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‘You could say I was selling him my emotions’ An inside look at Russia’s rental friendship industry

Meduza
Olya Levina for Meduza

In the early 2010s, posts advertising so-called “friends for hire” began appearing on Russian-language websites. They allowed Internet users to pay an hourly fee for an apparently ordinary person to listen to them, give them emotional support, or simply chat for a while as though they really were an understanding longtime friend. This service, at least in its online iteration, was apparently invented in Japan, where even a husband or a daughter can be rented online. There are similar services available in Western countries as well. Journalist Anna Chesova explored Russia’s paid friendship industry from every possible angle exclusively for Meduza.

Note: Some of the names mentioned in this story have been changed at the request of Meduza’s sources.

“I can be a relative or a brother at your wedding on either side of the aisle. I can be your friend at a coffee shop or your travel buddy. I can even be your father or your coworker. Call me!!!!” writes a man named Nikolai. His advertisement has been viewed almost 2,000 times on Avito, a Russian-based classified ads site similar to Craigslist. Searching for “friends for an hour” on the site turns up dozens of comparable propositions from men and women of various ages. Their services tend to cost between 200 and 2,000 rubles an hour. For a price, “friends for hire” are prepared to lend a sympathetic ear, give advice, take a walk around town, go to the movies, or even go out for a drink. The phrase “non-intimate” inevitably appears at the end of every ad. Avito isn’t the only market for these services in Russia: Internet users can hire a friend on Instagram, the Facebook-like social media site VKontakte, and the primarily escort-oriented site Soderzhanki.ru.

Experts believe that the “paid friendship” industry first appeared in Japan, where both individuals and entire companies offer hourly services and occasionally impersonators for more long-term relationships who can play the role of a godfather, a blood relative, or a spouse. One of the largest friendship firms, Family Romance, only employs professional actors. The company’s internal regulations state that no single employee can serve more than five families, and the firm’s founder, Ishii Yuichi, plays the role of a fake husband himself.

You can rent a friend in Western countries, too: sites like Rent a Local Friend and Rent a Friend include hundreds of individuals in various parts of the world, even Africa and Oceania. The American company Rent a Gent allows clients to hire a “respectable-looking” man for dates, celebrations, or bachelorette parties. The company’s site announces that renting such a gentlemen costs as little as “a cheap pair of Louboutins” — $200 an hour.

“I gave her some practical advice and said she had to change something about herself”

“You’re not feminine enough. If I were you, I’d think about changing your image,” my hired friend Sergey instructs. “If I walked past you on the street, I wouldn’t even notice you. See, look at your dress — you’re not going out to milk the cows, are you? And your boots are kind of simple. A woman should be feminine — I mean, that’s how they attract men.”

We’ve known each other for half an hour. I found Sergey through an ad on Avito, and I’m paying him 500 rubles per hour. For that sum, Sergey is willing to “be a good, cheerful friend” and “talk to you about anything, walk around town, go out to dinner, or cook together.” You can also go with Sergey to see a show or an art exhibit, play soccer or video games, grill kabobs, or chat in a coffee shop. Everything Sergey eats or drinks during your time together is on your dime. If his ad is to be believed, though, you’ll get to “avoid boredom and the blues” and have a good time instead.

I thought for a long time about what I’d talk about with my hired friend. In the end, I decided to put all my cards on the table: I’m 31, two years divorced, and it’s been a while since I’ve managed to fall in love. Sergey listens to me for about 15 minutes while I lead him to my favorite square near Patriarch’s Ponds in Moscow and find us an open bench. When we get about halfway there, he realizes what my problem is: I don’t look feminine. Sergey criticizes my dress, my coat, and my boots, and then he uses the women passing by as examples of how I should actually dress. Then, he gets to my haircut.

“What’s wrong with it? It’s just hair.” I’m starting to get nervous — I came here straight from the hairdresser’s.

“There you go — it’s just hair. But it shouldn’t be,” Sergey says in total seriousness. “I mean, you’ve seen how girls get it done. They get a fancy cut, styling, all that good stuff. Makeup doesn’t hurt either.” He also advises me to give my male acquaintances a chance and try to ask them out. Eventually, I get tired of all the criticism, and I ask my hired friend whether I can just interview him as a journalist. Sergey agrees, and we walk to the nearest coffee shop. Of course, I’ll be picking up the bill.

