The selling of Russia`s daughters


Freedom has come to Russian women.


Freedom to bare their bodies, freedom to sell themselves, freedom to be everything men want them to be.

In Soviet days, the masses could never have seen a show like this. Women were theoretically equal to men, not the mere sex objects they were said to be in the West. But perestroika stripped away the ideology of three generations. The taboos disappeared, the Iron Curtain lifted and the lives of Russia`s women will never be the same.

20-year-old `Brenda` came to the city of Kazan from a nearby village to study chemistry at the Technology Institute. Like most university students in Russia, `Brenda` – her stage name – needed to support herself. She made it to the third year of her course before time pressures forced her to drop out of her studies.

`BRENDA`: There was no time. We worked at Zafar and the Gentlemen Club. We started work at 8:30 and wouldn`t get home until 5 or 6 in the morning. When you get home at 6 and go to bed…there was just no time.

A degree in chemistry is next to useless in today`s Russia. Scientists, academics and teachers live well below the poverty line. Only work like this pays enough for Brenda to survive.

REPORTER: Do your parents know?

BRENDA: No, they don`t. They wouldn`t understand. My father certainly wouldn`t. He`s very strict and goes by the rules. He`s a Muslim, a Tartar. I haven`t tried to talk to him. He wouldn`t understand.

REPORTER: How did you go?

BRENDA: Alright.

REPORTER: Did you get a lot?

BRENDA: Not so much. The money is OK here. But you can see it`s not one of those clubs… It`s not one of those fancy places.

Few societies in history have experienced such rapid and traumatic change as post-communist Russia. In less than five years, the certainties and symbols that defined the Soviet Union became irrelevant. This is what took their place – a barrage of the most sexist excesses of the West.

Marina Peslakova was one of the first people to study the effects on women of the opening up of Russian society. She is now considered one of the foremost authorities on women`s issues in Russia.

MARINA PESLAKOVA, WOMEN`S ADVOCATE: The sexuality is up to the very extreme, because I think it`s like a backlash. It was prohibited for 70 years so, you know, when something is prohibited for a long time, then it comes to another extreme before it comes to something normal, and that`s what we face right now.

Brenda`s generation has grown up with this extreme as their norm. She shares a one-room flat with Nicole, who is nicknamed `the mother of the Kazan strippers`.

NICOLE: I went from a small club to a big club. I worked there for a year and a half, and then started being invited to all the clubs. I worked in all the nightclubs in Kazan. I was one of the first strippers in Kazan.

Until a few months ago, Nicole even ran a striptease school.

REPORTER: How was it the first time you danced?

BRENDA: TO be frank, it was terrifying. I admit it. The first time I danced was on Nicole`s birthday, July 3. I went along with her, but I wasn`t working. I just went along to watch. Nicole said, “First Greta will dance, and then Brenda.” I was in shock. But I went out and danced anyway. My legs were shaking.

NICOLE: It`s quite nerve-wracking to dance in front of people. It`s one thing to dance in front of the mirror at home, but in public you have to get rid of your complexes. It`s difficult.

Thousands of young women like Nicole and Brenda work as strippers in nightclubs and restaurants across Russia. Tens of thousands more work as prostitutes. Their generation doesn`t just see these jobs as normal – many see them as desirable career paths. Marina blames the government and media for a climate in which women are encouraged to be little more than glamorous servants to men.

MARINA PESLAKOVA: It`s like the image of women proclaimed right now is sometimes something between nice wife, prostitute and a businesswoman. There was a shocking survey at the beginning of the `90s – I don`t remember the city. In one city, the girls were asked in their senior year, they were asked what they wanted to do after the school. And like 90% of girls said they wanted to be a prostitute, because they`d heard it`s a prestige. And to be a prostitute, this is a very kind of… it is exaggerated, but actually, this is a role to be of service. And at the same time, sexual service, you know, to be that obedient. It was almost kind of normal thing.

Such obedience can also be expected.

NICOLE: I had a huge battle with the director of the Gentlemen Club. He wanted the girls to offer sex, as prostitutes. He tried to make us do this, like it is in other countries. They do striptease and offer sex. But I was against this. So he had to find girls who didn`t dance, who were just prostitutes. He kept pressuring me to agree to this, telling me that I had to talk them into it – that people would pay a lot of money.

BRENDA: “Clients will pay you $100 an hour. You`re mad to refuse.” But we said, “No way!”

In Russia, `no` is not a word that nice women are brought up to use. This is one thing that hasn`t changed since communism. Soviet propaganda portrayed the ideal woman as strong and hardworking, giving her all for the country in the factories and fields. The party declared that men and women were equal. Women drove tractors, laid railway lines. They worked whether they wanted to or not. At the same time, they were expected to have huge families.

MARINA PESLAKOVA: So the government was manipulating women`s lives and family lives, depending on the purpose that the state wanted to achieve. For instance, after the Second World War, abortions were a crime, and women had to give a birth to every single child, because we lost 20 million.

