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Russia September 28, 2007
The Green Mermaid Wades Ashore
Starbucks and the coming Moscow coffee wars By Alexander Zaitchik Browse author Email

Earlier this month, in a candlelit cave north of Kandahar...

"Basir, have you heard the news?"

"That your brother fornicates with his sheep?

"Allah does not laugh with you, Basir. I'm telling you, Starbucks has opened a shop in Russia! The Slav infidels can finally get a decent cup of coffee to go. Green Tea Lattes, Cappuccinos with that delish vanilla syrup-you name it. It is God's wish."

"Inshallah, I could really go for one of those caramel Mochaccinos right now. You know how they do it--with the whipped cream? And the chocolate flakes?"

"Stop torturing me, Basir! What is taking the Americans so long? When Starbucks conquers Kabul, I will lay this rifle aside and give Karzai his due, but not one minute before..."

I like to think every Taliban guerilla over the age of 40 knows Starbucks has come to the heart of their old adversary. As veteran Russia Watchers, I imagine them reading the reports out of Moscow with envy, including the Sept. 6 Seattle Times editorial, "From Seattle With Love." Until Tom Friedman writes a column about how two countries with a Starbucks have never waged a second Cold War against each other, this 250-word piece is the only one worth a slow roast. A masterpiece of middle-American snark, it is also a handy reminder that most U.S. newspapers are unreadable, at best.

It begins, "Maybe it's the caffeine talking, but news of Starbucks opening its first coffee shop in Russia is exciting."

Golly, is it ever. Maybe it's the speed talking, but we're practically shitting our pants with Seattle Pride. After getting their excitement under control, the Seattle Times urges its readers to think of the opening as "capitalism's version of SMERSH," the fictitious Soviet spy agency in Ian Fleming's Bond novels. But with the arrival of Starbucks, the acronym now stands for "Steamed Milk Everywhere Radiating Starbucks Hospitality"!

Quick--someone iron a basket of kittens onto my sweatshirt! Before the Steamed Milk Stops Radiating Hospitality Everywhere! The paper goes on to recommend a few Russia-themed drinks for the Starbucks menu, such as a "Gulag Blend," a decaf for "chatty people who do not know when to stop talking." The editorial continues: "Of course, the 'Putin' is already the No. 1 beverage, and shows no signs of letting go. Have a problem with that? Chill with a frosty 'Siberian.'"

Get it? Putin will send you to Siberia! The editorial clears its throat and ends with a gentle geopolitical chin-stroker, without fully releasing the metaphorical coffee mug from its tight little grip: "Given the grumpy state of U.S.-Russia relations, a relaxed meeting over a friendly cup of coffee is highly recommended."

No wonder Kurt Cobain blew his fucking brains out. Smack and Courtney had nothing to do with it. He'd just been subjected to one too many Seattle Times editorials.

I was experiencing a grumpy state of relations myself last weekend as I trekked out to the Mega mall in Khimki to check out the new Starbucks. The weather was Seattle grey and wet, and the cattle-car Ikea shuttle from Rechnoi Vokzal was packed tighter than usual. Complicating matters was Yasha, who was in a wheelchair. (See "Hell on Wheels.") As the bus lurched through traffic, I steadied Yasha's chair and fantasized about grande lattes and blueberry muffins. Yasha kept shaking his head, occasionally looking up. "This was a mistake," he said. "This was such a mistake..."

At the mall we were greeted at the entrance by a Starbucks sign announcing "A World of Coffee." We followed the arrows around a couple of corners and soon came upon an open-plan food-court style showcase Starbucks. A formless line two and three deep wound around the familiar glass cases of sandwiches and pastries. The famous green mermaid watched over the scene like a gargoyle. My legs were tired and I was curious to see how the Russian baristas dispatched the line. Yasha wheeled off to order; I sat down.

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Alexander Zaitchik is an editor at The eXile. Email him at

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