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‘Mom, is it true?’ What happens when children find out their mother is a sex worker. A report from Russia’s heartland.

Source: Meduza
Sonya Korshenboim for Meduza

No one knows exactly how many sex workers there are in Russia, but the number is said to be in the millions. Most of these people are young women trying to pull themselves and their families out of poverty. Faced with the illegality of their labor, the dangers of the job, and the powerful social stigma that haunts prostitution, Russia’s sex workers walk a tightrope at home, where many feel compelled to conceal or justify the work that puts food on the table and keeps a roof overhead. Meduza special correspondent Irina Kravtsova traveled to Volgograd, Samara, and Ufa, where she met with three such women and spoke to their children to learn how Russia’s sex workers navigate these enormous challenges.

polina’s story

‘I don’t have a single good thing besides my son’

In June 2013, seventeen-year-old Volgograd resident Igor Smolyanov (the names in this story have been changed to protect anonymity) applied to the local police academy. Since the eighth grade, he’d dreamed of fighting crime, just like his father had done in the stories his mother told him. By late August, Igor was accepted to the academy. When he arrived, one of the officers blindsided him with some news: “I don’t know whether you’re up to speed, but your mom’s a hooker. I looked up all the new applicants in my spare time, and she’s got multiple counts of 6.11 on her record.” Article 6.11 of the Russian Code of Administrative Violations is the section about prostitution.

Igor’s mom, Polina, remembers Igor coming out to meet her when she came home that day. “Mom, what’s the deal?” he asked. “How did you get prostitution charges?” Polina’s legs went limp. “How did you find out?” she asked. Igor silently packed his things and left, slamming the door behind him.

Polina grew up in the town of Kalach-na-Donu outside Volgograd. Her mother, always exhausted from working multiple jobs, constantly yelled and cursed at her, whether she “got a B on an assignment, burned a hole in my skirt, or lost a spare ruble,” according to Polina. She often told Polina that she was “not a daughter, but a punishment from God.”

Polina’s mom was especially strict when it came to boys. “If I find out you’re messing around with someone, I’ll tear you to pieces,” she told her. “If you get knocked up, I’ll throw you and your stuff out of the house, and I won’t care that you’re my daughter.”

After moving to Volgograd and enrolling in the Pedagogical Institute, Polina got pregnant. When she told her boyfriend, he got angry, ordered her to get an abortion, and then disappeared from her life. Polina had the baby, dropped out of school, and found herself living in a dormitory storage room.

When her son was five months old, Polina responded to an advertisement seeking “attractive young women.” She was scared, but she wasn’t willing to go back to her mother “with her tail between her legs,” and she was worried about being kicked out of the dormitory and ending up on the street.

With the first money she earned, Polina bought a frozen chicken and a chocolate waffle cake. One meeting with a client had made her enough to cover food for an entire week. She started seeing clients almost every day, and after four years, she was able to buy an apartment on the outskirts of Volgograd. She decided to continue sex work for a few months “to save up some money to transition to a normal job.”

One day, undercover officers came into the apartment where Polina and other women met their clients. It was the late 1990s; administrative fines for prostitutes had just been introduced, and, according to Polina, “the cops were reveling in the new possibilities.” The police stole the women’s money and jewelry and raped them. A judge later found the women guilty and issued a fine.

Around the same time, Polina’s mom got cancer. Before her death, she often said to Polina, “I kept you on a tight leash, and I was right. Look how well everything turned out for you: your boy is growing up, you’ve got a place of your own and a job of your own.” For Polina, this was unbearable. “I wanted to scream, ‘God, mom, you weren’t right at all! Look at me. I don’t have a single good thing besides my son.’”

Sonya Korshenboim for Meduza

After more than four years working as a prostitute, Polina accepted a job offer from her very first client, in the jewelry store he owned.

According to Polina, Igor grew up “fascinated by everything in the world; he did soccer, boxing, swimming, guitar; he loved history; he read science fiction.” Whenever Igor won an award, the two of them would celebrate by going to an amusement park or a cafe. “It never occurred to me to tell him that I worked as a prostitute,” Polina says.

In 2013, after he confronted Polina, Igor went to live with a friend. He remembers how his head was filled with “idiotic porn scenes, with the main role played by his mother.” Sometimes the images would play nonstop in his brain. “I wanted to gouge my eyes out, to unsee it,” Igor says. He often cried.

When Igor’s girlfriend, Katya, found out he was living with one of their mutual friends, she came over and forced him to talk to her. Igor told her about his mom. She was silent for a moment, then said, “Listen, that’s terribly dangerous. Your mom could have been killed. Did you think about that?” She and Igor sat and talked for the rest of the night.

Igor soon stopped blaming his mother, but he became angry at everyone who had refused to help her through hard times, and at the men who had used her. “She was scared, she was young, and nobody supported her. She didn’t have somebody the way I have her. That’s got to be scary,” Igor says.

He returned home a week later. “Mom, what were you thinking?” he asked her. “You could have been killed.” For a while, he was “triggered” by certain things he hadn’t even noticed before, like the “your mama” jokes he heard when playing video games.

In 2015, he took his mom to see a therapist. She helped Polina understand the effect her own mother’s criticisms had had on her.

“From my childhood, my mother instilled in me that I was worthless, and I lived with that until my forties,” Polina admitted. “Even now, when I say she ‘instilled’ it, somewhere deep down I can feel my mother glaring at me, saying, ‘You little shit. I didn’t instill it; it’s just the way you are!’ The fact that my son could accept me changed me.”

In 2013, Igor picked up his documents from the police academy. In the summer of 2014, he enrolled in a university in St. Petersburg. Polina sold her apartment in Volgograd, and moved to be with her son.

Six months ago, Polina learned she has cancer. For support, she now relies on her son and that same client, her only friend, who gave her the job in the jewelry store.

Nadezhda’s story

Not for you to judge’

In 1986, Nadezhda moved to Samara from the country, graduated with honors from trade school, and got a job as a salesperson. One day, one of the customers in the store where she worked invited her to his hotel room nearby. They had a drink and slept together, and in the morning he left some money for her “out of gratitude.” Nadezhda thought, “Why not?” Soon she met some other sex workers, and gradually she “fell into that line of work.”

The nearby hotel was popular with businessmen from out of town, and Nadezhda was “the kind of girl who just caught their eyes — hair, makeup, the whole thing.” The new income allowed Nadezhda to look the way she had always imagined. She bought fur coats, raccoon hats, and stylish tracksuits.

When Nadezhda turned 33, she decided to have a baby. She got pregnant from a friend, and opted not to tell him; she didn’t want to get married, and she didn’t need any help.

She was never afraid that her son would find out about her work; it seemed like limiting herself to out-of-town clients would be security enough. But one day, when her son was 16 years old, he came home and asked, “Mom, is it true?”

“I thought, well, what can I do?” Nadezhda says. “Apparently, the time had come. I repented. I told him, ‘Yes, I committed this sin.’” Her son couldn’t forgive her for about a year. He would snort, slam doors, and talk back to her: “You’re a prostitute! Don’t say anything to me. Don’t come near me.”

Eventually, she started talking to him about it carefully: “It’s how I lived, and whether that’s good or bad is not for you to judge, son.” He gradually started to listen to her without getting hysterical.

“Naturally, all of this was tragic for me. Guilt, shame, it was all there, I experienced all emotions,” says Nadezhda. At some point, she decided that it would be easier for her son if she told him a “fairy tale” about how it had happened. “Why does he need to know my truth?”

Sonya Korshenboim for Meduza

One day, Nadezhda and her son sat down to rewatch the movie Pretty Woman. During the movie, Nadezhda started talking about herself, “turning on the charm.” She told her son how her parents had slaved away in the country, half-starving, and how she had just wanted to live “like a human being.” Her story mixed truth and fiction.

“As the story went on, my imagination was activated — I wanted to believe in the beauty so much,” Nadezhda says. She told him how she wanted to marry a handsome, successful man; how she had to rent an apartment, buy clothes, and help her ailing parents; and how there was never enough money. “I told him that the same story that happened in Pretty Woman abroad happened to me in Russia,” she says.

After that, her son began to relent, but their relationship still hasn’t recovered completely. “Of course, I don’t resent him for it. Maybe one day he’ll grow up and forgive me,” Nadezhda says.