Sergey is 27. He graduated from a teacher’s college and moved to Moscow from Ukraine with his wife for years ago. He works at a shopping site selling spare parts and sometimes works as a delivery guy on the side. He likes destination vacations, cars, and military equipment. He lives in a rented apartment, and his wife is on leave and pregnant with their first child. It was summer when Sergey first came across rent-a-friend ads on Avito while surfing the Web. “I thought, why not give it a try?” he tells me. “You can make a little money and help somebody out at the same time. As I understand it, if someone comes to you with that kind of request, that means they really don’t have anyone to share their life experiences with.” He chose a 500-ruble fee because he didn’t want to “be a jerk”: “Not everybody can pay 1,000 all at once. I understand the situation our society is in right now.”

Sergey’s first client was a young woman around 30 years old. “We met up and talked for an hour. She told me she was having trouble with her husband. She wants a baby, and her husband doesn’t,” my “friend” recalls. “I gave her some practical advice and said she had to change something about herself and also have a real heart-to-heart with her husband so that they could solve the problem together instead of having her sit there and wait it out.”

Then, a 33-year-old man called. He told Sergey over the phone that he had a family, a kid; he said everything seemed normal but that he “wanted to try things out with a man.” “I told him, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you.’ He started asking, ‘Why? What do you mean? You’re being intolerant.’ I explained to him that I’m in a traditional, heterosexual relationship, and I wouldn’t understand him. I would never want to start fooling around, let alone with a man,” Sergey says. “God didn’t create us for men to copulate with men. That’s not something nature made. And it doesn’t produce children. He got the message and ended the conversation.”

Those had been my hired friend’s only two clients before me.

For a couple of weeks after my talk with Sergey, I felt unattractive. Sometimes, I stood for a long time in front of the mirror and tried to pick out signs of “unfemininity.” I still haven’t worn the dress Sergey said would have been better suited to “milking the cows.”

“From a psychological point of view, this is obviously criminal,” said Dr. Viktor Zaikin, a psychologist and a senior lecturer at First Moscow State Medical University. “In my opinion, this person has simply found a way to boost his own self-confidence at the expense of others. It’s unacceptable and wrong. There’s a risk he’ll end up making a big mess of things — at best, he ruins someone’s mood, and at worst, he could worsen that person’s symptoms or even make them undergo some kind of additional trauma.”

Dr. Anna Silnitskaya, another psychologist, noted that “Sergey behaves differently from the way he presents himself.” “In his advertisement, Sergey writes that he’s a cheerful friend who can help you snap out of your boredom, but in reality, this man is selling something entirely different,” she explained. According to Silnitskaya, I experienced a form of “violent communication,” and the person who earned 500 rubles for it had never heard of nonviolent communication, a term for empathetic, understanding interactions that was coined by the American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. “Of course, no one’s stopping anybody from criticizing other people or giving them constructive criticism and selling all that under the guise of having fun. But this… well, it’s a sad story.”

“Life doesn’t excite them anymore”

Sergey’s counterpart Alexander, a 32-year-old from Moscow, has worked in a range of careers since he graduated from what is now the Russian Technological University with a major in instrumentation. He worked in that field for about three months but quickly became bored with his job. Since then, he has worked as an editor at a construction magazine, a street sign designer, and an extra on popular shows like “Modny Prigovor” and Alexander Gordon’s “Muzhskoye i Zhenskoye,” where he earned between 300 and 1,000 rubles a pop. Alexander lives with his mother, runs a video blog, and likes to travel. He once decided to spend two days in Berlin without spending any money. He slept on a bench outside and stowed away on the metro without paying for a ticket.

Olya Levina for Meduza

Now, Alexander makes most of his income on Avito by selling his own possessions. “I’ve got a lot of stuff piled up at home: clothes, old appliances, books, dishes. It’s just piled up over the years,” he told me. “I read an article on the Internet where it said that if you want to start a new life, you have to get rid of all your junk. So I thought, let’s get rid of it, then. That’s what I’ve been doing since January.”

Alexander turned out to be pretty good at getting rid of junk. He even managed to sell off an old pair of raggedy pants and an old skullcap; he had bought the latter ages before in the Crimea and used it to store spare change. Over time, the young man’s acquaintances, and then acquaintances of his acquaintances, began reaching out and asking him to sell their old things too. Now, that’s what Alexander does full time: he finds buyers for his clients, and if they can make a deal, he gets 15 or 20 percent of the profits.

