Even without any weighty post-Soviet symbolism, the Starbucks Russia story still has three compelling components. First is the legal back-story in which a sly and shadowy Moscow character battled the might Seattle giant for rights to the name, delaying the opening for years. Second is the ongoing culture-defying story of Starbuck's global Blob-like invasion of every corner of the globe, including countries with millennia old tea habits. The third angle is the fact that, despite having 15 years to figure it out, Russia's native coffee chains still have no idea how make and serve good coffee.
Over the last 15 years, Russia's middle-class has traveled widely enough to learn the difference between good coffee and bad. Which is why almost every Russian I know is rooting against Moscow's largest native chains: Kofe Haus and Shokolodnitsa. Some have told me they wished Starbucks had gotten here earlier, so it wouldn't be facing so many obstacles to rapid expansion in the center (high rents, scarce space, fully entrenched competition, etc.) Summing up the feelings of the capital's laptop toting professional class is the Moscow design studio Art Lebedev, which posted a Starbucks sign on its blog, above the message: "Dear Starbucks! Do what you have to do to put Kofe House and Shokoloditsa to death."
If you're a Western reader, you may be thinking, Wait-isn't Starbucks ... evil? Aren't there websites (Starbucked.com being only the most famous) devoted to explaining how Starbucks is destroying local indie cafes in college towns across America, exploiting poor bean growers and pickers in the Third World, and crushing union activity in its stores, all the while posing as a "new breed" of enlightened corporation in which sky-high profits go hand in hand with social responsibility?
I used to think Starbucks was as evil as corporations got. It started when Starbucks opened up in my native Boston opposite the 1369 Cafe, a great coffeehouse named after its address on Massachusetts Avenue. Starbucks landed just as the corporatization of the neighborhood was gathering steam, and there were daily protests in which activists handed out pamphlets explaining that the official Starbucks development model is to set up multiple stores right next to independent community coffee shops, then squeeze the life out of them, python-like. How could anyone doubt this was the strategy, since they always seemed to pop up in neighborhoods that already had cafes? As Starbucks became increasingly ubiquitous, the company became easier and easier to hate. I wasn't offended when the Black Bloc chucked a brick through a Starbucks window during the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, and I laughed nervously when the Onion reported in 2001, "After a decade of aggressive expansion throughout North America and abroad, Starbucks suddenly and unexpectedly closed its 2,870 worldwide locations Monday to prepare for what company insiders are calling 'Phase Two' of the company's long-range plan."
But more than 10 years later, 1369 is still there. And it's thriving. So are thousands of indie cafes that everyone thought were going to disappear under the green mermaid's fangs. Just as corner delis have survived 50 years of McDonald's, so there will always be enough oxygen for independent community cafes. The fact is Starbucks poses no threat to Moscow's dozens of independently owned Austrian-style sit-down cafes. The only ones who have anything to fear are the chains who should have been put out of their misery years ago.
Still, there are other criticisms to make of Starbucks, even if chairman Howard Schultz isn't quite the liberal poser anti-Christ some people think. Over the years Starbucks has been nailed for loudly overstating the company's commitment to Fair Trade beans and environmental standards. And I know for a fact that the company is anti-union, despite the obnoxious company policy of calling its employees "partners." When a friend of mine started a cafe and bookstore in Flatbush, Brooklyn, one of his first employees was a young woman named Sarah Bender, who made local headlines after she was fired by Starbucks on the spot for attempting to unionize her fellow baristas. "Partnership" has its limits.