CRIME

Moscow’s vices

Prostitutes find profits in perestroika

MALCOLM GRAY December 3 1990
CRIME

Moscow’s vices

Prostitutes find profits in perestroika

MALCOLM GRAY December 3 1990

Moscow’s vices

CRIME

Prostitutes find profits in perestroika

The cozy bar in Moscow’s Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel is a haven for many Western businessmen. After a day spent seeking profitable ventures, the soft music, fast service and drinks create a relaxing atmosphere for weary Westerners. Each evening, the bar is also crowded with attractive women with business propositions on their minds as well: $200 or more for sexual services. Some Westerners have discovered that the prostitutes who are now prevalent in the Soviet Union are often aggressive. A Toronto accountant who stayed at the Mezhdunarodnaya while he set up his firm’s Moscow office recalled a recent encounter with a Soviet prostitute. “I had just climbed out of the shower when someone knocked on the door,” said the man, who requested anonymity. “When I opened it, a woman pushed into the room and asked me if I wanted some company.”

Before glasnost, hard-line communist theorists maintained that there was no reason for prostitution to exist in the Soviet Union because Marxism had eliminated the social and economic evils that forced people to sell sexual services. In fact, prostitutes have always frequented Moscow and other Soviet cities. Now,

under President Mikhail Gorbachev, socialist restrictions against prostitution, which were never firmly enforced, have become even more lenient. As a result, bars in Moscow’s better hotels are filled with high-class prostitutes, known as valutki, who can earn hundreds of dollars a night. And pimps even lounge in parked cars within sight of the Kremlin walls, while the lower-priced prostitutes they control offer their services to men for as little as a few dollars.

Some Soviet sociologists and academics say that growing economic chaos in the Soviet Union, widespread drunkenness among married males and a high divorce rate are some of the factors forcing women to turn to prostitution to make enough money for basic necessities. Olga Denisevich, a Moscow-based writer who has published studies on prostitution, even blames Western influences for a current Soviet fad for beauty contests. According to Denisevich, many young girls go to great lengths to win them and then, tempted by dreams of easy money, end up as prostitutes. Interior ministry statistics show that police across the Soviet Union charged 5,849 women in 1990 for engaging in prostitution. Denisevich said that the

statistics do not accurately reflect the current prostitution boom, and ministry officials confirmed that the statistics referred only to women whom police had actually caught engaging in commercial sex. The penalty for such infractions: relatively modest fines that, for prostitutes who earn valuable foreign currency and who can buy cheap black-market rubles, work out to as little as $5.

The fact that prostitution now flourishes in the officially straitlaced Soviet society clearly comes as a surprise to some foreigners. Last week, one California businessman thoughtfully reflected on American stereotypes of Soviet women as he surveyed the scene in the bar of the Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel. As he did so, his blond companion, whom he had known for only a few minutes, adjusted her scarf to ensure that the Christian Dior label was easily visible and then solicitously topped up his bourbon with soda. The businessman, who asked that his name not be used, took a satisfied sip of his drink. “Most people back home think that all Soviet women look like 500-lb. weight lifters,” he said. “It is hard convincing them that some of the classiest women I have seen in Moscow have been working the bars.”

Certainly, the fashionably dressed valutki are among the most visibly affluent women in Moscow. But restrictive policies that practically bar ordinary Soviet citizens from entering the city’s better hotels mean that prostitutes working for hard currency have to pay numerous bribes, to doormen, police and bartenders, in order to reach the night spots where they charge between $175 and $235 per customer. Last week, 10 prostitutes interviewed by Maclean ’s in central Moscow suggested that Japanese clients are among the most desirable customers. The prostitutes said that the Japanese men rarely quibble over prices. Galina, a dark-haired, 25-year-old Latvian who said that she planned to open a clothing store with her earnings from prostitution, also praised the lavish spending habits of many German businessmen. Americans and Canadians are friendly, but she added that sometimes they want to sit all night in a bar.

Several of the women, including daytime students, factory workers and store clerks, interviewed in Moscow last week said that prostitution was simply part-time, lucrative work that they did at night in pursuit of their ultimate goal: finding a foreigner who would marry them and take them out of the country. And while all of those interviewed denied that they were under the control of a pimp, one of the women confirmed that many prostitutes have a working relationship with the KGB, the Soviet secret police. Said Natalia, a petite redhead: “It is true. They let us work here and, in return, they sometimes ask us about certain foreigners.” Still, such Cold War-era considerations are probably of less importance than they would have been five years ago. As the Soviet Union struggles to shift from a Communist past to a future governed by market economics, the business that is flourishing is the one that is known as the oldest profession.

MALCOLM GRAY

in Moscow