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‘We ought to call this what it is: injustice’ Inside Russia’s beauty pageant industry

Meduza
The “Miss Syktyvkar” contest, December 9, 2017
The “Miss Syktyvkar” contest, December 9, 2017
Kirill Shuchalin / 7x7

Every year, there are hundreds of beauty pageants staged throughout Russia, where women in towns, businesses, professional associations, and fanclubs battle to be crowned the prettiest. Local entrepreneurs run most of these contests using their own money or funds from sponsors. Only some of the winners go on to compete nationally and internationally. To understand why these pageants still exist in an era dominated by Instagram models, Meduza special correspondent Polina Eremenko spoke to dozens of people who organize and compete in Russia’s beauty contests. She also traveled to the capital of Russia’s Komi Republic and attended the “Miss Syktyvkar” pageant in December.

Taking photos in the square outside the Syktyvkar Philharmonic, a young woman in a gray cap models different poses on the advice of her friend, who’s wearing a pink cap. It’s 2 p.m. on December 9, it’s freezing outside, and the sun is setting. The purpose of this photoshoot, the model says, is to “annoy her ex-husband.” A few pictures would be enough to let him know that she’s doing great and she couldn’t care less that he already replaced her with someone new. “She’s smiling, there are no bags under her eyes, she’s in high spirits, and she’s sober as a judge,” her friend says, taking more photos. But why does she need to prove all this, if he’s already her ex-husband? “Let’s not do it,” the woman in the gray cap answers. Then she starts crying. Mascara drips from her long eyelashes.

Today the Philharmonic is hosting Syktyvkar’s first-ever beauty pageant (though organizers will tell you that such events have actually taken place in the city off and on for the past 30 years). The two women taking photos outside the contest are well aware that entering the pageant could be an even better way to get back at the ex-husband, but they ultimately abandon the idea. “My legs are fat,” the woman in the gray cap says. “To go there, you’ve got to be perfect.”

The whole city seems to be fixated on the Miss Syktyvkar pageant today. In a cafe near the Philharmonic, two different women talk about their friend who traveled two and a half hours from the village of Zheshart to root for her niece, who’s a finalist in the contest. For many years, Zheshart has actually held its own beauty pageant, which it turns out is an excellent way to build social status. It’s too late for the women chatting in this cafe, though: they’re already in their 30s.

The men in Syktyvkar have their own opinions about the city’s beauty contest. Danila drives an open-air tram, playing music from Soviet cartoons and shuttling children to the Philharmonic (even when it’s -12ºC outside). He thinks these pageants help develop the city, and he says he’d definitely attend, if he didn’t have to work until eight in the evening. An older man passing by doesn’t agree. “It’s dirty Jewish bullshit. It’s how they do their bit to recruit for the elite,” he tells Meduza’s correspondent, before shouting, “And the Komi are a made-up ethnicity!”

“There’s not a lot of news in Komi,” confesses Oleg Kanyev, a journalist who works at a local publication called Progorod. He says the beauty pageant injects some welcome diversity into the news cycle. In other local news, for example, the winners of a nationwide “Best Family” contest couldn’t afford tickets to go to Moscow to attend the award ceremony, so instead they were awarded a free thermos. The city is planning to build a new waste incinerator plant, and a man in the downtown area was recently stabbed. Kanyev says the Miss Syktyvkar contest is unlike most of the competitions in Komi, which he says are typically “too focused on ethnicity.” The pageant “demonstrates progress,” he says, explaining that other ways of “publicly capitalizing on women’s beauty,” like Instagram, have yet to reach Syktyvkar. “We’re still running on older software.”

A local club promoter named Dmitry Dik is responsible for bringing the beauty contest to Syktyvkar. Dik is extremely serious about the pageant, and thanks to his dedication and success with finding sponsors, substantial rewards awaited the contest’s top winners. For the desired production value, he copied the balloon decorations from Moscow’s “Fashion Week” festival. To drum up publicity, he brought future contestants to a showing of the controversial film “Matilda,” and later he even released a viral video showing different competitors fighting each other. Promoting the pageant, Dik said the city’s entire glitterati would be present. Even the mayor was expected, though he would also have the option of attending a mixed martial arts tournament scheduled to take place at the same time.

Contestants in the “Miss Syktyvkar” beauty pageant
Contestants in the “Miss Syktyvkar” beauty pageant
Contestants in the “Miss Syktyvkar” beauty pageant
Contestants in the “Miss Syktyvkar” beauty pageant

An hour before the performance got started, chaos descended on the dressing room at the Syktyvkar Philharmonic. The final rehearsal was done and 15 young women were now audibly panicking, interrupting one another, and preparing to go on stage. All of them, with their smooth skin, shimmering hair, and impossibly thin waists, were too pretty for the gauche interior of this Soviet-era building.