Then, he spotted a link for “friends for hire” on Avito. “I thought to myself, ‘Oho, what have we here! Why don’t I take a crack at this?” I looked at all the ads and got to know the price range, and I decided I’d be able to do it too,” he explained. “I used to go out with my friends a lot and meet a lot of new people, women included. And I noticed that when you’re talking to someone, you can either boost their mood or ruin it. And I thought, why not kick those old habits back into gear? You can even make some money off it.”

Alexander posted his ad at the end of May. He wrote that he would be willing to have a heart-to-heart, listen to his clients talk about their “problems and spiritual struggles,” or just keep them company on a walk “through Moscow’s beautiful parks and boulevards.” The next morning, his first client called. She was crying. The young woman said she had broken up with her boyfriend and she needed to talk to someone about it right away. “I offered to meet up with her, but she wanted to talk over the phone. I heard her out, let her cry it out, and then I told her to find a hobby that could distract her from all those sad thoughts,” Alexander said. “At the end of the conversation, she asked whether she could pay me 500 rubles instead of 1,000. I said, ‘Okay!’ She wired the money to me, and I thought, ‘Oh boy, here we go.’”

Over the course of one fall and one summer, Alexander had 12 clients. He usually gets several messages a week, but not all of them lead to an actual meeting. Some people call once and then fall out of touch. “My clients are mostly women, but it’s not a huge difference. I’d say it’s 60-40. I don’t have any regulars — people just call me once, and that’s it,” he said. “Women often call me in this kind of wilted mood, and I can tell by their voices in the first few seconds that they’re dealing with something in their personal life. But sometimes they just want to chat with someone because they’re lonely.”

Men typically call Alexander out of a sense of apathy. Generally, these clients are at least 30 years old. “They typically complain about how things are too monotonous — life doesn’t excite them anymore. They all say the same thing: oh, it all used to be so much better. When they were 20, they were on fire, they wanted something, they were working toward something. But when they got closer to 30, life got all dull and gray.”

As a hired friend, Alexander usually tells these clients to find a hobby that can “get them excited.” “For me, that’s a cure-all for relationship problems, apathy, and loneliness,” he explained. “Because anything you do won’t just distract you — it’ll be a chance to meet new people with similar interests. If you find your thing, you find your people.”

Alexander never enters into intimate relationships with his clients, and he warns them of that fact ahead of time. “Once, I met with a client; she was 35. We met up for St. Patrick’s Day, took a walk, had some wine,” he recalled. “We spent about two and a half hours together. She told me she was lonely and said something like, ‘I’m getting so old already!’ At the end of our meetup, she hugged me, tried to kiss me, and offered to have sex. You know, come on, let’s go to my place, I can pay extra. But for me, that’s unacceptable, and I also have a girlfriend.”

His last client was a man in his forties. “We met up, and he said, ‘Listen, is it okay if I take care of some of my own business at the same time?’ I told him, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ And he ended up driving around the city for several hours with me in the car. He called somebody every once in a while, solved some logistical issues. And in between, he told me about how he was fed up with his wife, fed up with everything. He said, ‘I’ve lost all my energy, and I just want to vent to somebody.’ In the end, he gave me 2,500 rubles — said he didn’t have any more.”

“I don’t want to throw my depressive phases onto all my friends”

When his wife and teenage son aren’t home, 34-year-old driver Vadim goes on Avito and searches for posts advertising friends for hire. He looks for women who are willing to talk to him over the phone while he masturbates. Vadim doesn’t really mind how old the women are or how they look; the most important thing is for them to consent. Usually, they don’t. “I’ve called people who post these ads dozens of times, maybe even a hundred times,” he said. “But only two people have agreed to do it so far — I paid one woman 500 rubles and another woman 700. Usually, when I tell them what I need, women tell me no right away and hang up the phone.”

Vadim doesn’t feel lonely. He feels happy with his wife, and he doesn’t want to change anything about his situation, but he and his wife have not had a sexual relationship for some time. Vadim eventually came to understand that he had begun experiencing attraction toward men, much like the man who asked for advice from Sergey. Vadim doesn’t know what to do about the situation. He’s afraid to open up to his friends and hesitant to pursue a same-sex relationship. He has tried to have affairs with women on the side, but he doesn’t want a second family. He has hired sex workers three times but says they “just do their business and go.” Half a year ago, he happened across some “friend for hire” ads on Avito and decided to call a woman to talk things out. He finds it easier to speak openly with women than with men. “I was really nervous,” he recalled. “I was so nervous that for the first few minutes, I couldn’t really say anything. At first, we talked about ordinary things, but then the topic of sex came up, and that got me started.”

