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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Paying for Dreams In a Brooklyn Strip Club

Duped by ads for work as dancers, models and baby sitters overseas, a growing number of Russian women end up forced into prostitution. Russian traffickers have now expanded their market from Western Europe to America.

By Charles Digges

BROOKLYN, New York -- Somewhere beyond the smoky spotlights at a go-go club on Coney Island avenue, Marina, a raven-haired 23-year-old native of Moscow, adjusts her G-string and calculates the money she'll make tonight. It's brutally precise math she has learned in her nearly two years working as a sexual slave near Brighton Beach after answering a vague ad in a Moscow newspaper.

"Earn thousands of dollars a month working abroad in a dance troupe," the ad had read. A month and a half after calling the phone number and passing an audition that included stripping to a tape of Duran Duran on a tinny boom box, Marina was living in a run-down Brooklyn apartment with 12 women, four beds, barred windows and almost daily beatings. After a year and a half of that, Marina was sold for $1,000 in February to different "agents" who provide her with an arrangement she finds more reasonable.

"The new agents will let me keep about 70 percent [of money earned]," she said, as opposed to 5 percent with her previous owners. "I have my own apartment these days and buy my own food. The rest goes to them for booking the performances and transportation."

Marina is one of more than half-a-million women worldwide annually lured, duped or kidnapped into the $7 billion global flesh trade, where new Russian traders are increasingly channeling their chattel to the United States. The international bazaar in women is nothing new. Asians have been its staple merchandise for years. But economic unpredictability in the post-Soviet world and the prestige many Russians associate with working abroad has created a whole new population of young women ready to run abroad to chase dreams of financial independence. The women are enticed by promises of work as dancers, waitresses, models, barmaids and baby sitters -- promises that evaporate almost as soon as they arrive at their destination. Since 1991, traditional markets for Russian women have been in Western Europe. But the tide is now shifting westward, according to the U.S. State Department and relief organizations, as tens of thousands of Russian women are ending up in sexual servitude in New York, Washington, Miami and San Francisco.

The State Department estimates that more than two-thirds of the women involuntarily working in America's underground sex trade are from former Soviet republics. The State Department and other organizations also say that U.S. law enforcement and immigration agencies are woefully ill-equipped to combat the influx. Officials usually end up punishing the victims with deportation, while the traffickers remain free.

"Even when we apprehend what we think are Russian women working against their will as prostitutes, they are unlikely to talk about who they work for," said an officer with the New York City anti-organized crime task force, who asked not to be identified. "But if they don't talk, we can't help them and have to turn them over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service."

As Marina quickly found out, the new job in America entailed more than simply dancing if she ever wanted to earn enough money to leave it. Upon her arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport, her new, non-Russian speaking hosts took away her passport and in a confused conversation -- involving gesticulation, drawing on scraps of paper and lots of shouting -- informed her that she owed them $1,800. That sum included the price of her plane ticket, drivers to take her to and from the go-go clubs where she would work, booking fees for the clubs, room and board for the duration of her "contract" -- something she said she never signed -- and a host of bogus visa registration fees. She and her new roommates were also fined by pimps for offenses like forgetting to make their beds, turning up late for work and refusing to indulge in "side work," or paid sex, with customers at the strip clubs.

Marina's handlers encouraged side work -- especially side work without condoms, for which the women charged more -- as a quick way to get out of debt. "At first, I didn't want to do any side work," Marina said. "But without that, I soon understood that I never would have been able to pay back the agents."

The brutal beating of one of Marina's roommates who had refused to prostitute herself also factored into the equation. "They were careful not to hit her in the face, but she couldn't walk for a week," Marina said. While recovering, the woman received no medical attention and was fined for not working. "I understood then that they owned all of us, that we had to do everything they said, including the side work," Marina said.

Soon Marina was turning as many as 20 tricks a night, bringing in $2,000 before dawn. Of that, Marina said, she saw less than $100 a month. "The situation with the new agents is better," she said, indicating with her eyes two burly men by the door of the nightclub. "But they still count the money every single night. I still don't feel free."

According to veteran New York stripper Sonya Kolesnichenko -- Ukrainian by birth, but raised in America -- at least half of the women working in the some 30 clubs where she dances are newly arrived Russians. Kolesnichenko said the increase in Russian dancers has been steady over the past three years. "They're considered exotic, the hottest things since the Brazilians. And they're suckers for any customer who is nice to them, and do lots and lots of side work," said Kolesnichenko.

How such impressive numbers of Russian women are finding their way into seamy Brooklyn strip clubs, massage parlors and brothels, and who is controlling the surging trade, is a matter of dispute. Some experts blame highly organized Russian criminal groups, who are adding prostitution to already established markets in arms and drugs. "Women are a commodity with unlimited financial returns," said Gillian Caldwell of the Washington-based nonprofit Global Survival Network, an organization whose members worked undercover for 18 months, interviewing pimps, gangsters and corrupt officials worldwide to produce a study on the sex trade.