“You’re gonna smear it.”

“I hate pickles, but they’re so delicious here.”

“Where’s the oil? I need to rub my legs.”

“My dress makes it look like my nipples are showing.”

“I could eat a whole burger right about now.”

“Don’t talk about food. I’m starving.”

“Where’s mom?”

“I think my chest is flat.”

“I think so, too.”

“Do you have any seamless underwear?”

“Your underwear are showing. Take them off.”

“Does anybody have any valerian root?”

“Pull your underwear up to your tits!”

“Girls, take off all your underwear.”

“There are going to be people in the front row. Am I going to be flashing my muff?”

“Christ, what a delicious sandwich!”

“Is mom getting here soon?”

“My hairdo has flopped over.”

“I want to pee.”

“I need you to put some highlighter on my collarbones.”

“You’re looking at me like an enemy.”

“I’m shaking.”

“I’m right here.”

“Hello? Mom, where are you?”

“They said the questions are going to be the same. We just don’t know who’s going to be asked what.”

“What a disgusting candy.”

“Where’s the lipstick?”

“What are you doing? You’re going out there without finishing your makeup?”

“You’re better off without lips than without a dress!”

“Apply some here. All mine is totally uneven.”

“That’s it. I’m going to kill him right now. He’s dead.”

“Yes, Mom, hello! He can call them himself! Why are you calling me?”

“That’s everything! Everybody, head below!”

At exactly 6 p.m., the girls take the stage in evening dresses as Adele’s “Skyfall” blasts from speakers. There’s not an empty seat in the house. The night before the show, tickets resold on social media for five times their face value.

Salvation from urbanization

“It’s to save women from urbanization and being lost in the crowd, and to raise women’s social prestige.” That’s how Vyacheslav Pankin, the secretary of the Moscow city committee’s Communist Youth League, explained the purpose of “Moscow Beauty” — the Soviet Union’s first-ever beauty contest, held in 1988. The pageant’s organizer, Marina Parusnikova, would later recall how her team only thought to check the contestants’ passports at the finalist stage, when there were only six women remaining. There were some problems with the paperwork. Oskana Fandera, who would go on to a career in film, didn’t have a residence permit to be in Moscow (she had traveled to the city from Odessa). It turned out that Irina Suvorova was a young married mother. “Next on the list, we came to Lena Durneva… It’s silly, of course, but just imagine how it would have sounded: Now meet Moscow’s first beauty queen, Elena Durneva,’” Parusnikova told the newspaper Inostanets. “It was unrealistic to think she could change her surname in one day.”

And so 18-year-old Masha Kalinina became the first Soviet beauty queen. Two years later, she’d be living and working in the United States. Almost immediately, regional beauty contests started popping up. The first Miss Syktyvkar pageant took place later that year, and in 1989 the winners of various republic-level competitions met in the “Miss USSR” contest. After the fall of Communism, by the mid-1990s, there were two major national events: “Miss Russia” and “The Beauty of Russia.” Tatyana Andreyeva, who directs the latter pageant, says her competition is the true successor to the Soviet-era “Moscow Beauty” contest. They’ve even kept Masha Kalinina’s dress in storage, she says.

Masha Kalinina, winner of the 1988 “Moscow Beauty” contest. July 17, 1988
Masha Kalinina, winner of the 1988 “Moscow Beauty” contest. July 17, 1988
Anatoly Morkovkin, Valery Khristoforov, Alexander Chumichev / TASS
Contestants in the first “Miss USSR” beauty pageant, dressed in their regions’ ethnic clothes. Moscow, 1989.
Contestants in the first “Miss USSR” beauty pageant, dressed in their regions’ ethnic clothes. Moscow, 1989.
Dod Miller / Alamy / Vida Press

These two national competitions are just a small slice of a much larger, often messy industry. There aren’t any exhaustive statistics on Russia’s beauty pageant business, but even a cursory Internet search reveals that these contests are happening in virtually every city and region, from Angarsk to Kondopoga, without any coherent system or hierarchy.

Beauty pageants in Russia are held among schoolgirls and married women, among soccer fans and women from the world of blockchain, among pensioners and pregnant women, and sometimes even among men. Whatever the contestants, the procedure is roughly the same: people are judged for intelligence and physical beauty, and there are always judges who select the winner. A pageant’s jury is one of the key measures of its prestige, which is why organizers usually try to invite celebrities — especially foreigners. Hollywood producer Bob Van Ronkel is one of these people. He first visited Russia in 1998 as a representative for Warner Bros. Four years later, after realizing the local demand for a man with his connections, Van Ronkel relocated to Moscow. “I got so many orders — more than I ever had in Beverly Hills,” he told Meduza, recalling the American celebrities he’s helped bring to events in Russia. “It was an exciting and dangerous time. Every month, somebody got killed. So much adrenaline!”

