With her long fair hair pulled back from her high Slavic cheekbones, Illyana Kovaleva speaks in the soft tones of a well-mannered schoolgirl. But during most of her 2½ months in Canada, Kovaleva has struck a more scandalous pose—that of a nude dancer in striptease bars. Last week, after her arrest and subsequent release into the care of an immigration counsellor, the diminutive 18year-old native of Leningrad offered a bizarre account of being tricked into leading the lurid life of a stripper. At her side were three friends, who supported her narrative of a strange arrangement in which a Toronto-based network attracted as many as 20 Soviet women between the ages of 18 and 25 to Canada with promises of modelling careers. Once in the country, the women said, they were kept prisoners by two men, driven around southern Ontario in a van and forced to work as strippers in bars where they were billed as “The Russian Connection” and “Gorby’s Girls.” Said Kovaleva in an interview conducted in Russian with Maclean’s: “I was beaten several times, and they always carried guns, which they threatened us with. It
was absolute humiliation, but we had no choice.” Kovaleva’s release from that life came after a Russian-speaking bar patron befriended two of the Soviet dancers and called police to the Pro Café, a strip club in Concord, Ont., north of Toronto, on March 31. Officers arrested 11 dancers and two men. The women were released after a two-day detention, but officers charged Ilya Tarnovsky, 30, Michael Zekser, 36, and their eight-month-old company—Inter Continental Agency—with 11 counts each of violating the Immigration Act. The men have not yet retained counsel for themselves, but Tarnovsky hired Toronto immigration lawyer Marshall Drukarsh to obtain the release of one of the girls, whom he plans to wed on April 8. Meanwhile, Kovaleva and seven other women were placed in the care of the Canadian Ukrainian Immigrant Aid Society and a Russian Orthodox church. Two other strippers were released into the care of men who posted bonds. Meanwhile, Pro Café owner Mary Marciano told Maclean ’s that Inter Continental ran a total of 20 Soviet strippers. Immigration officials said that they had not located any other
dancers, but they reported that Soviet authorities had agreed to intercept another group of 35 strippers bound for Canada.
For her part, Kovaleva said that a Soviet woman recruited her and some of the other women by holding a beauty contest in Leningrad, and then obtained visitors’ visas for them from the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. After flying to Montreal, the women were driven to a house in a north Toronto suburb where their escorts took their passports and money. She said that the two men told them that if they tried to escape or get help, Canadian authorities would not let them return home. Kovaleva and her friends said that they had earned up to $300 a day stripping, but added that they had to turn the money over to the men—and received nothing for their labors.
The women also said that the men frequently boasted about the extent of their organization. Said Elizabeth, 18: “They were always telling us that they were not just small-time businessmen, but part of a very well-organized Mafia.” For many Soviets, those threats evoke fears of well-entrenched criminal organizations in their country, such as the 70-year-old “Odessa Mafia.” And since the 1970s—according to several members of Toronto’s Russian community—Soviet criminals in Canada have been importing young women to work as prostitutes, selling Canadian work permits to Soviet newcomers and smuggling works of art and jewelry for sale at underground auctions.
As for café owner Marciano, she said that the men treated their dancers well. “I saw no bruises, or evidence of mistreatment,” said Marciano. She also offered to rehire any of the women who are still willing to dance—if they obtain work permits. She added: “I couldn’t buypublicity like this.” For her part, Kovaleva said that she has no desire to return to stripping, and is undecided whether to remain in the country. But others said that they would like to start a new life in Canada. Indeed, one of the Soviet strippers, Diana Pessotchinskaya, 18, last week married a 23-year-old Toronto man who had hired her as his table dancer at one of the clubs.
Meanwhile, a representative for eight of the women has already demonstrated at least one benefit of life in the free world. Last week, Toronto lawyer Paul Chumak negotiated interviews for them with the U.S. Fox network’s tabloid news show, A Current Affair—at $570 each.
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