributed condoms from the United States to Africa," she said, "and we have had no complaints" -- about size.

Another obvious factor in boosting condom consumption is the fear of AIDS, which although it affects only a tiny portion of the population is the subject of public education campaigns and free condom distribution projects. Syphilis, too, is a worry, with official Russian Health Ministry figures showing a 60 percent increase in syphilis cases over the last year, bringing the number to 170,000.

While public health concerns motivate a certain segment of the condom market, Korotonozhkin said most consumers are concerned with image and the perception that their condom somehow sets them apart from the average lovemaker. He describes his products as the "Mercedes in the world of condoms," one that appeals to New Russians. Humor, too, is important. Thus, the introduction of a new Parma condom called "Vanka-Vstanka," named after a popular children's toy that wobbles back and forth but always ends up erect.