RUSSIAN CHURCH BLESSES HOLY WATER SCHEME

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MOSCOW-You've heard of Red Army tanks for sale and MIG jet fighters for rent, but the newest Russian product on the market is decidedly more spiritual: It's holy water.

Saint Springs, an upscale spring water that hit supermarket shelves and hotel mini-bars here and in St. Petersburg this month, is the unorthodox result of a meeting between a retired California plastics man and the Russian Bishop of the cities of Kostroma and Galich.

Although technically holy water because it and the factory where it is produced are blessed, the product only vaguely alludes to its divine origins in ads noting the brand is owned by the Russian Orthodox Church. The brand isn't marketed as real holy water, considered too sacred to drink.

Instead, advertising is currently limited to small print ads running in English-language newspapers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Created in-house, they feature a picture of the bottle and the slogan, "Quite simply: The best water in the world, and it's Russian."

Call it a holy alliance, call it a blessed business partnership-John King, the American entrepreneur who hopes to strike it rich selling Russian water, calls it a recipe for success, noting it is already exceeding expectations. But whether that's a true confession is yet to be seen: Mr. King is keeping sales figures between himself and his maker.

Two years ago, fifty-something Mr. King met Bishop Alexander during a sightseeing stop on a cruise down Russia's Volga river. The savvy 37-year-old priest, angling for money to rebuild church infrastructure in his bishopric, gave the vacationing Mr. King the typical Russian spiel to foreigners: "We've got unlimited resources, ideas and and a huge market; we just need das kapital to make it all work."

At first Mr. King was wary. "Then he mentioned springs," he recalls. "I didn't sleep at all that night."

The ideas that kept him awake have now sprung to life, with the help of millions of investment dollars he solicited from a group of Americans he chooses not to name.

Mr. King then spent six months traveling around the Kostroma region by train with an unlikely crew of U.S. hydrologists and priests, looking for a good spot to harness the pristine waters. They settled on an underground spring not far from Kostroma, 350 kilometers from Moscow, and eight months later opened a factory, the only one in Russia making PET clear plastic bottles, aside from Coca-Cola and Pepsi plants.

The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexi II, blessed the waters that feed the first joint business venture between the church and a Western partner and will bless the plant itself at an official opening this week. A portion of the profits will help build churches in the Kostroma bishopric and rebuild old ones, converted into factories or gutted for other secular uses during the Communist era. Mr. King said the church should "begin to realize financial benefits" from the venture this year. But since Mr. King won't give figures, it's not known whether the church still needs to pass the collection plate.

Is it offensive for a bishop to be selling the church's sacred blessing for cold cash?

Russian Orthodox Church bigwigs apparently don't think so: They recently promoted Bishop Alexander to Archbishop.

Having the church as a partner, Mr. King said, is nothing short of a godsend. The church has been an ideal navigator through the far-from-crystal-clear waters of Russian business, with its handy knack for divine intervention.

Saint Springs water is not only blessed, it's dressed for success in a 1.5 liter bottle sporting an onion-dome crown and a clear plastic label with a picture of an old wooden church in Kostroma and the official seal of Archbishop Alexander. The design was created by Napa Valley, Calif.-based Kenwood Winery designer Neil Knott.

The water is priced at a slight premium to the three or so more secular competitors that are widely distributed in Russia.

Mr. King's expansion plans are big: He said Aeroflot and possibly Delta Airlines will be serving the water exclusively on its international flights by mid-July and that by next winter, his water will be flowing into U.S. cities with Russian-speaking markets, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Minneapolis. But without further details, it's hard to tell if he has a prayer.

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