Skip to main content
  • Share to or

In the eye of the beholder Why are people in the Russian Far East going under the knife to make their eyes wider?

This article was first published in Russian by the Siberia-based outlet People of Baikal. The following translation appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza in English covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

“Don’t close your eyes! I told you: If you close them, I’ll stop doing the operation and send you home!” the surgeon hissed. 

It was 2009, and Natalya Badmayeva was lying on an operating table at the Republican Clinical Hospital in Ulan-Ude. She tried her best to stop trembling and keep her eyes open. After the surgeon made the last stitch, she told Natalya she could get up and go home. In the corridor, other patients were waiting their turn to go under the knife. 

Natalya, then a 20-year-old lawyer, had undergone eyelid surgery on her lunch break. “The operation took place clandestinely. I actually shouldn’t have been in that operating room,” she explained. “The surgery was over in half an hour.” 

Natalya put on a pair of dark glasses and went straight from the hospital to visit a client. At the pre-trial detention center entrance, she showed the duty officer her ID. “What did you get done? Your dabharyashki?” asked the officer, nodding knowingly. 

The term dabharyashka (from the Buryat word dabharyaa, which literally means “fold”) refers to the skin fold of the upper eyelid. Apparently, the officer had seen Natalya’s stitches through her sunglasses. She was one of the first people in Buryatia to have surgery to change the shape of her eyes. Three years later, she had another operation to make them even wider. 

The names of some of the people in this story have been changed at their request.

Scalpels, needles, and glue 

Many people of Asian descent are born with monolids — an eyelid shape that doesn’t have a crease. And some people go to great lengths to create this skin fold and widen their eyes. For those who undergo plastic surgery, the operation typically involves an incision along the upper eyelid, the removal of “excess” skin and fat, and the application of sutures to create an “eye-opening” crease (also known as a “double eyelid”). 

Blepharoplasty — the medical term for eyelid surgery — is the third most common plastic surgery procedure in the world, after breast augmentation and liposuction. With nearly half a million surgical procedures annually, Russia ranks ninth globally for the total number of plastic surgeries. But for eyelid surgery, Russia is in third place, with more than 92,000 operations in 2020 alone. 

Researchers in Russia note that the further east a region is from Moscow, the more eyelid surgeries are performed there. In Ulan-Ude — the regional capital of Buryatia, with a population of just over 400,000 people — there are about 10 clinics that offer this procedure for prices ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 rubles (about $225 to $335). 

Then there are the companies that offer “medical tours” to neighboring Mongolia. These packages cover a round-trip bus ticket from Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar, the operation itself, and an interpreter’s services. One popular clinic in Ulaanbaatar offered eyelid surgery for just 18,500 rubles ($210). By comparison, a local Korean clinic charged around 160,000 rubles (about $1,800). Performers, entrepreneurs, and officials who want to get their eyelids done usually travel to South Korea, where the procedure costs anywhere from $1,800 to $3,000. 

Other people try to alter their eyelids themselves — using a needle or a sharpened pencil to damage the delicate skin, hoping that the scarring will form a crease over time. Alternative, less painful methods include using eyelid glue or adhesive tape to create a “double eyelid” temporarily. 

Natalya Badmayeva’s mother, Tamara, used a sharpened pencil to break the skin along her own upper eyelids; when the scratches healed, they formed a crease. Natalya would later try to replicate this procedure herself but found it too painful. “I realized that I wouldn’t be able to ‘draw’ a deep enough cut, and so I didn’t keep doing it,” she recalled.

When Natalya was a teenager, her mother bought her eyelid glue, but Natalya found it uncomfortable to wear. “It feels heavy on your eyelid. If you use glue, you can feel how everything is being pulled together. If you use tape, it’s uncomfortable when you blink,” she said. 

Tamara, who has since passed away, never explained why she gave herself eyelid creases or wanted her daughter to have them, too. “I didn’t want to look narrow-eyed. I wanted to look wide-eyed,” Natalya said, explaining her own thinking. “In my youth, Buryats were [considered] village people. Narrow-eyed, swarthy, uneducated, Buryat-speaking — this was the image I was trying to escape. I specifically didn’t learn to speak Buryat and had my eyelids done twice.” 