"Drugs and guns can only be sold once. A woman you can sell as many times as you want, just like a slave," said Caldwell. "Recruitment takes place at a low level, using low-level hoods. But they are protected by much more powerful mafia structures and can operate with impunity."

Caldwell's findings are corroborated by a member of a special State Department task force to curtail trafficking of women in the United States, who described the influx of Russians as "an explosion, almost epidemic." One U.S. government study bluntly stated that "the upper echelon of Russian organized crime [is] largely involved in providing the 'roof' for the trafficking operation, while lower level criminals manage the logistics, such as recruitment."

On the street, however, the forces governing these women's lives are not as clear cut. The pimps don't speak Russian, which makes it harder to pin the trade on Russian organized crime and also keeps the women linguistically isolated, said Caldwell. Many women are free to leave their dwellings on their days off, but don't escape because of threats from pimps that their families in Russia will be hurt or killed if they do so.

Some experts question the credibility of these threats as the Russian mafia involvement in the U.S. sex trade appears far less established than in Europe. Caldwell said it was not uncommon for women who had escaped German or Dutch brothels to be killed on their return to Russia. But one Volgograd-born woman who came to America after answering a help-wanted ad for baby sitters and ended up working as a prostitute said the trade in Brooklyn was too chaotic to be true organized crime. "Listen, no one is controlling anything," she said with fatigue. "They gather people. They take their passports. ...They shove you into a basement. No one can control them."

Immigration and Naturalization Service officials also maintain Brooklyn's trade is the work of small-time freelancers. "If organized crime is defined as a huge organization overseeing all of these operations, then, no, we are not seeing that here," said John Wright, head of the INS fraud division. "It's usually nickel-and-dime operators making a few bucks with friends." Wright said that several investigations into Russian mafia activities being conducted by the INS were "certainly priorities," but that "this so-called explosion in the Russian-American flesh trade is not." Gauging the situation is further complicated because some women make up stories of abuse and exploitation to avoid deportation, according to INS officials.

The number of cases where authorities have broken up prostitution rings holding Russian women can be counted on one hand. In November 1995, a Russian woman named Olga Sexton who was believed to have been working as a prostitute was found dead in her apartment in Reisertown, Maryland, with her throat slit. Sexton reportedly worked for Irina Baytler, the ex-wife of Gregory Baytler, whose Bethesda massage parlor, The Russian Touch, was closed down by the police of Montgomery County, Maryland, in March 1996. Six Russian women working at The Russian Touch were detained by the INS for being undocumented workers. Four of the women were deported and the other two left voluntarily. They had come to Maryland after answering ads in Moscow and St. Petersburg newspapers to work as au pairs and maids. Prior to their departure from the United States, the women told authorities the Baytlers had forced them to offer sexual favors to customers and charged them $150 a week for room and board. At night they said they slept on the massage tables.

Bringing people into the United States for illicit purposes is punishable by 10 years' imprisonment under U.S. law. But that law was never brought to bear against The Russian Touch due to lack of evidence, partly because the women refused to testify against the Baytlers. U.S. tax authorities audited Gregory Baytler and froze his $100,000 bank account after finding irregularities. Baytler eventually struck a plea bargain under which he agreed never to open a massage parlor in Montgomery County again.

The INS's Wright conceded few records were kept in the deportation files of the six women. "Our records reflect only that these women are deported for overstaying their visas, not that they worked as prostitutes or sex workers," he said. The Sexton murder remains unsolved. Louise Shelly, an American University expert on Russian organized crime heading a United Nations study on trafficking, says her efforts to document the plight of Russian sex slaves in America is hampered by official indifference toward -- and in some cases participation in -- the business. "The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is complicit with the trafficking on at least a low level when they forge documents and fake passports," she said. "Other law enforcement agents either don't want to admit to the problem or are just plain apathetic. Their attitude is 'let them go if they are naive enough to go.'"

It's time for Marina's routine, and she turns to take the grimy stage, shimmering with pools of beer and surrounded by men. As she ascends the stairs, black and blue welts are visible on her back. "Yes, I've been beaten too, by the old pimps. But I don't want to talk about it," she said, abruptly turning away. But then she paused and turned back. "It was done with a belt," she said. "With a big buckle, if you want to know."

On stage, Marina oscillates to the languid music, outshining the more clumsy recent arrivals. The crowd is loving it. "Shake it, devoochka, shake it," calls out one customer, mispronouncing the Russian word for girl. As he takes a swig of his beer, a friend chides him for using a strange-sounding foreign word. "The Cold War's over," he responds, putting down his beer. "Gotta make 'em feel at home."