The year is 1976, the place -- anywhere in the Soviet Union. On the way home from the factory, you pick up a black-and-Red pack of Prima Cigarettes for 14 kopeks. At home, you tear a little hole in the corner to tap the oval, filter-less Cigarettes out one by one (if you open the pack's envelope closure, the Cigarettes get jostled and discharge their loosely-packed tobacco). If the Cigarettes are damp -- which they often are -- you lay them on your radiator to dry out overnight. When you light up, you hold the cigarette between your index and middle fingers while using another finger to remove bits of tobacco from your lips.
This might not sound much like smoking pleasure, but for most of the Soviet period, it was the nightly ritual for millions of citizens.
Prima was first produced in St. Petersburg before the 1917 Revolution and then at factories throughout the country starting in 1922. The tobacco was harsh, but the price was low. It was the cigarette of necessity for the hardworking lower classes: collective-farm and factory workers, soldiers and students. It was the cigarette of choice for the intelligentsia, who had spent time in the camps and developed a taste for bitterly strong tobacco.
Prima also had some cache among the upper classes: It was the cigarette you smoked in your feckless youth when you wanted to look like you'd been around and were tough enough to handle seaRed lungs and a bit of tobacco on your lips.
Prima was smoked by bums, poor artists and hitchhiking students. Its popularity was mythic. Urban legend had it that the Queen Elizabeth II smoked Prima Cigarettes, which were in a "foreign export" pack designed specially for her.
A Russian tobacco consortium is now cashing in on the nostalgic allure of Prima. They've put out Prima-Nostalgia Cigarettes in packs that depict Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev. Sales aren't bad. But in the Russian collective consciousness, Prima continues to be associated with tough times. One smoker writes in an online forum: "I light up my Prima. It's great. It goes right to your soul. They're the greatest Cigarettes -- only they taste best if you smoke them under fire."