Van Ronkel collected a 10-percent commission for his services. He best remembers being paid $7 million to organize a client’s 30th birthday party, and how Mariah Carey earned $1 million for a 15-minute performance.

As a Hollywood producer, Van Ronkel was actively sought out by Russian beauty contest organizers. He judged at “The Beauty of Russia,” he judged at a competition in Siberia, and he even helped organize Moscow’s “Miss Universe” pageant in 2013, when future U.S. President Donald Trump, who co-owned the contest, was also in Russia. (It was on this trip to Moscow when Trump allegedly hired prostitutes to defile a bed on which the Obamas once slept, according to a notorious and unverified dossier.) Van Ronkel says Tatyana Andreyeva, who runs “The Beauty of Russia,” and Rustem Tariko, the vodka magnate who owns “Miss Russia,” are the only people in the country running “legitimate” pageants. “They aren’t interested in other benefits that some people expect at these events,” he says.

The most institutionalized of all the country’s beauty contests is “Miss Russia,” which is organized by Tariko’s company Russian Standard (Tarika refused to speak to Meduza for this story). Since 2005, the Russian Culture Ministry has even sponsored the “Miss Russia” pageant, and its winners have the right to compete for the titles of “Miss World” and “Miss Universe.” According to the competition’s website, more than 75,000 young Russian women try to join the contest every year. But not just anyone can apply. The show’s rules state that all contestants must be at least 173 centimeters (5 feet, 8 inches) and between the ages of 18 and 23. The women are also forbidden from having any “bad habits,” tattoos, published erotic photos and videos, or a criminal record. And they’ve got to be unmarried. Roughly the same restrictions apply to the women entering “The Beauty of Russia” contest.

“Really everyone should have these qualities,” says Tatyana Andreyeva. “Every girl dreams of becoming a princess, of wearing a crown and a magnificent dress, and standing on stage in the spotlight.” She says all the contestants “grow prettier” after the pageant, pointing out that two women have gone on to become deputies in the State Duma and another now has four children. “This is also great news!”

Finalists at the 2016 “The Beauty of Russia” contest, December 13, 2016
Finalists at the 2016 “The Beauty of Russia” contest, December 13, 2016
Dmitry Serebryakov / TASS / Vida Press
Polina Popova from the Sverdlovsk region, winner of “Miss Russia 2017,” at the awards ceremony. Moscow, Barvikha Luxury Village concert hall, April 16, 2017
Polina Popova from the Sverdlovsk region, winner of “Miss Russia 2017,” at the awards ceremony. Moscow, Barvikha Luxury Village concert hall, April 16, 2017
Vyacheslav Prokofiev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Andreyeva has been running “The Beauty of Russia” since its inception. She says the competition doesn’t turn the “slightest profit,” explaining that the budget depends on sponsors (“sometimes we have to beg — it’s very Russian”), and sometimes the companies are left in debt after the event is done. Van Ronkel also says it’s not like it used to be in the late 1990s — for both his business and the whole beauty pageant industry. Last year, he and his family actually moved back to California, and now he only visits “Russia, Kazakhstan, and Chechnya” on business trips. Back home, he’s working on his wife’s singing career.

Van Ronkel hesitates when he’s asked to name the contestants who impressed him most with their beauty. “I’ll be honest with you: I saw so many beautiful girls in Russia that I can’t remember a single one.”

Not even tempting

Dmitry Dik, the organizer of the “Miss Syktyvkar” pageant, sees the industry’s prospects differently. In 2017, he staged the contest at the city’s Philharmonic, but he said he planned to book an even bigger venue, like the local opera house or ballet theater, if everything went well. According to Dik, the pageant’s initial budget was just 50,000 rubles (about $900). The rest of the money came from sponsors. Dik says he found backers by approaching entreprenuers directly. For example, he says he would see a businessman walking out of a barbershop, introduce himself, and explain how he was seeking 100,000 rubles for his beauty pageant, and then he’d say, “But I won’t even ask you.” The next day, he says the money would be transferred into his account.

But Dik says he doesn’t expect to make a killing on the Miss Syktyvkar contest, whatever happens. “The money doesn’t matter anymore. I have other ways to make a living,” he explains. “I’d like to leave my mark on history.”