Now, Vadim regularly searches for women on Avito and asks to call them to relieve his sense of sexual tension. He typically does this when he’s alone at home or on one of his many business trips. “When I do get to talk to someone, I feel a little easier. I get a wave of shame and guilt sometimes, but that passes pretty quickly.”

Vadim is one of the many men who responded to my own ad on Avito. For 500 rubles an hour, I offered to become a “friend” and a “close listener” for anyone who requested my services. One of the three people who agreed to my terms was also willing to tell his story for Meduza on the condition that his name would be changed. All in all, I got dozens of messages and phone calls, and all of my potential clients were men. Most of them wanted to have sex in exchange for money. There were other offers too: one man asked me to be a model “for a private collection, no publication involved.” Another asked me to clean his apartment followed by a “massage and relaxation session” with the owner.

Olya Levina for Meduza

Another buyer, a 30-year-old named Nikolai, said he goes on Avito to find one-time dates. “I used to like to drink. Then, I got addicted to booze. My group of friends outside work disappeared right away. I’m a pretty closed-off person; if I just keep to myself, I’m happy. But we’re social creatures, and I want to have a real-life conversation sometimes,” he explained. “I don’t have any friends — I have acquaintances and old drinking buddies. Sometimes, I just want there to be a lady nearby, someone to sit around with at McDonald’s or take on a ride around the MTsK [a new train line that draws a circle around central Moscow – Meduza]. A walk in the park, going to the movies, going to an art museum. I never feel like going alone. You have to share your impressions with somebody, and you need another person for that.” Nikolai isn’t looking for a sexual relationship. “You won’t find intimate stuff on Avito, and it’s not worth trying to,” he said.

Nikolai is prepared to pay a maximum of 1,500 rubles for a single meet-up. “But shit happens, and I give myself the right to an hour of trial time. If I don’t like the girl, then I pay her, and we go our separate ways.”

When asked why he looks for female companions online and for money rather than going out and finding them in person, Nikolai said, “It’s hard for me to meet new people face-to-face.” “Yeah, there are dating sites,” he explained, “but in terms of money, it all comes out even. You still pay for the date. And where you might end up staying in touch with someone from a dating site, a friend for hire is just someone to talk to once who can keep you company. With them, I don’t have time to get attached.”

43-year-old Alexey, who lives in Moscow’s suburbs, is also primarily interested in one-time conversations. In mid-November, he was on a train home from a business trip when he suddenly had the urge to talk to someone. Alexey has bipolar disorder, and he was in a depressive phase when we spoke. “I can’t sleep, I’m not productive, I don’t feel like doing anything, my memories all seem dark, and I can only think about what’s gone wrong,” he said. “I don’t see any potential in my future, and I just want to talk it out sometimes.”

At first, Alexey went to the dining car to look for someone to talk to, but the only people there were a family that didn’t speak Russian. He decided to order dinner, take out his smartphone, and look for a friend for hire. He had read about this phenomenon at some point and decided to try it out. He found his first “friend” right away and called him immediately. They talked for about an hour. “He didn’t ask me for money for some reason. We just chatted for free. Did it help? Yeah, probably a little. Having that conversation helped me release some of that tension I had inside.”

Alexey has a wife and a large family. He also feels comfortable speaking openly with three or so normal friends, but he still feels the need to hire other friends for pay. “I don’t want to throw my depressive phases onto all my friends,” he explained. “I talk to my wife a lot. Talking to my family is baller. But I want to feel like I have a kind of companion, someone I can talk to without wearing a mask. You can do that when you don’t know the person you’re talking to and you know you’ll never see them or talk to them again.”

“It’s like they opened a new movie theater or a waterpark in town”

Ivan, a 20-year-old student at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, believes what he sells to his clients is a dose of real emotions. He learned that he could sell those emotions for pay two years ago, when he was a high schooler living in Novosibirsk. “I read about rental friends on an English-language site. I started looking around to see whether there was something similar in Russia and ended up on Soderzhanki.ru. You can tell what that website is really for from the title, but it also has a page called ‘Friends for an Hour.’ I put up an ad, and that’s how it all got started. My goal wasn’t so much to make money — it was more like research for me.”

