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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Biznesmenki Of Tverskaya

A busy night at Moscow's 108th police precinct, and it's standing room only in the narrow holding cell. The 32 girls and one young man, looking incongruously well dressed for their humiliating predicament, collectively groan as a fresh carload of suspected prostitutes is brought in. Jammed into the tiny cell is a cross-section of Moscow's prostitute elite, $200-a-night Tverskaya girls squashed together in a crush of high heels and evening dresses like a strange, imploded cocktail party.

"Why don't you come in here with us?" shouts one, easing herself into a corner as she prepares to spend the next six hours in extreme discomfort. "We're just getting cozy."

But for all the forced jollity, the face of Russian prostitution when stripped of its glamorous makeup is not a pretty one. Prostitution is not technically illegal here. But perhaps because the policy has more to do with Soviet-era hypocrisy than modern liberalism, that has not encouraged Russian prostitution to emerge far from the demimonde, with its violence, disease, petty racketeering, coercion and despair.

In the Soviet Union, prostitution didn't officially exist.

"There are no prostitutes in Russia," Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev once wittily remarked. "Only talented amateurs."

Forty years later the amateurs remain, but the contingent of the world's oldest professionals has grown into one of Russia's few booming post-Soviet industries. Spawned in the free-for-all years of the late '80s and early '90s when working as a valyutka, or hard-currency prostitute, briefly became a widespread aspiration, the rise in prostitution and "the mafia" became one of the most enduring buzz-themes in the post-perestroika Western press, and prostitutes one of the country's best-known exports.

But times have changed, and prostitution, as befits the worlds's oldest and most enduring profession, has adapted quickly to the changing demands of a more competitive market. The business of selling flesh has become as cynical and sophisticated as any sex industry in the West.

"We grew up," said a woman who wanted to be identified as "Tanya," a 31-year-old prostitute who began working in Moscow in the late '80s, emigrated to pursue a lucrative prostitution career in Holland in 1990, but returned last year to work in Tverskaya's Night Flight nightclub. "We are real bizinesmenki now."

"Businesswomen" they may be, but in a business which attracts more than its fair share of attention from the police and organized crime. At the bottom end of the scale, the realities of alcoholism, drug abuse and sexual violence are at their harshest. At 2 a.m. near Komsomolskaya Ploshchad, a filthy assortment of alcoholics, hustlers, bomzhi (from the Russian acronym for "of no fixed abode") and "station-whores" wander around the three stations.

"These women will do just about anything for a bottle of vodka or a dose of drugs," said Yury Nemtsov, 23, a patrolman with the transport police, which is responsible for the security of Moscow's stations. "Once they end up here they don't have much choice."

Railway sidings, commuter trains, and cars are the most popular venues, said Nemtsov. "We don't really care where they do it," he shrugged. "As long as it's not rape, we don't have to deal with it."

Two of the young-ish, battered-looking women Nemtsov pointed out loitering around the stations were too drunk and abusive to interview; the others ran away.

Several rungs up the ladder is the most visible face of Russian prostitution, the professional working girls who take to the streets in time-honored fashion to tout for clients. Cheaper girls congregate near the main stations and outside the center, but the more expensive prostitutes congregate along Moscow's main drag, Tverskaya Ulitsa.

On weekend nights it is crowded with prostitutes who gather around the Central Post Office, Pushkin Square, Triumfalnaya Ploshchad, the hotel Minsk and the Karosel nightclub. Though nothing like Hamburg's Reeperbahn in scale, Tverskaya is nevertheless a valuable piece of turf which accommodates a delicate, and lucrative, symbiosis of rival prostitute groups and the police.

"Each pimp has his own spot where his girls stand," explained Captain Nikolai Vishekov, who has worked as a detective in the 108th precinct since 1990. "They make sure that no one else can work on their patch. The girls usually charge around $200 and give half to the pimp in return for protection. I reckon that there is a higher mafia too, which the pimps pay for their space."

The headquarters of the 108th precinct, responsible for Tverskaya Ulitsa and Puskhinskaya Ulitsa, sees between 10 and 80 prostitutes brought in per night. Since prostitution per se is not a criminal offense, other misdemeanors are commonly cited to get the girls off the streets. Though pimping and "running a den of perversion" is covered by Article 226 of the Russian criminal code, with a maximum prison term of five years with confiscation of property, prostitution itself is covered only by Article 164 of the civil code, carrying a fine of the national minimal monthly wage, in practice a total of 60,000 rubles (about $12). In order to obtain a conviction, the prostitute has to confess, and the client has to make an accusation.

"No one is that dumb," said Vishekov. "We usually bring them in for drunkenness, petty hooliganism, not having a Moscow propiska [residence permit], that sort of thing."

Whereas five years ago most of the prostitutes on Tverskaya were Muscovites, Vishekov said, nowadays most are from the provinces, Ukraine and Belarus, making them more vulnerable to police. Not having a residence permit means a fine of up to 600,000 rubles, usually paid by the pimp, and "petty hooliganism" such as being drunk or even swearing in public can mean a jail term of up to 15 days. But these measures are rarely invoked, and, Vishekov joked, most of the prostitutes brought in to the police station are "new faces" who need to be booked, warned and registered. "So that we know who it might be if we find any unidentified bodies," he said wryly.