Born and raised in Syktyvkar, Dik has been a local small business owner for more than 20 years. In 1995, he and his friends opened a club called “Diamond,” but they had to shut it down after three years. “We didn’t want it to be a place where people got hurt,” he says. “It was sad, but I didn’t break. I was lucky. My mom spent a lot of time at church and probably managed to save us through prayer. She believed that clubs are these toxic places where the soul perishes.”

Next, Dik founded his own advertising firm, and before long he started a modeling agency. He says the idea to organize a beauty contest grew out of his work with models. “There needs to be some kind of actualization in the learning process. If we didn’t do these big events, [the models] would have nothing to strive for,” Dik explains. “They’re under our supervision for a month. I saw how raw they started out, and now I see how they stand out on stage. They’ve realized their weapons.”

Bob Van Ronkel believes the beauty pageants in Russia’s provinces are organized mostly for free sex. “All these guys just want to get laid,” he says. “I’ve seen regional contests, and both the level of organization and the quality of the girls leave a lot to be desired. In Russia, there are a lot of assholes in this business.” Meanwhile, according to Van Ronkel, the contestants themselves view the pageant system as a social ladder. “The girls want to win so much and pass to the next level that they’re ready to be with much older men, if they’ll sponsor their participation and sometimes their victory, too,” says the 53-year-old American producer. “It shocked me how many girls in Russia go to these lengths. Of course, it’s not my place to judge a couple’s age difference. The gap between my wife and me is pretty big, but at least she’s 32. It’s not some 18-year-old girl with a 50-year-old sponsor.”

Dmitry Dik says Van Ronkel has it all wrong. “I’ve reached the age when I’m doing this contest more as a father than anything. I’ve got three daughters. My eldest is 27,” he explains. “At this point, I can’t look at [the contestants] as anything but a father. They simply don’t interest me [sexually].” Evgeny Popov, who runs another regional beauty pageant called “Miss Kursk,” also rejects Van Ronkel’s depiction of the industry. “Finding a woman isn’t a problem for me. I’m not old, and I’m smart and handsome,” Popov declares confidently. “It’s not even tempting. I consider [the contestants] to be my pupils.”

“Miss Syktyvkar 2017” organizer Dmitry Dik
“Miss Syktyvkar 2017” organizer Dmitry Dik
Miss Syktyvkar 2017’s Vkontakte page
“Miss Kursk” organizer Evgeny Popov
“Miss Kursk” organizer Evgeny Popov
Evgeny Popov’s Vkontakte page

Popov’s road to organizing beauty contests took many twists and turns. After serving in the army, he went to school to become a gynecologist. Later, he headed a funeral home. “I’ve lived my whole life off the cuff,” Popov says. “My ex-wife and I met in med school, when I was training to become a gynecologist. I spent a few years working as a gynecologist, earning what I could. When I was offered the chance to work in funeral services, I became a co-founder. Thanks to this, I came into some money, and then I was called to do a beauty pageant.”

Like Dmitry Dik, Popov initially rounded up sponsorships to run his competition. Now he’s investing his own money in the project, profiting off the Kursk beauty salon “Aphrodite,” but he admits that business has been tougher in recent years. In the mid-2000s, Popov could afford to invite Pierre Narcisse to perform his hit song “Chocolate Rabbit,” but now you’ll only see “Kursk Kid” opening for the pop group “Ruki Vverkh!” (Hands Up!).

Either way, Popov says he doesn’t consider his beauty contests to be a business. “Miss Kursk” is more about generating publicity (“I make connections, gain visibility, and meet people in the government”), and it also has certain psychological advantages. Popov brags about “incubating beauties,” saying that “beauty attracts.” “I used to be flattered to see envy in men’s eyes,” he explains. “Now [the pageant] gives me self-confidence.”

Popov says he considers “Miss Kursk” contestants to be his “work material.” “I don’t see them as girls,” he explains. “It’s the same as with medicine. Can you grab a knife and cut open somebody’s stomach? No! Whereas a doctor not only can do this, but he must. You never know what you’re capable of until you try it. [...] It was like this working at the funeral home: the dead man doesn’t need anything, but how many loving relatives did he have? Working with people isn’t some brainless slog — it’s precise, psychological work. Say a girl comes along and isn’t quite sure of herself. Tell her that she’s cow and she’ll leap straight from the ninth floor. And they’re also ungrateful!”

Popov says he literally finds his pageant winners on the street. “One time at a bus stop there was this pretty girl. She was dressed a bit silly, but I saw potential,” he recalls. “I walked over and introduced myself. She was scared. I smiled and handed her my card. Three days later, she called. She ended up winning, and left for Moscow. I don’t know what became of her afterwards.”