When the Soviet infrastructure collapsed in the early 1990s, unemployment skyrocketed. The Ministry of Labour publicly announced that women would not be given jobs until all men were employed.

MARINA PESLAKOVA: They started talking about traditional roles for women at the beginning of the `90s again, saying that women were used too much by the state, so now they have a right to go home, stay home, take care of children and to fulfil their natural predestination. All of that is actually the manipulation, because it`s not giving women a choice to work or stay at home, it`s telling them again what to do.

As the country sank into poverty, unemployment, crime, drug and alcohol abuse took their toll on families. Frustration, desperation and disillusionment have had disastrous social consequences.

In 1994, Marina founded Russia`s first crisis centre for women.

MARINA PESLAKOVA: There are 600,000 crimes against women in Russia, and 14,500 on average annually, women are killed by husbands.

This 30-year-old has endured 10 years of violence from her former husband. Although they were divorced last year, she and her daughter still have to live with him and his parents in a two-room flat. Last week, a friend told her about Marina`s centre.

CENTRE WORKER: Did he beat you in front of your daughter?

WOMAN: No, she didn`t see when he hit me. She was in the bathroom. When he grabbed me by the throat, I screamed. I was very frightened. She ran out of the bathroom and I was on the floor. He had knocked me down and was standing over me. When it happened, he realised I would go to the police. He took the key and locked me in. Then Natasha, my daughter, started to cry.

MARINA PESLAKOVA: Women are responsible for their emotional atmosphere in a family, and if she is an abused woman, then she`s blamed. It`s her fault. She failed as a woman, she failed as a wife, and for women to talk about that, is difficult. The question they would be asked, average question, “What did you do wrong? How did you deserve it? Why you cannot create an atmosphere where your husband will be satisfied?”

RUSSIAN TV PRESENTER: When a woman gets married, shouldn`t she be responsible for her decision? When kids are beaten…they didn`t choose their parents. But women make their own choices, and you help them just because they`re unhappy.

MARINA PESLAKOVA: When she chooses her husband, she doesn`t expect that he`ll demean her, beat her, beat the children and put her down. When a man proposes, he usually says “I love you… We`ll live happily…”

PRESENTER: We journalists have a dilemma – should we discuss problems which are purely domestic? OK, so a man behaves badly towards his wife. Is it important that this is discussed outside the family? How appropriate is it, given our Russian and Christian values?

MARINA PESLAKOVA: When we talk about violence, it`s not just a conflict situation. It`s something else. It`s when one side continually dominates the other and doesn`t let up on this control. This domination can escalate, and in our country in particular, it can lead to murder.

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: While you were talking, two guys rang to discuss the matter. And they swore like pigs.

PRESENTER: What didn`t they like?

PRODCTION ASSISTANT: They didn`t like anything at all. They said it was all rubbish and hung up.

The problem of domestic violence has been compounded by a revival of pre-Soviet customs. Russian society has always been patriarchal. Many of its traditions come from Islam, brought to Russia by the Tartars in the 15th century.

In the 16th century, there was a wedding ritual in which a man would present his new son-in-law with a rope. In this way, he passed on the job of disciplining his daughter to her husband. There was also a book outlining the rules of marriage, called `Domostroi`.

MARINA PESLAKOVA: There were instructions on how to make a wife to be more obedient – that means physical punishment. Instructions were like, “Don`t beat against her face – you won`t be able to show her in public. Don`t beat against her stomach if she`s pregnant, because you can harm her baby. Don`t use a fist – it`s better to use a whip, because it is more painful and she will learn better.”

You can find books on domostroi – they were published three or four times during the `90s here in Russia. You wouldn`t find those books published in the Soviet time. That was a way in Russia coming back to the traditions after the perestroika – coming back to the roots of the culture.

Also in those introductions, they would say, “After you beat her, show her how much you love her.” That`s why since that time, we have a saying, “If he beats you, that means he loves you.” I don`t know, but my feeling is that this saying is unique for the Russian culture. That`s what we have to deal with when we work with domestic violence.

23-year-old Elmira failed as a wife even before she married. When her fiancé learned she was pregnant, he disappeared and has never been seen again. Their baby daughter, Alina, is now 3 months old. Elmira and Alina live with her parents and brothers in one tiny room of a communal apartment.

ELMIRA: We live in this room. Five of us.

REPORTER: How many people altogether?

ELMIRA: In the corridor? Around 17 people live off this corridor.

This is the bathroom where we wash. There`s only cold water, not hot. We wash the baby in here. We boil the water with gas and wash her here in the kitchen.

We don`t live, we just exist. My husband disappeared and we can`t find him anywhere. He doesn`t even know he has a daughter.

REPORTER: Does that happen often?