Ivan’s first client was a 35-year-old man who wanted to meet him in person. “I was inexperienced back then, and I was scared because we had written back and forth a lot before that first meetup. This man told me that he had a family, work, and kids, that he’s an exemplary guy and a family man, so there was no question of having an affair or anything like that,” Ivan said. “But he needed a breath of fresh air. He called it ‘young blood’ — he wanted to feel some strong emotions, strong impressions. And I tried to give that to him. You could say I was selling him my emotions.”

The man became a regular client for Ivan, and they met up in person five times. Typically, the client would give his “friend” small gifts, pay for his bill when they went to coffee shops, and sometimes give him tips on top of his regular price. The two “friends” were always looking for a good time: they went bungee jumping, took rental cars on joyrides around town, or just had dinner together. “Sometimes, we would meet up in a restaurant and talk about his problems. Of course, I wasn’t giving him professional psychological help — I’m not qualified for that. But I listened and gave him a look at things from the outside,” Ivan recalled. “He worked in finance, so I didn’t understand anything in his field, but we still talked about his work sometimes. It was like asking a little kid: he would say super un-stereotypical things, and so would I. We talked about his family, his relationships with his kids. I could actually give some advice about that because I wasn’t much older than they were.” After some time, the man moved to St. Petersburg, and Ivan hasn’t heard from him since.

In the year and a half that Ivan has worked as a friend for hire in Novosibirsk, he has had ten clients. On the whole, most of the people who contact him are women around 28 – 45 years old. Ivan said they rarely come to him with specific problems in mind. More often, they just want to chat — about new fashion collections, food, movies, or books. On occasion, Ivan’s female clients would ask him for advice about their relationships with men. Their “friend’s” relatively tender age didn’t deter them in that respect. Ivan thinks these women saw their meetups as a new way of having fun: “They’re bored, they’ve got a routine, and I was something new. It’s like they opened a new movie theater or a waterpark in town. For them, my appearance in their lives was like a new kind of candy that they wanted to try.”

One client made an especially strong impression on Ivan. He was a 45-year-old man, and Ivan met with him in person three times. The man did not have children, and he saw his friend for hire as a son: “It wasn’t really said, but it was felt. Our relationship started moving in that direction. He started introducing me to what was going on in his business, gave me clothes and cologne. Once, he gave me a gym membership as a gift. But then we stopped seeing each other.”

The young man went back to school and took a break in his career for a while. However, just before the FIFA World Cup, he decided to try it out again. Ivan found the popular Western website Rent a Friend and posted an advertisement there. During the course of the World Cup, six visitors to Russia found Ivan and befriended him for pay: three Spaniards, two Germans, and one Portuguese man. Some of them were studying Russian and wanted an opportunity to practice. Others were curious about local sights in Moscow that one wouldn’t find on TripAdvisor. In practice, Ivan acted as a guide for them. He showed them around the city and kept up a friendly conversation.

Olya Levina for Meduza

A number of Russians who needed company to go out or have dinner at a restaurant also found Ivan on the same site. The amount he charged for those meetups depended on their format. “If we’re just walking around and chatting in Russian, then I take 1,000 rubles an hour. If we’re sitting in a coffee shop and the client is telling me about their problems, I charge 1,500 or 2,000 rubles an hour,” Ivan explained. “Because that’s a totally different format. It’s not so easy. I’m maximally involved emotionally, I’m thinking hard to try and help, to find a solution. Sure, I don’t have a background in psychology, but I’ve gone through training, and I have the tools to try and help the person in front of me.”

Sometimes, Ivan doesn’t charge anything at all. That’s how things ended up with his last client, a student about his age. She had an assignment for one of her classes to take a few photographs of Moscow and make a collage out of them. She felt it would have been boring to go about the assignment alone, and her friends were all busy, so the young woman called Ivan and asked whether he would keep her company in exchange for a cup of coffee. “It took us a few hours: we ran around the city taking pictures, brainstorming, putting together collages,” Ivan said. “And in the end, she treated me to coffee as promised. I had a great time, so I didn’t ask for any money.”

Ivan doesn’t think his clients are lonely people. He more often finds them to be misunderstood. “It does happen sometimes that even people who have a large social circle don’t feel understood by the people close to them,” Ivan said. “When we’re young, it’s easier to stay in touch. But then, with age, all our time gets spent on our own lives, work, family. People’s problems start getting overgrown, and their conversations with the people around them are based on those problems. Everyone wants to tug the blanket onto their side of the bed; everyone wants to talk. I think that in that kind of situation, people are prepared to accept the idea of paying for someone to listen to you.”

