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The Week In Russia: Coffee, Tea, And High Technology

In “the land of the samovar," the unthinkable has happened.

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Coffee has won Russia’s hot-drink Cold War, outpouring tea for the first time in a major shift in traditional values. President Vladimir Putin says the country needs to do better at high-tech to preserve its status as a “separate civilization,” while an expert calls it a “declining power” that must be watched warily by the West. And Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is hospitalized as COVID-19 marches on.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Tea Leaves?

When Russians try to forecast the future based on scant information at hand, they read the coffee grounds, not the tea leaves. Aside from that, though, tea has taken precedence over coffee in Russia. Until now.

In “the land of the samovar,” as Bloomberg called it, the unthinkable has happened: Coffee overtook tea in 2019, according to an industry association that, judging by its name, ought to know. RusTeaCoffee said that Russians drank 180,000 metric tons of whole bean, ground, instant, and coffee mixes, while tea consumption dropped to under 140,000 metric tons, falling behind after the rivals were poured at equal measure – 160,000 metric tons – for two years running.

Unthinkable, that is, unless you think back -- to the options on offer in the decades during which tea reigned supreme in the Soviet era. No Starbucks, no Kofe Khaus, no Kofemania or Kofein, no mocha lattes in a cup with your name – or an approximation thereof – scrawled on the side.

Tea – sometimes in colorfully labeled cubes that declared it Georgian or Indian -- was easier to come by and, arguably, harder to ruin. The attraction of a cup of coffee and a cigarette is diminished when it’s unclear whether the former contains real coffee and the latter tobacco.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev drink tea during breakfast at the state residence in Sochi in 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev drink tea during breakfast at the state residence in Sochi in 2015.

“Since the communist era, Russians have preferred tea, while coffee was considered an elite drink,” Bloomberg quoted RusTeaCoffee chief Ramaz Chanturiya as saying on May 14. “Over the last decades, coffee has been growing and finally won, led by the younger generation’s consumption outside of the home.”

In the past decade alone – the third decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union – coffee consumption nearly doubled, state-run TASS cited the association as saying.

In addition to countless coffee chains in a country that once had only a handful of spots like Shokoladnitsa near the statue of Lenin at the start of Lenin Avenue on Moscow’s October Square, coffee is of course available at mini-marts, supermarkets, and hypermarkets nationwide.

In 2018, 11 years after opening its first Russian branch, U.S.-based Starbucks opened Russia’s first coffee drive-thru, the English-language Moscow Times reported, in a “sleepy suburb” that is perhaps a little less sleepy now.

Coffee consumption in Russia has nearly doubled in the last decade alone.
Coffee consumption in Russia has nearly doubled in the last decade alone.

Then And Now

With baristas and all the rest, Russia is in some ways far more like the Soviet Union’s Cold War foes than it was nearly 30 years ago – or even 20, or 10.

But in remarks broadcast on state TV on May 17, President Vladimir Putin suggested Russia has some catching up to do in at least one department: high-technology.

Putin often couches expressions of concern in bravado or hides acquiescence behind a show of defiance.

In this case, his argument was that Russia risks losing what he asserted is its status as a distinct civilization if it lags behind the West and the rest. To be less like them, in other words, we need to be more like them – or at least do what they do, as well or better.

“Russia is not just a country, it’s really a separate civilization,” Putin said. “If we want to preserve this civilization, we should focus on high-level technology and its future development.

“These new technologies have appeared and they will change the world -- they’re already changing it,” he said in remarks that were recorded in September.

President Vladimir Putin: "Russia is not just a country."
President Vladimir Putin: "Russia is not just a country."

The Moscow Times pointed out that they were aired “days after Putin chaired a meeting on genetic technology where the CEO of state oil giant Rosneft” – close Putin ally Igor Sechin“asked for a tax exemption for its investments in the field.”

American political scientist Joseph Nye, a champion of “interdependence” in international affairs, suggested that Russia’s shortcomings in high-technology are among the reasons that the United States should watch Moscow closely.

Risky Russia?

Nye, whose influence helped shape Western thought in the latter stages of the Cold War, also downplayed the notion that Europe might be eager to significantly boost ties to Russia or China at the expense of transatlantic relations.

Russia is a "declining state" due to factors such as a diminished workforce and its failure "to adapt its economy to a modern-technology economy as opposed to an energy-based economy," Nye, a former dean at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service in an interview on May 11.

Joseph Nye: Russia “has to be taken very seriously."
Joseph Nye: Russia “has to be taken very seriously."

A vast country with "talented people" and a nuclear arsenal, Russia cannot be ignored and “has to be taken very seriously," Nye said.

"After all, sometimes it is declining countries which are the most dangerous, because they're the most willing to take risks," he said. "So Russia should not fall below the radar.”

Oil And Genes

Efforts to reduce Russia’s reliance on energy exports, or the absence of those efforts, have been a perennial issue throughout Putin’s 20 years as president or prime minister, with the urgency sharpening when the global financial crisis hit the economy after years of oil-fueled growth during his first two Kremlin terms, in 2000-08.

More than a decade later, that dependence remains, despite much discussion of and Putin’s repeated calls for a “breakthrough.”

In early March, Sechin and Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova signed an agreement between Rosneft and the government to further “the accelerated development of genetic technology.” Aims include reducing reliance on foreign countries and turning Russia into “one of the leaders” in the field by 2027.

That was then, this is now.

On March 1, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Russia was zero. More than two weeks after that, Putin said the situation was under control and the authorities "have managed to prevent the mass penetration and spread of the illness in Russia."

Today – amid persistent doubts about the accuracy of its official numbers – Russia is second only to the United States in terms of confirmed infections, with more than 325,000, and has recorded more than 3,200 deaths.

Chechnya And COVID-19

The Russian economy has been hit hard, in part because of the continuing reliance on exports of oil at a time when demand has been severely depressed by the virtual shutdown of world travel and the decreased industrial activity.

Some of Putin’s closest associates have contracted COVID-19. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has been hospitalized since May 12 or earlier, while Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin was released this week.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov visited a hospital for patients with COVID-19 in Grozny on April 20. Now he may be infected, too.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov visited a hospital for patients with COVID-19 in Grozny on April 20. Now he may be infected, too.

And on May 21, Ramzan Kadyrov – the former rebel fighter Putin put in charge of the Chechnya region in 2007 – was reportedly flown to Moscow and hospitalized with a suspected coronavirus infection. If Kadyrov is incapacitated for a substantial period of time, it would raise questions about how the Kremlin will manage Chechnya.

Rights activists say that Kadyrov rules through repressive measures and has created a climate of impunity for security forces in the region. They claim Kadyrov is ultimately responsible for abuses of political opponents by Chechen authorities that include kidnappings and forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings.

Kremlin critics say Moscow turns a blind eye to his conduct because it relies on the former rebel commander to control separatist sentiment and violence in Chechnya, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency that spread to other mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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