‘No one told me to my face’

Several sources told People of Baikal that, as children, they dreamed of being ethnically Russian; when their family members spoke their native language, they felt embarrassed and pretended they couldn’t understand them. 

Natalya remembers encountering aggression due to her appearance when she left Buryatia for the first time at age 18. She and her friends were waiting in line at a food stand in Novosibirsk when some old ladies started harassing them. “These old ladies said, ‘Who are you? We don’t go to your country!’ and they pushed us out of the line. We told them we’re from Buryatia, which is part of Russia. We’re citizens of the Russian Federation, just like them. But the old ladies didn’t believe us,” Natalya said. 

People of Baikal

Ivan Romanov, 38, moved from Ulan-Ude to Moscow in 2012. A dentist by training, he spent a year applying for jobs in the capital. However, he found that some dental clinics — including ones at public hospitals — would post job ads explicitly seeking “Slavic” physicians. 

Even clinics that didn’t have this requirement wouldn’t hire Ivan. Having a Russian name and surname was often enough to get him an interview, but they never called him back. All his classmates soon found jobs, but he remained unemployed. “I didn’t understand what was happening. I’d go home, cry because I felt powerless, and get angry,” Ivan recalled. “No one told me to my face that they wouldn’t hire me because I’m Buryat, but the logic was clear.” 

Ivan took screenshots of the job ads from public clinics looking to hire “Slavic” doctors and wrote a complaint to the Russian Health Ministry. In response, ministry officials told him that government institutions don’t place such ads and suggested that the postings had appeared on the website “due to a technical glitch.” (At the same time, they acknowledged that such ads are common among private clinics.)

Ivan believes his dental career didn’t take off because of his appearance. After a year of unsuccessfully trying to land a job in his field, he began working for a company in Moscow selling medical equipment. Today, he runs his own business. 

At 35, Ivan had eyelid surgery to make himself look “European.” A surgeon at a Moscow clinic reshaped his eyelids, creating creases and removing the epicanthus — a skin fold stretching from the upper eyelid, covering the eye’s inner corner. Ivan had dreamed of this since his youth.

No shortage of insults 

The discourse around Asian people’s appearance inevitably leads to a discussion about “narrow eyes,” notes Erzhen Erdeni, a Buryat anti-colonial activist and researcher from the Siberian city of Irkutsk. “The expression ‘narrow eyes’ makes my blood boil,” she said. “Asian eyes can be considered narrow only if they’re compared with European eyes, which are taken as the standard.” 

“Russian speakers have come up with no shortage of insults for Asian eyes,” added Erzhen. 

The activist still remembers the first time she was insulted over her appearance. She was seven years old and walking to school alone in Irkutsk when a group of boys started throwing rocks at her and calling her names. 

People who don’t look “European” encounter racism everywhere in Russia, Erzhen said. After she moved to Moscow to study, for example, uniformed officers stopped her every two weeks or so, asking to see her documents, fishing for bribes, and threatening to take her to the police station. “I could walk with a Slavic-looking friend, and she wouldn’t get asked any questions. But I was stopped all the time — it could happen anywhere,” said Erzhen, who now lives in Tbilisi, Georgia. “I developed a persistent fear of people in uniform that I carry with me to this day. Every time I see a man in a uniform in Russia, my heart sinks, and the anxiety kicks in.” 

According to the SOVA Center, which monitors extremism and hate crimes in Russia, there was a spike in racially motivated attacks in 2023. Researchers recorded at least 60 violent acts last year — up from nine in 2022. In at least 21 of these cases, the attackers targeted people whom they perceived as “Asian.” 

SOVA Center director Alexander Verkhovsky said that while anyone who “looks different” can fall victim to a hate crime in Russia, people of “conventionally Asian appearance” are targeted most often. This includes not only Central Asians but also people indigenous to Russia, such as Buryats, Tyvans, and Kalmyks. “The attacker isn’t asking to see a passport; he’s looking at facial features,” Verkhovsky underscored.  

“If you’re a person of ‘non-Slavic’ appearance in any public place [...] you always have to be on guard. An insult could come your way at any moment,” said Buryat journalist Aleksandra Garmazhapova. “Any old conflict could end with the phrase: ‘Go back to China!’” 

Garmazhapova moved to St. Petersburg with her family at age six. She got involved in political activism in 2005 after far-right extremists murdered 20-year-old anti-fascist activist Timur Kacharava in the city center. She left Russia eight years ago and now heads the Free Buryatia Foundation. 

The Sova Center’s researchers attribute the surge in racially motivated violence in 2023 to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. “War inevitably brings about an increase in aggression in society. Legitimizing aggression is a side effect of war,” Verkhovsky explained. 


‘It’s become part of the landscape’ How residents of southern Siberia show support for a war thousands of miles away


‘It’s become part of the landscape’ How residents of southern Siberia show support for a war thousands of miles away

‘Why am I hurting myself a second time?’

Valentina Radnayeva, the head of the ophthalmology department at the Children’s Hospital in Ulan-Ude, said that people of all ages come in for eyelid surgery. It’s the most common cosmetic procedure in Buryatia, and the hospital accepts not only locals but also patients from Tyva, Khakassia, Altai, and other republics across Russia. “For young people, we don’t remove skin [from the upper eyelid]; we just form a fold. And it turns out beautifully!” the surgeon said with a smile. 

Enkhmaa, a surgeon at a clinic in Ulaanbaatar that patients on medical tours from Ulan-Ude often visit, claimed that eyelid surgery makes people “more beautiful” and more self-confident. She operates on patients 12 and up, so long as minors have parental consent. According to Enkhmaa, there hasn’t been a single case in her 20 years of experience where a patient regretted making their eyes wider (she said that the most common complaints have to do with side effects.) “This surgery changes people’s lives for the better,” the surgeon maintained. 

Natalya, the lawyer from Ulan-Ude, said that she also wanted to have “beautiful” eyes — and that’s why she opted for a second surgery. “I wasn’t satisfied with the results of the first operation. The shape of my eyes looked too natural. I wanted to see a difference. I wanted my eyes to be wider,” she explained. 

People of Baikal

Natalya’s first surgery, at the Republican Hospital in 2009, took place without a consultation and only cost three or four thousand rubles. For her second surgery, she saved up about 20,000 rubles and went to a private clinic. But somehow, she found it scarier. “I remember lying on the operating table and saying to myself, ‘Stupid me! Why am I hurting myself a second time?’ The doctor was polite, he explained everything, there was good anesthetic, but it was still unpleasant,” she recalled.

After the operation, Natalya remained under observation at the clinic for 30 or 40 minutes. Then, her brother picked her up and took her home. She was on maternity leave at the time, so she didn’t have to go back to work. Natalya says the bruises and swelling from the second surgery went away after a few weeks — but to this day, she remains sensitive to bright light. 

“My friends don’t see a big difference between how I looked before and after the operation. But I think that I’ve changed,” Natalya said. “It’s possible that this is how I feel on the inside. I’ve lived with my eyelid folds longer than I lived without them. I’m more comfortable this way.”

Ivan, the dentist, paid 85,000 rubles (more than $950) to go under the knife in Moscow in 2020. “I was conscious, under local anesthesia, and I heard everything the doctor said. He explained what was happening in detail and commented, ‘You were right to get the surgery. You have a large accumulation of fat, and it weighs down your eyelids. It makes you seem sad. We’re going to correct it now, and you’ll look just great!’”

However, Ivan wasn’t happy with the end result. “I went through every circle of hell. It took a long time for everything to heal. I spent a lot of money to remove the scars left over from the stitches. Moreover, the surgeon didn’t stitch the skin of the upper eyelid on one eye properly,” he complained. “My life didn’t change at all. People who know me well noticed that something was different, but it’s usually difficult for them to say what exactly.” 

‘At least you can influence how you look’

Anna Tsyrenova, a 38-year-old from Ulan-Ude, was surprised when she recently learned that all her friends her own age had undergone eyelid surgery by the time they were 20. “Many people hide the fact that they’ve had this surgery. It’s such a sensitive topic that even friends don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “When I finally started asking around, they said they had their eyelids done to look more kempt.”

Anna says it never occurred to her to have eyelid surgery. And she rejects the notion that she has experienced discrimination in Russia — even though she’s been mistaken for a tourist, told that she “speaks Russian well,” and stopped by police officers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. “I don’t judge people who’ve gone to the plastic surgeon and made their eyes wider. I just don’t understand them,” she said.

According to social scientist Maria Vyatchina, plastic surgery can give patients a sense of control over their own lives — even when they feel powerless to influence the world around them. “There are things you cannot change, but you can at least influence how you look. This gives you a sense of agency,” she explained. 


Crossed out On the shore of Lake Baikal, a memorial to Tsarist-era Polish exiles meets an unfortunate end


Crossed out On the shore of Lake Baikal, a memorial to Tsarist-era Polish exiles meets an unfortunate end

The development of new medical technologies is another powerful driver behind the popularity of plastic surgery, making it less risky, less painful, and cheaper. Indeed, certain surgeries are becoming more accessible and even “fashionable,” with trends transcending borders. For example, the eyelid surgery industry in Russia and Mongolia is heavily influenced by South Korea, which, in turn, is largely guided by standards adopted in Japan. 

Vyatchina also pointed to the work of anthropologists Sara Lenehan and Carmen Alvaro Jarrín, who found that the popularity of “nose jobs” in Iran and Brazil reflects shifts in how people signal their wealth and aspirations of upward mobility. The same is true in Russia, where poverty, a lack of social mobility, and patriarchal norms make one’s appearance a type of social currency. 

In this context, what eye shape is considered “beautiful” is directly related to popular attitudes. But, as Vyatchina underscored, beauty standards are far from neutral or implicit — on the contrary, they’re politically charged. “Racism and xenophobia take different forms, including defining dominant beauty standards that leave no room for acceptance and discussing diversity,” she said. “There is so much racism in Russian society.” 

‘Don’t become the dragon’

In the spring of 2022, Free Buryatia Foundation president Aleksandra Garmazhapova launched a campaign for the “Denazification of Russia.” On Instagram, she asked her followers to share stories of their encounters with racism and xenophobia. Over the next three weeks, she received some 4,000 testimonies. 

The responses show that even indigenous people who resemble ethnic Russians — including Udmurt, Chuvash, and other peoples — have to contend with racism in Russia. People recounted how, from childhood, they were censured for speaking their native language. One person said he had internalized the idea that it was “shameful” to be Mari. The campaign received countless emotional accounts: many people had never had the opportunity to talk openly about racism, while others had previously failed to recognize that what they experienced constitutes discrimination. 

People of Baikal

The Russian language often lacks the terminology for discussions about racism and xenophobia. During her interview, Garmazhapova drew attention to how she sometimes slipped into using “not just literal translations but English terms.” Yet, Vyatchina says it’s still important to use these words, even if they seem complex or incomprehensible. Researchers believe that terms more suitable to Russian realities will emerge when Russian society begins to discuss racism actively. 

At the same time, Garmazhapova warned against going to rhetorical extremes, which she believes are just as harmful as not discussing racism at all. “The media, activists, and everyone else must work to avoid becoming xenophobes like Vladimir Putin. When fighting a dragon, you cannot become that same dragon yourself,” she said. “We must make every effort to fight narratives of hatred, racism, and xenophobia and not to end up producing the same ideas, just in a different sauce.” 

Now a mother of two, Natalya says she fears for her son and daughter because they are Buryat and feels the need to protect them from harmful stereotypes. “I understand the attitude the world has developed towards Buryats. The word ‘Buryat’ has become a symbol of savagery and cruelty. People need someone to hate, to take out their anger on. It will be difficult to rehabilitate this general perception and attitude,” she said. 

Natalya remembers how her own mother cared for her, buying her eyelid glue and encouraging her to get “folds.” Assuming her children would share her own insecurities, she tried to take the same approach with them. “I thought, Why don’t I tape my six-year-old daughter’s [eyelids],” Natalya said. “Thank God my child has a brain! She ran around a little and then took off the strips [of tape] I had stuck on her. She thinks she’s beautiful the way she is. She has insecurities, but they have nothing to do with the shape of her eyes.”

Weekly newsletter

Sign up for The Beet

Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.

Story by Olga Mutovina for People for Baikal

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart for The Beet

  • Share to or