However, psychologist Dr. Viktor Zaikin suggested that even enjoyable meetings with a “friend for hire” can be harmful for clients. “That story about the man who saw a son in his ‘hired friend’ was very interesting. In psychology, we call that transference. Sometimes, clients can transfer a certain role onto their therapist, say, when there’s some kind of unresolved pathological relationship,” he explained. “That role can be one of a mother, a brother, a son, whoever. A classic take in psychotherapy would be that transference, if it’s not dealt with, can just aggravate the client’s suffering. And a non-specialist would not be equipped to deal with that kind of transference.”

Zaikin argued that someone like Ivan’s client would do better to turn to a specialist, which they could do for free in Moscow. Russia also has a free hotline called a “trust telephone,” which can be accessed at 8 (800) 100-49-94. “You can even find a therapist for the kinds of prices these paid friends name,” Zaikin added. “1,000, 1,500 — that’s an entirely realistic price.”

“They would ask me for advice as though I were their mother”

In the summer of 2018, 29-year-old Kaluga native Yelena Mukhina made a list of 30 careers she thought she might find fulfilling. She separated the points on the list into categories, and next to each one, she wrote down how much she would have to invest, what kind of unexpected problems might come up along each path, and how much she might be able to make in the process. The plan with the highest number of points ended up being opening an agency of friends for hire. Mukhina began doing research on that market in Moscow.

At first, the young woman organized a group on the social media site VKontakte, but that attempt fell apart. Then, she made an Instagram account — and her plan took off. Now, Mukhina runs a staff of 22 “friends for hire,” and they serve around 10 clients each month. Her employees are young people from 23 to 38 years old, and most of them are men. Mukhina met with each of them individually before deciding to take them on. Two of them were educated in psychology, and the rest are “just really cool people.” There’s the “optimistic traveler, Yekaterina,” and the “youth group leader Karina.” Mukhina’s staff turns half of their earnings over to her. An hour of “friendship” with them costs 1,000 rubles, but it’s cheaper to buy friendship in bulk: if you hire a friend from Mukhina for three hours, you can get a fourth for free. Generally, most clients order two hours and pay in advance.

Mukhina admits that her business has seen some “tough going” because it offers what is still “a very exotic service” in Russia. However, she still plans to expand by opening new branches in St. Petersburg and Kazan. “I’m planning to launch our first new branch toward this next summer,” she said. “But we’d need a turnover of at least 1,000 for each 150 rubles we put in each month. And for that, we’d need more clients. As soon as we get this thing off the ground, I’d like to increase our prices to 1,500 rubles and invest in an advertising campaign.”

Her Instagram service tells Muscovites they can feel “a new lease on life after just two conversations.” She employs not only professional listeners but also more exotic specialists like tarologists, astrologists, and numerologists. “I try out all our more esoteric services on myself first. Before, I didn’t believe in any of this at all, but once they had explained my life to me a few times, I was like, ‘All right, then!’ My folks don’t have a starting point of ‘this is your fate’; their starting point is ‘you’re having a rough time right now for this thing, but it’ll be good for this other thing, so my recommendation is that you do this thing right now and think about that thing over there.’ It works — I tried it on myself,” the businesswoman argued. For a cuppa in a coffee shop, an astrologist can put together a personal horoscope for their client, and a tarologist can predict their future. An hour-long session with one of these esoteric friends costs just as much as a meeting with a typical friend for hire.

Clients from outside Moscow can order a personal guide to the city through Mukhina. There’s a “stylist for hire” service too, and it’s run by an entire group of staff members. “One of them was trained as a stylist, and the rest just have good taste. As a rule, what’s involved is a trip to the MEGA Mall. The girl takes her client around to different shops, gives them fashion advice, helps them choose new pieces.” Mukhina tries to keep herself client-oriented: at the end of every meetup, she calls the client and asks whether they enjoyed their time and how it could have gone better. She said she is generally willing to give a client’s money back if their review is negative, but so far, she has not encountered any such cases.

Mukhina is concerned for the safety of her employees, so all of her “friends for hire” meet their clients only in public spaces. She answers all client requests herself and begins by studying the client’s Instagram profile to make sure it’s “alive” (if the account has not been updated or raises any kind of suspicion, she does not arrange a meeting). Every client is asked to sign an agreement promising not to be rude to their paid friend, not to make advances toward them, and not to make physical contact. Physical intimacy between a “friend” and a client is strictly prohibited.

