Beware, Silver Surfer. Out of the way, X-Men. You think you can handle the face-off with these no-nonsense ladies from Kazakhstan, Captain America? Think again. To you and all the other marvelous Marvel guys: there is more to Kyrgyzstan than the famous fast horses. There are the Torpeda Girls. The four of them.
I discovered them at the Beta Stores, a Turkish supermarket chain. As they were taking off, girl power galore. In brown, blue, red, and yellow.
In the energy drink aisle, right next to the ice cream freezer. They live in dangerous territory, the Torpedas: next to Hell, Burn, Yeti, the two mean-looking silver lizards on the Adrenaline Rush can, and next to that angry Red Bull. But don’t you worry about these girls in rough and dubious company: they stand their own ground. At the Narodni supermarket (another popular chain), the Torpedas’ neighbors are the five varieties of the Jolly Spy drinks. Nemiroff, the Ukrainian vodka producer and manufacturer of the jolly spies, also sells Top Spy. Not sure who is spying on whom. But there seem to be an awful lot of spies around these days. Narodni also sells Russian Power, whose fierce signature warrior peacefully coexists on the shelf, in laudable post-Cold War manner, with B52, itself a Cold War product (the actual B-52 bomber, that is).
All of which goes to say that “energy drinks” are very popular here. And I find that there is more to them than the actual liquid in cans and bottles.
But back to the Torpedas, as they clearly and single-handedly beat this odd ensemble of testosterone-powered canned energizers with their bottle design. The Torpeda brand was introduced in 2010, by Kazakhstan’s Galanz Bottlers. The company web site announced the launching of the Torpedas on the torpedos in September of that year with the motto “Energy for Peaceful Purposes!” Torpedos rendered peaceful through the 21st century version of female virtue, embodied by action chicks (I borrow the title of an anthology edited by Sherrie Inness, Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture, 2004). Torpedos for peaceful purposes: this resonates in Bishkek, the city that is home to the Dastan plant. A torpedo factory. The one that has manufactured the Shkval underwater torpedos. Dastan still matters in the post-Soviet relationship between Kyrgyzstan and Russia. It is now a point of contention between both countries, as Russia seeks a larger stake in Dastan than Kyrgyzstan is willing to grant in return for forgiving debt. Contemporary politics via bottles in retro design.
This is the great thing about studying culture. One moment you are grocery shopping, your head dipped into the ice cream freezer, as you are caught in the agonizing decision-making between banana and chocolate flavor. And as you look up (banana wins), your eyes are catching sight of four colorful bottles. That’s all it takes. Because the next moment, and the next days, you ponder how militaristic language and imagery are seeping, via brand names and product design, into everyday sight and usage. And the more you pay attention to the bottles and cans with outrageous names in the bottles’ vicinity, the more you think about the politics of consumption, about the precarious relationship between marketing, language, and historical memory, and about the uprooting of the deep and distinct artistic and historical roots of popular culture in a globalized world (why did I instantly see Marvel comics in the Torpedas?). And about the lingering traces of the Cold War on supermarket shelves in 2012 and the legacy of decades of military industrial production in a post-Soviet country. A country that lost, as is visible every single day in Bishkek, its Moscow-dependent economic foundation in 1991. And has not regained it since. But the torpedos made in Bishkek never ceased to matter, neither before 1991 nor after, as the current bilateral relations between Kyrgyzstan and Russia show.
I love grocery shopping in Bishkek. There is much more to Narodni and the Beta Stores than the yogurt and the bread and the fruit that I buy there every day. There is, tucked between banana ice cream in the freezer and the fruit juice aisle, a shelf life of its own, so to speak, where lessons about culture and history are waiting for you. That is, if you are not afraid to get too close to Hell or to Yeti, to that raging Red Bull, to female torpedos, U.S. bombers, and to mysterious yet jolly spies who might be after your secrets.
If the Torpedas are too fast and too edgy for you: step back. Luckily, I also like and collect Russian candy wrappers, so you won’t miss out on the sisterhood of colorful design. Though these girls look much tamer and better behaved than the Torpedas: