Blagovescensk, Russia

  • Date
  • 13 July 1999

We walked across the street from the Hotel Zeya to the best outdoor café I’ve seen in Russia with green plastic tables and umbrellas displaying Sprite logos. One vendor sold beer, vodka and soft drinks and a couple of other stalls sold grilled chicken, hot dogs and pizza. We opted for the grilled chicken, served with mounds of sweet white onions and two pieces of brown bread. The roasted skin of the chicken was a bit crunchy and the meat tasted tender and delicious. Just to the left of us were two public fountains with children playing in the water trying to cool themselves in the oppressive summer heat. Twice while eating, a young boy perhaps six years old stopped at our table begging for money.

Around 10 p.m. the tables in the café filled to capacity with young women and men and a few families. After being in Russia for 10 days, this sidewalk café – which could have been in New York, London or LA – seemed the complete antithesis of this country.

Beside us, I saw two young women (Raya and Nadezhda) with typical Russian bleached out hair and asked Sergei, our translator, to find out what product they used for color. I assumed they used peroxide. We approached them and Sergei, in his most diplomatic, straight face, told them I wanted to color my hair like theirs. They were flattered and asked which color I liked better. Not seeing a difference in their blond coloring, I answered vaguely and asked if they color theirs at home. Yes, they use a Ukrainian product similar to Clairol, but ‘much cheaper’.

I invited them to join us for a beer. They accepted, but insisted on paying for their own. I learned both have one child. The 28-year-old married at 16 and had a child at 17. The 30-year-old lost her husband to a heart attack when he was only 28. She now supports her child alone. Both have mothers who agreed to watch their children so the young women could have a very rare night out. They could not believe at 30, I am not married and childless.

One works for a local cafeteria and one for a restaurant a few kilometers out of town. They studied ‘food’ in school, yet could not tell me the best restaurant in town, because ‘we eat at home to save our money’.

Around 10:30 p.m., we left and walked back to Hotel Zeya, where the same prostitutes I saw last night sat in the same spot hoping to make 250 rubles ($10) or 350 rubles ($15) for a ‘session’. The women looked young – 17 to 23 max. As I tried to photograph them, they covered their faces with newspapers. One became angry and walked over putting her hand in front of my lens and motioning for me to leave. I kept standing there and I asked them, ‘why are you ashamed of what you do? You sell your body, but won’t show me your face.’ They heatedly spoke back to me, but my question was a complete waste of time due to our language barrier.

As I walked into the hotel, I thought about a statement made by a male, local professional I’d met earlier in the day when I asked him about the rapid prostitution I’ve seen in Russia. “This is freedom and there are no jobs.”