At least one prostitute has been murdered on Tverskaya in the recent past, a 22-year-old Ukrainian girl who was found battered beyond recognition with an iron bar in a building site near Mayakovskaya 18 months ago. Unusually, the murderer, her pimp, was caught and convicted. In most cases, however, police consider beatings part of the hazards of the job and rarely look into them.

Last year, 15,000 women were murdered in Russia, according to Social Security Ministry statistics, and 14,000 rapes were reported. But, said a ministry spokesman, there is no available statistical breakdown as to how many of these crimes were prostitution-related.

Venereal disease, the more common job hazard, has risen dramatically in the last four years, with syphilis cases increasing by 15 times to 126,000 cases last year. And where syphilis goes, AIDS will usually follow. Lilia Tikhonova, the Health Ministry's chief specialist on sexually transmitted diseases, ascribed the rise to "the complete perversion of the country's morals" and an increase in prostitution. But again, no statistics specifically on prostitutes are available.

In Soviet times, patients with venereal diseases were forced to register all previous sexual contacts and forbidden from further sexual activity, or face a penalty of five years' imprisonment. The disappearance of such draconian legislation has led to a boom in STDs, said Tikhonova.

But clients have more to fear from prostitutes than venereal disease. The key to the official attitude to Tverskaya's prostitution is, it seems, to surrender to the inevitable and maintain a more or less orderly trade, while eliminating the more extreme criminal elements. The local police draw a sharp distinction between what Vishekov described as "honest whores" and the "thieves." The latter rob their clients in various ways, either by having thugs follow the cars of rich-looking clients back to their apartments and bursting in when the prostitute leaves, or, more commonly, administering powerful sedatives to the client and ransacking the apartment at leisure.

The use of so-called "Mickey Finns," or drugged drinks, has increased significantly over the last two years. The most popular drug is clonidine, banned from sale five years ago but still in widespread use, according to Yury Ostapenko, head of the Health Ministry's Toxicology Information and Advisory Center. The drug lowers the pulse and blood pressure, causing loss of consciousness for up to 12 hours and hallucinations for up to three days.

Prostitutes are among the most common practitioners of drugging, said Ostapenko. Foreigners are a popular target, and it is this kind of crime that Vishekov tries to eliminate from his precinct. The "honest" whores are accepted as a fact of life.

"We have to work with them, because there is no way we can get rid of them," said Vishekov. "These girls know many people, and if you pick them up they can tell you a lot about crime."

On the streets, the working girls of Tverskaya seem to have found a common language with the local police. "If we let every girl in Moscow stand out here, the police would chase us all away," said Olga Vlasova, 28, from Ivanovo, Central Russia, who has worked as a prostitute in Moscow for 18 months and has a keenly developed sense of the local status quo. "We don't bother them, and if everything is O.K., they don't bother us. Everyone feeds themselves as they can."

According to several of the prostitutes interviewed on a busy evening in the cells at the 108th district headquarters, that status quo is greased by a healthy dose of bribery.

"Sure, we each give the police 50,000 rubles per night to keep things sweet," said Marina, 22, a cocky, gum-chewing, bottle-blonde from Donetsk in the Eastern Ukraine, who had been brought in after a fight with her boyfriend. She said she had a 2-year-old daughter and was now four months pregnant. "I've been working here for two months now and I know all the girls. When I was new I had problems, but now things are O.K."

"There are many temptations involved in this job," said Lieutenant Colonel Nikolai Polyansky, head of the 108th department, a small, proud man whose voice was nevertheless tinged with a note of cynicism bred of 20 years in service. "But all my officers know that if we discover any evidence of corruption they will be sacked immediately. There has to be honor and respect for the uniform. I tell my boys, 'If you think you can't stand the low pay, find another job, don't shame your epaulets.'"

But a recent police corruption scandal in the neighboring department highlighted just how cozy the relations between the police and the prostitutes can be. In May last year, the entire personnel of the 10th Moscow police precinct, responsible for the area around Belorussky Station, was suspended while an investigation into a police-run prostitution ring was conducted by RUOP, the organized crime squad. Video footage was filmed of officers delivering prostitutes to clients and receiving money, confirmed RUOP spokesman Andrei Pashkevich, and criminal charges were brought against "several" officers. The local police had cornered the prostitution market around Belorusskaya, reported the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, running a 24-hour call-girl service using militia cars to take the girls to addresses in the area.

"We had some problems with prostitution but now they are resolved," said 10th district commander Major Pyotr Primakov. "That is in the past and we do not particularly want to advertise what happened." The Basmanaya district procurator's office which handled the case would not release any details, and 10th district officers on the beat were hostile when questioned about the actions of their former colleagues.