Perfection and stereotypes

Marina Nozhenko, who won the “Miss Petrozavodsk 2002” pageant, is 32 years old today. She works at the Kizhi State Open-Air Museum of History, Architecture, and Ethnography, and for the winter holidays she often dresses up as Snegurochka — the “snow maiden” who accompanies Grandfather Frost, Russia’s version of Santa Claus. Every December, whenever she’s browsing social media, she comes across pictures of older women in Snegurochka costumes — women older than forty, she says. “I wouldn’t dare tell them that it’s time they quit all this, but I’ve seen certain photographs online… You’ve got to be able to step back, take a look at yourself, and judge objectively,” Nozhenko says. “We all need to know when to throw in the towel and put away the costume, or however that’s best said. When my time comes, I think I’ll make my peace with it.”

Most of the girls participating in beauty pageants say they do it to please their parents. Just stepping onto the stage, some women say, serves to legitimate their status as a woman. “Beauty contests are about growth; they help you grow up. They should always exist,” argues Van Ronkel. “Talent and beauty are very important when raising a child. Kids should compete — it builds character.” Local state officials often join jury panels at regional beauty pageants, adding prestige to the events and benefitting the participants and winners, he says. A winner told Meduza that the contestants typically look forward to getting married and “one day showing pageant photos to their children.”

Not all the contestants live out their days as a homebody, however. Some of these women open their own businesses, starting beauty salons, dental clinics, or design studios. Others move to Moscow to capitalize on their good looks, finding work in show business. Two “Miss Russia” winners have appeared in music videos by the hip hop artist Timati; another one, Alena Shishkova, had a daughter with Timati while the two were dating, and today she has almost 6 million followers on Instagram; and in films, the 1995 “Miss Russia” winner played a role in Andrey Konchalovsky’s “Gloss,” the 2010 “Miss Russia” winner appeared in Timur Bekmambetov’s “The Darkest Hour,” and the 2009 winner of “The Beauty of Russia” starred in the patriotic movie “Crimea.”

Unfortunately, life takes a wrong turn for some women after they’re crowned beauty queens. The 1996 “Miss Russia” winner was killed in a gang shootout; somebody sprayed “Miss Sochi 1998” with sulphuric acid; the 1998 “Miss Russia” winner was convicted of buying illegal narcotics in New York; and someone stole 4 million rubles ($71,500) from the glove box of the 2011 “Beauty of Voronezh” winner’s car.

Other contestants go onto political careers. Anna Danilova, the 2012 “Beauty of Russia” runner-up, is now the Moscow City Duma Youth Chamber’s deputy chairperson. Anna Tatarintseva, who won the same contest in 2002, serves as a deputy in the Nizhny Novgorod city parliament. Tatarintseva says she joined the competition because she “was a very shy girl” and “needed to do something about it.” She says she decided to enter the pageant “to overcome her fears.” “It wasn’t so much about victory as it was about fighting myself,” she recalls, trying to remember how old she was at the time. “Nineteen,” says her mother, who’s sitting right next to her. Tatarintseva says she doesn’t use her beauty pageant experience as a public servant. “Things don’t break down by gender in my work,” she explains, adding that her “inner confidence” actually repels men. Today she’s 40 and unmarried. “Some people just go cross-eyed — they can’t reconcile ‘beautiful’ and ‘deputy,’” she says. “Attitudes like this start in childhood: the woman is supposed to stay at home and raise the kids, while the man goes off to work and climb the career ladder.”

Anna Tatarintseva, winner of the 2002 “Beauty of Russia” contest, July 26, 2002
Anna Tatarintseva, winner of the 2002 “Beauty of Russia” contest, July 26, 2002
Sergey Miklyaev / TASS
Nizhny Novgorod City Duma deputy Anna Tatarintseva meets with a constituent, December 2016
Nizhny Novgorod City Duma deputy Anna Tatarintseva meets with a constituent, December 2016

Marina Nozhenko, a former “Miss Petrozavodsk,” says she, too, struggled with complexes when she was a child. “I was the kind of person who never smiled in photographs,” she says. Eventually, she and her mother decided to tackle the problem by enrolling her at a modeling studio run by the local rec center. “We learned to sew and sashay. The self-confidence gradually started coming,” she recalls. “The vice principal at my school said: ‘Marina, the Miss Petrozavodsk contest is taking place. Will you try out and represent our school?’” Throughout the entire pageant, Nozhenko says she couldn’t shake the thought that she didn’t deserve to be in the competition. When she won, she says she cried, “like in the movies.” They presented her with a new soundsystem and she got a bunch of invitations to visit local “restaurants, clubs, and saunas.” She had to turn them down, however, because it was time for her to start college.

Even after being crowned a beauty queen, however, Nozhenko says she didn’t totally overcome her introversion. “It added more worries,” she says. “I was supposed to live up to the title, showing no fear, always smiling, and never slouching.” She worked as a model at fashion shows in Petrozavodsk and nearby cities, but they didn’t take her to Moscow. She competed in another two pageants: the “Marya the Fair With the Long Braided Hair Contest” for women with braided hair, and Odessa’s “Miss Tourism International Contest.” After this, she says she realized she was exhausted.

“I decided that I needed to finish this wonderful chapter in my life before it went on too long,” Nozhenko recalls. “I’m a modest person and I’m my own harshest critic. When these fashion shows started happening late at night, I felt that my life as a beauty queen was all people wanting to meet me to get closer to me and my body. I think I got out primarily to make sure this didn’t happen, [tired of] the stereotype that being a model means you’re easy. When I’d meet guys, I’d get embarrassed for the same reason, because I was afraid they were talking to me because I was a “miss” and not because I was a cute, smiling girl.”

Nozhenko graduated from college with a degree in history and translation. Today, she works in communications at a museum in Kizhi, managing visiting delegations that come for conferences. At first, her colleagues didn’t know about her beauty pageant days, and Nozhenko says she was mortified when they eventually found out. “I didn’t want it revealed,” she says. “In these contests, men judge women’s appearances and form ideas about perfection, and later anybody who doesn’t meet this standard suffers for it. Those who happen to be born pretty don’t suffer. We ought to call this what it is: injustice.”

Marina Nozhenko after winning the 2002 “Miss Petrozavodsk” pageant
Marina Nozhenko after winning the 2002 “Miss Petrozavodsk” pageant
Marina Nozhenko at the Kizhi Museum’s stand in Moscow at the 2017 “Intermuseum” festival
Marina Nozhenko at the Kizhi Museum’s stand in Moscow at the 2017 “Intermuseum” festival

The pay at the Kizhi Museum isn’t sky-high, which is why Nozhenko spends her Decembers earning extra cash dressed in a Snegurochka costume at different festivities. She first started doing this in 2002, immediately after winning her “Miss Petrozavodsk” crown, but the man who played her Grandfather Frost turned out to be a drinker and eventually “told her to fuck off.” So Nozhenko found another partner, and the two have been making the holiday rounds every since. She says she’s also become a “strong, independent Snegurochka” who’s capable of working events without a Grandfather Frost at her side.

Nozhenko likes bringing holiday cheer to people, but she admits that the work isn’t all roses. “Some of these guys will pinch your butt. Or they’ll slap it,” she says. Every year, she takes her costume to the dry cleaners, “and it’s obvious that the waist takes the most damage.” When taking photos, the men are eager to wrap their arms around her. “People like to drink at parties. We Russians are warm, open folks, and it’s our mentality to think this kind of touching doesn’t violate personal boundaries. Honestly, when this happens, so long as I have the energy and the strength, I always calmly and delicately remove their hands and laugh it off,” Nozhenko explains. “But then you start getting tired, and your energy fades, and you think: ah, what’s the big deal?”

Nozhenko has heard of Harvey Weinstein and what’s happening now in Hollywood. She says she knows all about “sexual harassment,” speaking the words in English. She told Meduza that she’s experienced “extremely inappropriate” unwanted advances in the workplace. “Some people say that women are the weaker sex, and men should help them carry their bags, for example. I’m not against that. I’m actually pretty old-fashioned that way,” the former “Miss Petrozavodsk” says. “But the reality of the 21st century is that women can’t afford to stay weak. And the men now aren’t as strong as the ones you read about in old novels.”

Straight, white teeth

“Winning a beauty contest can lift women up just as easily as it can tear them down,” says Vlad Metreveli, a former modeling scout who now works as a promoter and recently authored the book “ModelBiblis: The Modeling Business, Russian Style.” “The girl wins and life suddenly seems like a breeze: she’s been given beauty, but this beauty isn’t forever. For many girls, it comes as a great shock. In their 20s and 30s, they’re the center of attention, but then it starts to fade, and later it might end altogether.”

According to Meduza’s calculations, men are not only more likely to act as organizers of beauty contests and serve as judges (of the 40 jury members identified on “The Beauty of Russia” website, only five are women, including director Tatyana Andreyeva), but men also provide most of the industry’s infrastructure. When Meduza tried to contact Elmira Tuyusheva, the winner of the 1995 “Miss Russia” pageant, her husband, Vlad Metreveli, said his wife “doesn’t like remembering that period in her life,” though he was willing to talk while she sat quietly in the next room.

In 1995, Tuyusheva came to Moscow from the city of Obninsk. She found work at a modeling agency, where she met Metreveli. “I immediately decided to put her in a pageant,” the promoter recalls. “I taught her how to behave on stage, getting her to smile. Ela has a dazzling smile, with her straight, white teeth. [...] I made her go out in a swimsuit. She’s from a Tatar family. They’re not some kind of Orthodox family where you’ve got to go around in a headscarf, but the girl was still raised with certain rules. To this day, she still reminds me about it, but I don’t think I pushed her too hard. I don’t think I’m some tyrant at work. In fact, it’s just the opposite — people tell me: ‘Vlad, you should be tougher and more demanding!’”

After Tuyusheva won “Miss Russia,” her professional life didn’t exactly take off, says Metreveli. For weeks, she “just sat around at the office, waiting for something to happen,” he says. When she got impatient with modeling, Tuyusheva turned to acting, playing a model in Andrei Konchalovsky’s 2007 film “Gloss” and taking on a few small TV roles. Then she had a son and decided to devote her life to motherhood. According to her husband, now she spends her days sleeping in late, going shopping, and picking up their son from music school. Sometimes she goes out at night and meets up with her friends. With Metreveli, she watches movies until late at night. “A lot of people dream of a life like this,” her husband says. “Reading your favorite books, going wherever you want, and relaxing.”

“Elmira doesn’t mind sitting in the next room while you talk about her life?” Meduza’s correspondent asked Metreveli.

“We’re different. I like to talk, but she doesn’t,” he said.

“It seems like her life belongs to you.”

“No. But she’s made peace with the fact that I’m going to do what I think I must, no matter what.”

Elmira Tuyusheva appears in “Gloss.”
Elmira Tuyusheva appears in “Gloss.”
Vlad Metreveli
Vlad Metreveli
Vladimir Mukagov / TASS

Metreveli currently heads his third modeling agency, “Casta Model Management,” where one of his colleagues is Dmitry Mikhailov, who served as a jurist at the “Miss Syktyvkar” pageant. While at the contest, Mikhailov also worked as a scout for Metreveli’s agency. Before the show began, he photographed all the contestants in bathing suits and sent the images back to Moscow. A psychologist by training, Mikhailov has been in the modeling industry for 15 years. He says the women he’s discovered have appeared in advertisements for medicines and mineral water.

Now pushing 50, Mikhailov says the models give him an “incentive to exercise.” He says he recently dropped almost 45 pounds and he’s started wearing tight-fitting sweaters. “My wife was jealous at first,” he admits, “but I love my work, and she’s quite happy with the salary I bring home… Now she even asks me how my day went, and I show her [a photo of] the girls [and ask her], ‘What do you think?’”

Mikhail admits, however, that his wife’s concerns aren’t unfounded. “Half of them flirt,” he says. “Today’s young people aren’t like they were in my day. They’re shameless and they talk back — especially the girls. I can’t stand it when some 17-year-old girl comes up to me and says, ‘Hiya, how ya doin’?’ You don’t ‘hiya’ me. You say hello.”

When he’s done talking to Meduza’s correspondent, Mikhailov turns back to the “Miss Syktyvkar” contestants and says, “Kids, go call the others. Tell them that Dmitry isn’t going to wait much longer.”

The importance of wisdom

Twenty-three-year-old Alexandra Senner studied in Syktyvkar to become a physical education teacher. Today she works at a local school as a swimming instructor. She says she loves her job, particularly because the children say they want to be like her, which fills her with confidence. Senner bought a home on her own, and she’s paying off the mortgage on her teacher’s salary, which leaves her with almost no free time. When she can relax, she usually goes to the bathhouses with her relatives. On the evening of December 9, she’s standing behind the curtain at the Syktyvkar Philharmonic, waiting for the beauty pageant to begin, anxiously wondering what it will feel like to walk on stage in a swimsuit.

Like others Meduza interviewed, Senner says she decided to enter the pageant to fight her fears and social awkwardness. She says she’s afraid to talk to strangers, and she wishes the people closest to her could believe in her. Her anxieties date back to her childhood. “Mom was 18 when I was born, and my dad was gone. There was only my step-father,” she says. “Somewhere, I didn’t get enough love. There were certain words I didn’t hear. I wanted to be told that I was loved and that I’d be okay. In the month I spent preparing for the contest, I heard this a lot, and I started to think: hey, maybe I’m not such a bad person, after all.”

In the audience, Senner has the biggest support group of all the contestants: eight women and a child holding up two banners and the girl’s printed-out portrait.

Some of the other contestants came to compete for very different reasons. Shana Orudzheva, who works for the local branch of Russia’s Construction Industry, Housing, and Utilities Ministry, says she entered the pageant because she was bored. “Life is dull in Syktyvkar, and it’s hard to entertain yourself.” She says there’s no point in joining the local theater, and she doesn’t like the people at nightclubs. Anastasia Nikiforova, a choreography student, says she decided to compete because she considers herself a versatile person who is willing to try anything. Another young woman told Meduza that she dreams of leaving Syktyvkar for St. Petersburg. She says she’d prefer a cash reward over a fur coat for winning the contest, so she could afford to buy a college diploma on the black market, rather than spend another three years earning it the old-fashioned way.

“Miss Syktyvkar” contestant Alexandra Senner
“Miss Syktyvkar” contestant Alexandra Senner
“Miss Syktyvkar” contestant Shana Orudzheva
“Miss Syktyvkar” contestant Shana Orudzheva

As the contestants sweat it out backstage, the jury members gather in the Philharmonic’s “VIP section.” There’s the director of a construction company, the head of a flower shop, the owner of a gym, the head of a car dealership, the owner of a jewelry store, the head of a vape club, and even pop singer Mikhail Grebenshchikov, a finalist on the TV talent show “Star Factory.” The pageant’s organizers say they hired Grebenshchikov to perform and serve as a judge because he’s “cheap and flamboyant.” As they meet, the jurists share their first impressions of the contestants. “She has a pretty face, but that’s all. She can’t walk right,” says one of the men. “They’ve all got perfect figures. Great butts on all of them,” another man added excitedly.

The pageant itself breaks down like this. First, the girls walk out on stage, looking beautiful. Music is playing, including the city’s anthem, which rings out: “Once again, we all gather around. Everyone knows Syktyvkar is our town.” Then it’s time for the contestants to answer questions in the “intellectual part” of the show. The young women, who moments earlier were speaking backstage to Meduza’s correspondent with sophistication and poise, now give canned answers, following the unspoken rules of the game.

“Name a woman who is your role model.”

“As Maxim Gorky said: Learn from everyone, and imitate no one.”

“Do you think it’s better to be smart or pretty?”

“The most important thing for women is to be wise.”

“Say you’re working in a store that sells mobile phones. Suddenly Mr. Vladimir Putin walks through the front door and asks what you’re doing this evening. What do you tell him?”

“I’d tell him that I was having dinner with him tonight.”

“What kind of dance would you do for your boss to get a promotion?”

“An improvisational one.”

“What, in your opinion, does it mean to be a successful woman?”

“It’s being a woman who can combine having a career and a family and friendship and love.”

At one point, the pageant’s master of ceremonies decides to liven things up with a joke: “How do you make sure your wife holds up both in the kitchen and the bedroom? You put a bed in the kitchen!” A little bit later in the show, he reminds the audience that “today is a celebration for men.”

After the questions, the contestants are judged on their appearances. The girls come out playing different roles, dressed in various costumes: an Amazonian, a snow queen, a gymnast, Carmen, an angel, an Oriental beauty, and even ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska. Afterwards, people come onto the stage and tie a box of jewelry to a drone, which then flies over the crowd teasing the audience. The giveaway is eventually released to a little girl sitting on her father’s shoulders.

The next routine is the swimsuit presentation — the same moment that worried Alexandra Senner, who was frightened to appear in a bikini in front of so many men. The women strut onto the narrow stage in stiletto high heels, waving racing flags. They are flanked by two men straddling large motorcycles. Each of the contestants has a part to play in a choreographed group act, and then they all walk the runway individually. Senner is the last one up, and she nearly stumbles to the floor on her way back.

After the intermission, the girls change into evening gowns and line up onstage in a semicircle. The winner will get a fur coat and a gift certificate for 100,000 rubles ($1,770). Alexandra Senner places second. There aren’t enough “Participant” ribbons for all the girls, and the mother of a contestant who didn’t get one is screaming at the pageant’s organizers backstage, as the other girls pose for photos with audience members. The after-party is at the “USSR” club (the main rival of Syktyvkar’s “Crimea” club). The young women get drunk on champagne, gobbling up smoked sausage and meat and potatoes, as people dance to music by the Ukrainian group “ESTRADARADA.” The newly elected “Miss Syktyvkar,” 19-year-old Sofiya Afanasieva, tells Meduza’s correspondent that she’s never been in a club before, and that today she’s trying to stay away from men. “To avoid any problems,” she says. “It’s like this for all pretty girls.”

Leaving the Philharmonic, a young woman from the audience talks to someone on her phone. “So who won over there?” she says, apparently asking about the mixed martial arts tournament that took place that same day (which Syktyvkar’s mayor chose to attend, instead of the beauty contest). Then she says, “My mom asks, ‘Why didn’t you enter the pageant?’ Maybe next year I will.”

Story by Polina Eremenko, reporting from Syktyvkar and St. Petersburg, translation by Kevin Rothrock