At 53 years old, Nadezhda continues to see clients, but she keeps this from her son. She assured him that it all happened when she was young, and that now she works as the manager of a sauna.

Elena’s story

‘How would we be living if I was working for pennies at a normal job?’

When Sofia was eight years old, she found her mother’s notepad. It was full of men’s names, written alongside dates and ruble amounts. Before that, she’d found a short skirt in the washing machine; she had only even seen her mom wearing dresses or pants. That’s how Sofia first began to suspect that her mother was a prostitute.

Her mother, Elena, had moved to Ufa from the country before Sofia was born. After graduating from college, she started working as a lab assistant in a chemical plant. The pay wasn’t much, but Elena liked the work.

When Sofia was five years old, and Elena was eight months pregnant, Sofia’s husband died of alcohol poisoning. Elena soon made an account on a dating site. “But nobody wanted a vagrant woman with two kids,” Sofia said. So Elena checked the box next to “intimate services” on her profile.

In her first hour of work, she made 2,000 rubles (now about $25), which she used to buy a microwave and a bit of food. Six months later, she had enough for a down payment on an apartment. In the beginning, Elena would receive her clients at home, and Sofia and her brother would stay with the neighbors.

When Sofia was a kid — she’s now 20 — her mom’s work upset her. She would ask her to quit, even wishing for it two birthdays in a row (her 10th and 11th). For some reason, she was never afraid that her classmates would find out and stop being friends with her, but she was afraid for her mother, who told her that she sometimes had “violent clients.”

Several years later, Elena met a man named Oleg. Eventually he moved in with them, and while he didn’t like that she was a prostitute, he didn’t help with the finances, so she continued. Eventually, they had a baby girl, and after two years, he told Elena that he wanted his own mother to raise their daughter. Elena objected, explaining that her work allowed her to provide for her children while still devoting time to them.

In 2016, Oleg took their daughter and Andrey, Elena’s 11-year-old son, on vacation to Egypt. In the hotel, he showed Andrey pictures he’d printed out from Elena’s online profiles. In the photos, she wore bright makeup, no shirt, and revealing outfits. “Look, Andryusha, your mom is a prostitute,” Oleg said. “Do you know what that means?”

When they returned, Andrey told his sister what he’d learned. She was 16 at the time. “He was shocked, in denial of it all,” she said. Neither of them brought it up after that.

Sonya Korshenboim for Meduza

Soon after the Egypt trip, Oleg got some police officers to arrange a sting operation. One of the officers visited Elena undercover, pretending to be a client. Elena had just undressed when investigators and NTV journalists with cameras burst into the apartment.

The footage was aired on a show called “Emergency Situation.” The journalists didn’t obscure Elena’s face, and they used her real name. Because Sofia and her mother had different last names, her college classmates didn’t find out.

Oleg sent the website printouts with the revealing photos to Elena’s parents in the country, in addition to calling Andrey’s school teacher and telling her about Elena’s work. The teacher supported Elena, but Elena’s mother, according to Sofia, never “reached the acceptance stage,” and still considers Elena to have disgraced their family.

Oleg also sued for custody of their daughter, but the court ruled that Elena’s work was not sufficient grounds to take away her custody rights. As a result, Oleg took their daughter and forbade Elena from seeing her.

After a year of fighting to see her daughter, Elena finally despaired and approached a national television station in order to “prove why she was in this situation, and punish Oleg for shaming [her] in front of the entire country.” Oleg brought the printed profiles and photos to the shoot and declared that Elena shouldn’t be raising their daughter. 

Sofia also came to support her mother. Behind the scenes, she was shaking. “It was so scary going in front of the whole country so that everyone would know that my mom did sex work for a living,” she said. But she followed through, even after the producers reneged on their promise to withhold her real last name.

The next time Sofia was in her college lecture hall, she announced, “If anyone has questions for me, better to ask me to my face than behind my back.” But everyone was silent. As far as she can tell, nobody’s laughed at her or acted differently toward her since then.

Elena never had a formal conversation with her children about her work. She’s confident that her relationship with her children is better now, and they no longer argue about it.

Sofia and Andrey almost never discuss their mother’s work, either, but Sofia says her brother “acts out, has difficulty concentrating, and is doing badly in school.” Sofia knows that Andrey gets bullied periodically because of their mom; “sometimes he comes home upset and says, ‘They showed me the pictures of Mom again.’”