"Once you start to chase people away from something profitable regularly, they will offer you money not to," shrugged Captain Vishekov of the 108th district with remarkable candor. "If you are an ordinary, normal person, not full of laws and ideals, trying to fight crime, and you see all around you beautiful shops full of beautiful things you can only dream of buying, your salary is a million rubles a month and you are eating nasty cheap sandwiches all day which give you stomach ulcers, of course it's hard to resist corruption."

The wealthier clients who prefer to go through the charade of seduction tend to frequent Moscow's many discos and nightclubs, the majority of which are equipped with well-dressed, attractive, often English-speaking prostitutes.

Night Flight, a popular Swedish-run nightclub on Tverskaya whose advertising slogan at Sheremetyevo airport is "Do it Tonight!" is perhaps the best known pick-up joint, though the management are coy about the reasons their club is so popular with single businessmen.

"It is not our business whether a girl is a prostitute or not," said manager Olle Forsberg, 33, who has worked at Night Flight since its opening 4 1/2 years ago. "They are all guests and we treat them as guests."

Girls in Night Flight claimed that they charged between $200 and $500 per night. Most said they worked at the club regularly, and had no pimp, but some said they were students or young mothers who went only once per week to meet and sleep with wealthy

businessmen to supplement their income.

"Olga," 22, a girl of quite piercing beauty from Kharkiv, Ukraine, came to Moscow with a 2-year-old daughter in 1994 after the murder of her husband in a mafia shootout and began working at Night Flight almost immediately.

"Dostoevsky said that the most expensive whore was a wife," said Olga, who admits to marrying her late husband for his money and claims to earn up to $1,000 from a single client. "I only sleep with men I like the look of."

Clients who cannot afford

the high prices of the top-of-the range-girls at Night Flight or Metelitsa (a popular casino and nightclub on the New Arbat) and are reluctant to pick up women off the street usually telephone the pimps directly, ordering the girls sight unseen from classified ads often advertised in newspapers as "massage" or "introduction." One pimp, who wanted to be identified only as "Sasha" runs such a service from a three-room apartment in central Moscow. Sasha, 24, the son of a diplomat who was thrown out by his parents after flunking university three years ago, spends up to $200 per week advertising in Moscow's English-language press because he prefers to work with foreigners who are "kinder to the girls."

"I am a pimp because I am a parasite and a sybarite," he joked. "I make up to $500 dollars per week sitting on my backside. It's better than earning it lying on my back."

Sasha spends his evenings in his messy bachelor apartment with three or four girls, dispatching them with a cab fare to the addresses given by clients. Unlike more professional outfits, he cannot afford a "minder" to escort the girls. His vetting system consists of determining whether the caller is Caucasian by his accent, and by the address. "Yeah, we did have a couple of unpleasant incidents over the last few months," said Sasha, an intelligent but spoiled young man who spent much of his childhood in Soviet Embassy compounds in Africa. "I sent a couple of girls to some Armenians in Baumanskaya who were having a party, but the guys all wanted to have them and wouldn't let them leave. In the end there wasn't much the girls could do. All the men paid, but the girls never worked for me again."

Many of Sasha's girls dream of traveling to pursue careers abroad. Russian prostitution rings have been closed down by police in Germany, Holland, Turkey, Thailand and France, and in some cases the girls -- who in Turkey are known as "Natashas" -- have been lured abroad on false pretenses with promises of jobs.

In one case in Holland last year, a 17-year-old Russian girl was forced into prostitution after having been promised a job promoting cheese. In another case in Germany, a woman who was told she would work as a saleswoman was raped and blackmailed into working as a prostitute in Frankfurt when her captors threatened to mail compromising photographs to her family.

Six murders of prostitutes and a club owner in Frankfurt in 1994 highlighted a bloody turf battle over control of the Russian prostitution monopoly. Vladimir Pron, head of Moscow's 18-strong sex crime squad, described the export of girls as "pure slave trade."

"Russian girls are everybody's favorite," said Tariq Khoury, 38, a Lebanese who runs two nightclubs and a brothel in Toronto, Canada, and "imports" up to half a dozen girls per year from Russia. "If they aren't stupid, they can make very good money by traveling, work for a few years and then marry some rich guy."

Khoury currently has three Ukrainian and four Belarussian girls working for him in Toronto. He said they make more than $1,000 per week, have regular medical checkups and a nice place to live, but did admit that in many countries, specifically in his native Beirut, Russian girls were regularly abused. "Yes, they do get beaten and hit," he said. "But usually only when they get greedy or misbehave."

"In general this isn't such a bad job," said Tanya Burshenko, 26, a haggard and fragile woman from Ukraine who had been picked up by the police on Tverskaya for the ninth time in six months. "I try to choose the clients who don't look violent. We have good relations with the police; they don't beat us or insult us. It's better than working in a factory or being a secretary and having to screw your boss. How else can a girl make a good living in this shitty country?"

Tanya, alone among the girls penned up in the holding cage, had no objection to being photographed, slouching defiantly against the bars as the others cowered.

"Once you do this work," she said. "There's nothing left to be ashamed about."