ST. PETERSBURG—The gray Audi slowly pulled up next to me and two friends as we walked along the Moika Canal. The driver’s side window buzzed down and the middle-aged man called out in Russian, “Girls, get in. Don’t you want to get out of the rain?” (Large drops had just started falling out of the sky.) Faced with our polite, “No thank-you’s,” the car crawled alongside us for another minute and then, with a shrug, the driver sped off.
I have discovered that in St. Petersburg, being propositioned for sex is routine for young Russian women, and even for tourists dressed in Puritanical flowered skirts and Birkenstocks. Sometimes a car will pull over and the driver will call out. Other times, men on the street approach you with the phrase “Skolko sto-it?” which means “How much?” One of my friends was sitting at a bus stop when a 60-year-old man wearing a “Fight AIDS” t-shirt came up to her with that question.
The presence of prostitution in St. Petersburg was a familiar concept to me when I first arrived here to study Russian for the summer. The St. Petersburg prostitutes grace the pages of many Russian writers’ greatest works. In the 19th century, Nikolai Gogol wrote about an enticingly innocent prostitute that patrolled Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare. Dostoevsky presented his own romantic version of the St. Petersburg prostitute in Sonya Semyonovna, the teenage prostitute who saves the soul of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. More recently, I remember reading a statistic in high school that 90 percent of women graduating from high school named prostitution as their first career choice.
I don’t know how accurate that statistic is now, or ever was, but my first month in St. Petersburg has shown me that the status of women in Russia is no better than that statistic suggests. Many women here attend university, but a casual glance on the street reveals that women are objectified to a far greater extent in Russia than in America.
Browsing at my bus stop’s street newsstand, I discovered that they sold almost as much pornography as legitimate newspapers. Billboards that line Nevsky Prospect advertise strip clubs with boustier-clad women with underwear around their ankles. A friend of mine sat down outdoors at a cafe near our university only to discover that inside it turned into a strip club. While the program students were emphatically warned to watch out for pickpockets, most of my female friends have found themselves defending more than their wallets from the wandering hands of male strangers. After one of my classmates was aggressively groped on her morning bus ride, my conversation class spent the lesson learning expressions in Russian from “Take your hands off!” to several versions of “Stop it!”
While we have decided to ward off harassment with our paltry broken-Russian expressions, Russian women seem to have accepted this objectification. The proliferation of tight flared pants, sky-high heels and barely-there shirts make the women on St. Petersburg’s streets look like a uniformed parade. Their stick-thin figures seem to have jumped directly out of the pages of the Russian fashion magazines that sit in the corner of my room. Left behind by my host mom’s daughters, the Russian Elles and Vogues display the same fashion spreads and give identical make-up tips as the American versions in my room at home. But unlike in America, where these images of women are viewed mostly as unobtainable ideals, Russian women seem to have taken these images as a mandate of beauty.
The Western media hit Russia by storm after Gorbachev opened the borders with his radical policy of “Glasnost,” or openness, in the mid 1980s. Russians were besieged by Western television, film and fashion. Now, women watch Brazilian soap operas and aspire to dress like Julia Roberts and Giselle. The Western media even seems to have made Russia’s holy babushka (grandmother) an anachronism here.
Before I arrived I fearfully pictured my host mom stuffing unidentifiable meat and cheese down my throat, ready to fatten up any young girl in sight. Instead, I discovered that she carefully watches the weight of her daughter and follows an American book’s advice about eating according to one of the four food groups it delineates. She was shocked I hadn’t heard of the diet guide. These American contributions to modern Russia make the McDonald’s near the Winter Palace seem like a positive cultural addition.
Russian women do have more educational and professional opportunities now than they did in past decades. But it seems that the poor economic conditions combined with the influx of Western beauty standards have pushed many Russian women into a corner that American women don’t face. Every way they turn, they are encouraged to act as objects—and are rewarded for doing so.
I have seen St. Petersburg at its best. Its beautiful buildings are bathed in sunlight almost 20 hours per day because of its northern location. I have gazed at Monets and Picassos in the Hermitage museum for hours. I saw the ballets Swan Lake and Giselle in the same week and have daydreamed to renditions of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky by the St. Petersburg Symphony.
But for now, I am happy that my time in Russia is only a summer visit—because no answer to “Skolka sto-it?” can describe what a woman is really worth.
Anne K. Kofol ’04, a Crimson editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Mather House. This summer she is studying Russian in St. Petersburg and enjoying her blini with chocolate. She vows to be nicer to tourists when she gets back to New York in August.