Olya Levina for Meduza

Mukhina said people usually turn to her company “just for moral support,” especially when the clients are women around 25 – 25 years old. “80 percent of them come to us with problems in their personal lives. Men are more likely to call us with ‘straightforward’ questions — they might have something they want to know or find out more about,” Mukhina clarified. She admits that her service can’t help clients deal with their loneliness wholesale, but added, “at least partially solving that problem for somebody — we can do that.”

Her business is based more on its promise than on current profit: Mukhina believes success is “a matter of time.” “At first, my parents said, ‘Now we’ve seen everything! They’ve even started selling friendship.’ But then, after a while, when I explained everything to them, they started taking it pretty well. The same thing is true for clients. If more companies like this start popping up, then in two or three years, people will have gotten used to it, and they’ll start thinking in the positive about friends for hire.”

In 2016, an investor named Irina saw a presentation at a startup conference that she described as “an application like Tinder but for paid friends.” “These guys wanted to do a copy-paste of Western services. It got into their heads that they could make a social project for people who need help. I mean, in Moscow, seeing a therapist can cost from 2,500 rubles on up to infinity. Not everyone can afford that,” she explained. “But the people offering these ‘friend for hire’ services are young therapists who need to build up life experience. The concept was to put therapists just starting out with people who can’t afford more experienced specialists.”

To understand whether it would be worthwhile for her to invest in such a project, Irina decided to take on the role of a client. She did research for a year, and in that time, the investor met with 30 hired friends. To find them, she posted on various websites and waited for someone to respond. Irina didn’t approach each “friend” with the same scenario in mind: “It would all come to me on the spot. I would just look at the person, think up a problem, and pretend that was why I’d called. Sometimes, I didn’t think up anything at all, and I just said, you know, it’s Friday night, and I want to drink, but I don’t have anyone to go out with — let me buy you a round.”

“The first thing that really shocked me was that a lot of young men offered me sex,” the investor continued. “These guys up to around 25 years old would write to me who would be very active about offering me this kind of escort service. They asked for $100 or more per meetup. Or you could subscribe for a month for 30,000 or 40,000 rubles. There were also boys who wanted to add sex in for free. And I’m 43 — for me, that was just hilarious.”

There were also young people who were willing to meet Irina in exchange for food. “There were both girls and boys who made that offer. You know, I don’t need money, we can just chat in a coffee shop, and you can pay the bill. I remember that one time, I spent 1,500 rubles in one go—this guy had a little something to eat, something to drink.” There were even some schoolchildren among the “hired friends”: “When we were planning to meet up, they would tell me they were 18 or 20, and then it turned out they were really 14 to 16.”

Older people responded to the investor’s online posts very rarely, and it was difficult for her to strike up a real conversation with younger people who were still students. Irina said she felt as though she was acting like their friend and not the other way around. “During those meetups, I was mostly playing the role of a mentor,” she explained. “They asked me a lot of questions, like what do you think, what’s the right way to do this in Moscow, how about that, you’re all grown up, you know better than I do. And that was all in spite of the fact that I was the client and I was paying the bill.”

Irina said she was contacted by a man her own age only once, and even then, her “friend” was the one who needed support. His wife had recently passed away, and he wanted to talk to someone because he felt he was closing himself off from the outside world. He said he had liked how Irina looked and decided to contact her.

“My hired friends were typically 18 – 25 years old,” Irina said by way of summary. “They would ask me for advice as though I were their mother. I was the one working, not them. All of these people asked for money. For them, this work was a way to cover up their own needs.” In the end, she decided that it wasn’t worthwhile to invest in the Russian market for hired friends because “our mentality isn’t really about that.” The investor said that, in Russia, people are “really into being consumers.”

Spending all those hours with friends for hire led Irina to the conclusion that services like this make people even more lonely than they already were. “I think people who sell their own friendship are even more lonely than the people who buy it,” she reasoned. “Imagine, I mean, you must have to force yourself to sell that. And it’s cheap. It’s so cheap! These people have no education in the area that would enable them to sell a professional service. These ‘friends’ definitely don’t have skills — they just come to you to recharge and consume your experience, your money, your time, and your knowledge. Yes, paid friends are willing to spend their time on you, but as far as I understood, they have time in excess anyway. That’s not a valuable resource for them.”

Anna Chesova

Translation by Hilah Kohen