Bittersweet: 1990s Russian Commercials for Imported Chocolate

Curator's Note

From the Soviet-time deficit of quality chocolate that was accessible to party members only, to the post-Soviet infatuation with foreign candy, to the present-day ban on Ukrainian chocolate, Russia seems perpetually preoccupied with sweets.

Throughout changing political regimes, chocolates have served as etiquette currency in Russia: guests bring a box of chocolates when they stop by for a cup of tea; it is acceptable and even expected to present chocolate to teachers, colleagues, and people who you are asking for a favor; and candy is a necessary companion of flowers on a special date.

However, the cultural significance of chocolate stretches beyond its situational value as the product comes to represent yet another major shift in ideology that is happening in Russia for the third time in just a little over twenty years. The featured clip is a recording of 1990s Russian TV commercials for imported candy. This compilation of found footage was probably digitized from old videotapes used to record TV programs.

The clip is clearly marked on Youtube as “commercials from the 90s,” a category that is extremely popular among users of the Russian cyberspace. Those who leave comments on the clips are predominantly Russian millennials, people whose childhood was spent in the turbulent 90s after the fall of communism. Their love-hate relationship with the video clips and the advertised products is more than mere nostalgia for candy of their childhood and has to be approached in the context of the ongoing cultural conflict between pro-Western and pro-Motherland attitudes.

In the 90s, the TV space exploded with commercials for Western products. Not only had Russians never seen commercials before, they also had never been exposed to what they perceived as the Western glamour. The West had endless appeal: products with foreign names sold best; commercials often relied on (however stereotypical) representations of “zagranitsa” (abroad): see the example with the Wagon Wheels commercial.

While most households’ purchasing power could not cover bubble gum, Chupa-Chups, or chocolate bars, the advertised sweets were worth their weight in gold for salivating children and their parents. The children grew up and now share memories of collecting candy wraps, decorating walls with Mars and Snickers logos, and saving up to buy gum. These same people leave venomous comments about the corrupting influence of the West and the low quality of imported chocolate, accusations interspersed with dreamy nostalgia for the cultural innocence of the 90s.


Thank you for this intriguing post, Natalia. The dynamic you point out between the commercials and the user comments is fascinating. (I don't read Russian, but I note the number of exclamation marks and emoticons.) I wonder if there's a possible parallel in the situation you describe between the early years of the post-communist era in Russia and the early childhood of these millennials. It's often the case that, in adulthood, we feel swindled and rueful about those mass-produced objects that held a fascination for us as children. How couldn't we have known, back then, that what we coveted was just cheap commercial garbage, meant to exploit our naiveté? (I, for one, hate the fact that my stomach starts grumbling every time I smell a McDonald's, though I haven't eaten there since I was a kid.) Could it be the case that this dynamic also occurs culturally, in moments of great change, when a new era is in its "youth"?

Thanks to Natalia for this wonderful post! It raises several questions about the intersection between candy, longing, and childhood. I wonder whether or not one of the reasons that this longing for foreign candy was heightened during that time was because it was tangible and consumable. In other words, all of these varied meanings associated with sweets in childhood seem intensified because there is the optimism of youth, which often causes us to believe that eventually we will be able to consume these items. Ironically, however, the more out of reach this fulfillment becomes or seems, the more we imbue these dreams and sweets with added significance far beyond the realities of consumption.

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