ELMIRA: Yes, it happens often. Lots of men desert. They may be afraid of not being able to support their families. Maybe they can`t support their family. There are no good jobs and wages are so bad. I don`t know. You`d have to ask a man why this happens.

REPORTER: Do you think about remarrying?

ELMIRA: I think about it. But while my daughter is little… I don`t know. Of course I`d like to meet a good man who would love my daughter. Not just me, my daughter as well. And be happy together. Of course I`d want to.

With a huge proportion of Russia`s population in such dire circumstances, it`s hardly surprising that many want to leave the country.

Rosa Sattarova is 31. Like Elmira, she`s a single parent. She and her 11-year-old daughter Elvira have lived with her parents since her divorce. Rosa still dreams of a prince on a white horse, but she`s all but given up on finding one here in Russia. Three years ago, she signed up for an international internet match-making agency, but so far she`s had no success. Today, she`s trying a new agency.

AGENCY MANAGER: Fill out this form, please, and we will put you on our register. Then you`ll become a member of our club, `Happiness of Life`. What do we need for this? We need your agreement. Sign and date this. After that, together we`ll start the search for a suitable partner for you.

This is what we can offer you. You can have a look at these pictures of men here. Check them out and choose the ones you think might be suitable and then we`ll find the addresses for you. We also have the services of an “image maker” who makes you the type of woman Western men prefer. Your image is very important, right?

The ideal that Russian women dream about is to be dependent on a man. That`s no secret. Women here are expected to solve so many problems. So their dream is a husband who`ll be a shoulder to lean on. That`s the way it is.

ROSA SATTAROVA: I like a lot of these guys, but I like this one a lot. He has a gentle face. He`s very handsome, he seems nice. This one too. But compared to the other one, he seems softer.

There are few statistics on the success rates of these international marriages, but many do end tragically for the women involved. Rosa hopes that her story will be a happy one.

REPORTER: What do your family think? Do they know you want to go away?

ROSA SATTAROVA: I think they`ve guessed. In our country, our family circle is very close. They`re afraid to let me go somewhere.

Perestroika did bring opportunities never dreamed of under the Soviets. In 1990, Tamara Chernova started her own newspaper, a newspaper for women. It`s the only one of its kind in all of Russia.

TAMARA CHERNOVA, NEWSPAPER OWNER: We wanted to look at the problems of women in the world through the eyes of women. That`s why we started this paper. It was very difficult because no-one took us seriously. “Why do you need a women`s magazine?” They all thought it was crazy. We found sponsors who said they`d back a political paper. They`d give us money for that. But a women`s magazine? No!

The basic idea was to help women find a dignified position in the world. People have a very narrow perception of women. They see them in the kitchen, looking after children, in the church.

It has been these perceptions which ensured that the fledgling women`s rights movement never stood a chance in Russia.

TAMARA CHERNOVA: If a man hears the word `feminist`, he immediately thinks, “She`s an enemy of men.” We say to them, “No, read our publication.” “It`s feminist,” they say. “Yes,” we reply, “but in what sense?” We want women to find a dignified place in society. We want women to be seen as humans. We want to ensure women don`t experience discrimination. We want women to receive equal pay for equal work. We want women…that if a woman chooses to have a career, society accepts this as normal.

Tamara doesn`t only have to change men`s attitudes.

TAMARA CHERNOVA: Women even vote against women in an election. Why? It`s also an aspect of the female character. “Women can`t do anything for us. Women have no place in politics.” Even women themselves say this. 7 out of 10 will say women should keep out of politics. “They should stay home with the kids.”

Her paper, called simply `Woman`, is still selling well 10 years on. But although its message has yet to penetrate to the psyche of the masses, Tamara remains optimistic.

TAMARA CHERNOVA: What can you expect? We came out of slavery just over 100 years ago. So it`s very hard to change our psychology. And with all that`s going on now, I think we`re making big steps. We`ve achieved a lot.

Rosa hopes that she can find a man who will appreciate her desire to follow tradition. Nicole and Brenda, however, are now used to being independent and self-sufficient.

NICOLE: I don`t like using other people`s services or taking their money. People offer me money, but if someone said, “Here`s some money so you don`t have to dance”, I wouldn`t take it. I`d rather dance and earn my own money. Independence is a personal thing.

Society may not approve of what they do now, but if they get their way…

NICOLE: You know what we really want? We want to be lawyers. It`s not just that I like the idea – I have a lot of interest in it. That would really suit me. We have to know the law because we`re in showbusiness. It`s vital to our life, to know the laws. I don`t so I want to start studying again. I want to enter university. So does Brenda.

BRENDA: But we don`t have money to study yet. You can`t go to university just because you so desire. You need either connections or money.

Capitalist Russia has enriched its elite and impoverished its masses. For women, the options are even fewer, the chances of success even lower. Brenda and Nicole may dream of being lawyers. Their only hope is to use the one talent that money will always buy.