Sometimes Elena asks her kids, “How would we be living if I was working for pennies at a normal job?” They usually nod their heads and, it seems to her, “they completely understand.” She once asked her son, “What’s better, an alcoholic parent or a prostitute parent?” “You’re better, Mom,” he said.

“I don’t spoil them, of course, but the kids have everything they need,” Elena says. “My son’s already grown up. He sees how the other boys live, how their parents drink to escape poverty, how sometimes there’s nothing to eat, and how, even though his mom’s a prostitute, his belly is full and he’s warm.”

Sonya Korshenboim for Meduza

Sofia believes that her brother is less upset about his mother’s work as he is sad that he never sees her. Whenever Andrey starts getting bad grades, his mom says, “What am I supposed to do? Sit with you at your desk at school? Then how about you start doing my work for me?” If Andrey asks for money for something expensive, Elena explains that her money is hard-earned, but she never goes into detail.

Today, Sofia and Andrey live with their mother in a three-room apartment that Elena bought after 15 years of work. Sofia doesn’t have many friends, but the ones she does have know about her mother’s work and are supportive. When she meets new people, Sofia worries about them finding out the truth about her mother before she feels ready to tell them herself.

Forty-two–year-old Elena still goes to work every evening. Sofia no longer throws tantrums like she did when she was younger, but she continues to worry about her mother.

According to Elena, even if her children were vehemently against her work, she would continue doing it. “As long as my kids depend on me, they’ll live by my rules,” she says. The average monthly salary in Ufa is roughly 17,500 rubles (about $230), Elena says, while she makes as much as 200,000 rubles a month ($2,600). In the fall, demand is higher, and she sometimes manages to make as much as 250,000 rubles ($3,300). On January 1, 2020, she made 38,000 rubles ($500) from a single client who “really wanted to have a good time.”

Elena’s youngest daughter is now 10 years old. Her father, Oleg, forbids them from seeing each other, so Elena meets her daughter every day after school to walk her home. At first, she worried that her daughter would either stop loving her, hate her, or be afraid of her, but her daughter’s always happy to see her. Elena dreams that one day her daughter will grow up and want to live with her.

Sex work in Russia

There are no reliable statistics on the scale of the sex market in Russia. In 2007, Chairman of the Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin said there were 4.5 million people involved in prostitution in the country. In 2013, according to top officials in law enforcement, Russia had roughly 1 million sex workers. Irina Maslova, the leader of “Silver Rose,” an unregistered organization for sex workers in Russia, says about 3 million people were working in the industry nationally as of 2020. The typical sex worker is a woman between the ages of 25 and 35, with specialized secondary education or incomplete higher education. According to polls, in 80 percent of cases, women do sex work to provide for their children, husbands, or parents.

What do mothers tell their children?

Vera Kolesnikova, a psychologist from the Russian Sex Workers Forum, says the majority of women in sex work don’t tell their children what they do and are afraid of their children finding out. For many sex workers, children are “a resource to keep from going crazy.” Even if a child starts to suspect something, many women deny everything as long as they can.

In one case, an elderly teacher saw one of her students’ mothers along the highway among women known to “service” truck drivers. The next time the student came to school without doing her homework, the teacher got angry and told her that if she continued to do poorly, she would become a prostitute like her mother. The student’s mother soon came to school with a lawyer and got the teacher to recant what she’d said in front of the whole class (the teacher was later fired, as well). She told her daughter a “half truth” — she said she worked as a masseuse.

In another case, a teenage boy joined a group on VKontakte “to make fun of it and masturbate,” and stumbled upon a picture of his mom. His mother told him the picture was Photoshopped, and that it was just someone’s stupid joke.

Russian Sex Workers Forum

The Russian Sex Workers Forum was started in April 2016 to protect sex workers’ rights, stop prosecution of sex workers, and fight societal discrimination. Representatives from the Forum participated in a task force meeting of the UN Committee for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the Forum itself is a member of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. In 2019, the Forum sent a letter to Russia’s government asking officials to exclude the article about prostitution from the new Code of Administrative Violations.

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Story by Irina Kravtsova, edited by Valery Igumenov

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale