By Irina Glushchenko
MOSCOW — "We haven't had a single case of a woman being murdered", the head of a Moscow callgirl agency boasted recently to a reporter for the journal Business World.
For Russian gangsters dissatisfied with the returns from extortion rackets or reselling humanitarian aid, a new source of income is on offer: organised prostitution. The back pages of Moscow's seedier newspapers are now thick with advertisements for "companion" and "escort" services, and with offers of work for "attractive girls without complexes".
It has been some years since the media here broke the news that prostitution, supposed not to have existed in the Soviet Union, was in fact widespread. Nevertheless, the emergence of highly developed prostitution agencies, openly touting their services despite being flagrantly illegal, has come as a shock to many traditional-minded Russians. Is this really what the "reform" process is about — and does adopting Western models mean welcoming this as well?
On further reflection, Russians should not have been surprised that large-scale organised prostitution has emerged as part of the new capitalist order. According to the neo-liberal ideology of the Yeltsin regime, any business is good business, and sex is as marketable a commodity as any other.
Press and television reports on prostitution have often subtly glamorised it. Most importantly, the collapse of the Russian economy has left large numbers of women wondering: "Could life as a prostitute possibly be worse than what I've got?"
Prostitutes in the Moscow callgirl rackets usually work a 12-hour shift, visiting their tricks accompanied by a driver and a bodyguard. For an hour of service, the pimps collect about 7000 roubles (A$35), or twice as much at night. According to Business World, the women themselves receive somewhere between 6000 and 18,000 roubles a shift.
Although most of the takings stay with the racketeers, the women nevertheless earn more in a single night than most of them could make in a month of factory or office work. With average wages now far below the official "subsistence minimum", prostitution is among the few options left for women who want something better than to live on a substandard diet while wearing out their remaining clothes.
For the people who control Russia's prostitution, one of the most profitable directions of expansion is to the West — with the added enticement of earning hard currency. Authorities in the Scandinavian countries have been trying to curb an influx of Russian prostitutes. According to press reports, Russian prostitutes have also been "exported" to the Arab world.
The Russian press has almost never pointed out that many prostitutes are in great peril of contracting AIDS. The government has made no real effort to combat the disease, and few people here have any concept of safe sex. A sense of the degradation and danger of life as a prostitute, including the threat of beatings and rapes, is spreading only slowly.
Among the liberal intelligentsia, prostitution has been a sporadic topic of debate. But the issue that has drawn much of the controversy has not been the pressures that drive women into prostitution, or the need to defend the rights of women once they are in the industry.
Instead, the focus has been whether Russia, as a capitalist state committed to providing the best possible conditions for private entrepreneurship, ought to legalise brothels.