Soviet Surreal

11.11.14 10:50 AM ET

Russia’s Gold Digger Academy

In the land of the boom-and-bust oligarchs, hopeful girls sign up for Oliona’s training school to learn how to snag a Moscow millionaire.

“Business theory teaches us one important lesson,” says the instructress. “Always thoroughly research the desires of the consumer. Apply this principle when you search for a rich man. On a first date there’s one key rule: never talk about yourself. Listen to him. Find him fascinating. Find out his desires. Study his hobbies; then change yourself accordingly.”

Gold Digger Academy. A pool of serious blonde girls taking careful notes. Finding a sugar daddy is a craft, a profession. The academy has faux-marble halls, long mirrors, and gold-color-painted details. Next door is a spa and beauty salon. You go for your gold-digger lessons, then you go get waxed and tanned. The teacher is a forty-something redhead with a psychology degree, an MBA, and a shrill smile, her voice high and prim, a Miss Jean Brodie in short skirts: “Never wear jewelry on a first date, the man should think you’re poor. Make him want to buy you jewelry. Arrive in a broken-down car: make him want to buy you a smarter one.”

The students take notes in neat writing. They have paid a thousand dollars for each week of the course. There are dozens of such “academies” in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with names such as “Geisha School” or “How to Be a Real Woman.”

“Go to an expensive area of town,” continues the instructress. “Stand with a map and pretend you are lost. A wealthy man might approach to help.”

“I want a man who can stand strong on [his] own two feet. Who will make me feel as safe as behind a wall of stone,” says Oliona, a recent graduate, employing the parallel language of the gold digger (what she means is she wants a man with money). Usually Oliona wouldn’t even think of talking to me, one of those impossible-to-access girls who would bat me away with a flick of her eyelashes. But I’m going to put her on television, and that changes everything. The show is going to be called How to Marry a Millionaire. I had thought it would be tough to get Oliona to talk, that she would be shy about her life. Quite the opposite: she can’t wait to tell the world; the way of the gold digger has become one of the country’s favorite myths. Bookstores are stocked with self-help books telling girls how to bag a millionaire. A roly-poly pimp, Peter Listerman, is a TV celebrity. He doesn’t call himself a pimp (that would be illegal), but a “matchmaker.” Girls pay him to introduce them to rich men. Rich men pay him to introduce them to girls. His agents, gay teenage boys, search at the train stations, looking for long-legged, lithe young things who have come to Moscow for some sort of life. Listerman calls the girls his “chickens”; he poses for photos with kebab sticks of grilled poussins: “Come to me if you’re after chicken,” his advertisements say.

Oliona lives in a small, sparkly new apartment with her nervous little dog. The apartment is on one of the main roads that leads to billionaire’s row, Rublevka. Rich men put their mistresses there so they can nip in and visit them on the way home. She first came to Moscow from Donbas, a Ukrainian mining region taken over by mafia bosses in the 1990s. Her mother was a hairdresser. Oliona studied the same pro- fession, but her mother’s little boutique went bust. Oliona came to Moscow with next to nothing when she was twenty and started as a stripper at one of the casinos, Golden Girls. She danced well, which is how she met her sugar daddy. Now she earns the basic Moscow mistress rate: the apartment, $4,000 a month, a car, and a weeklong holi- day in Turkey or Egypt twice a year. In return the sugar daddy gets her supple and tanned body any time he wants, day or night, always rainbow happy, always ready to perform.

“You should see the eyes of the girls back home. They’re deadly jealous,” says Oliona. “‘Oh, so your accent’s changed, you speak like a Muscovite now,’ they say. Well, fuck them: that just makes me proud.”

“Could you ever go back there?”

“Never. That would mean I’d failed. Gone back to mummy.”

But her sugar daddy promised her a new car three months ago, and he still hasn’t delivered; she’s worried he’s going off her.

“Everything you see in this flat is his; I don’t own anything,” says Oliona, peering at her own apartment as if it’s just a stage set, as if it’s someone else who lives there.

And the minute the sugar daddy gets bored with her, she’s out. Back on the street with her nervous little dog and a dozen sequined dresses. So Oliona’s looking for a new sugar daddy (they’re not called “sugar daddies” here but “sponsors”). Thus the Gold Digger Academy, a sort of adult education.

“But how can you meet with others guys?” I ask. “Doesn’t your present sponsor keep tabs on you?”

“Oh yeah, I have to be careful; he has one of his bodyguards check up on me. But he does it in a nice way; the bodyguard turns up with shopping. But I know he’s checking there’ve been no guys here. He tries to be subtle. I think that’s sweet. Other girls have it much worse. Cameras. Private eyes.”

Oliona’s playing fields are a constellation of clubs and restaurants designed almost exclusively for the purpose of sponsors looking for girls and girls looking for sponsors. The guys are known as “Forbeses” (as in Forbes rich list); the girls as “tiolki,” cattle. It’s a buyer’s market: there are dozens, no, hundreds, of “cattle” for every “Forbes.”

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We start the evening at Galeria. Opposite is a red-brick monastery leaning like an ocean liner in the snow. Outside the restaurant black cars are quadruple parked up the narrow pavement and onto the boulevard; scowling, smoking bodyguards wait for their masters, who sit inside. Galeria was created by Arkady Novikov: his restaurants are the place to go in Moscow (he also does the Kremlin’s catering). Each restaurant has a new theme: the Middle East, Asia. Not so much imitative pastiche as knowing hints at someone else’s style. Galeria is a collage of quotations: columns, chrome black tables, panels with English paisley fabric. The tables are lit up with cinema spotlights. The seating plan is such that you can see people in other corners. And the main subjects on display are women. They sit by the bar, careful to just order Voss water and thus provoke a Forbes to invite them for a drink.

“Ha, they’re so naïve,” says Oliona. “Everyone knows that trick by now.”

She orders a cocktail and sushi: “I always pretend I don’t need anything from a man.That gets them in.”

At midnight Oliona heads for the latest club. Worming cavalcades of black (always black), bullet-proof Bentleys and Mercedeses move slowly toward the entrance. Near the door thousands of stilettos slide and shuffle on black ice, somehow always keeping their immaculate balance. (Oh nation of ballet dancers!) Thousands of platinum-blonde manes brush against bare, perma-tanned backs moist with snow. The winter air is rent with cries from thousands of puffed up lips, begging to be let in. This is not about fashion, about cool; this is about work. Tonight is the one chance for the girls to dance and glance their way over the usually impossible barriers of money, private armies, security fences. For one evening a week the most divided city in the northern hemisphere, where the mega-rich live fenced off in a separate, silky civilization, opens a little, narrow sluice into paradise. And the girls pile and push and crawl into that little sluice, knowing full well that it will be open for one night only before it shuts them back out in a mean Moscow.

Oliona walks lightly to the front of the line. She’s on the VIP list. At the beginning of every year she pays the bouncer several thousand dollars to make sure she can always be let in, a necessary tax for her profession.

Inside, the club is built like a baroque theater, with a dance floor in the center and rows of loggias up the walls. The Forbeses sit in the darkened loggias (they pay tens of thousands for the pleasure), while Oliona and hundreds of other girls dance below, throwing practiced glances up at the loggias, hoping to be invited up. The loggias are in darkness. The girls have no idea who exactly is sitting there; they’re flirting with shadows.

“So many eighteen-year-old girls,” says Oliona, “breathing down my neck.” She’s only twenty-two, but that’s already near the end of a Moscow mistress’s career. “I know I’ll have to start lowering my standards soon,” she tells me, amused rather than appalled. Now that Oliona has taken me into her confidence, I find that she’s nothing like I thought she would be. Not hard, but soft-drink bubbly. Everything’s just play with her. This must be the secret to her success: the room feels fizzier when she’s there. “Of course I’m still hoping for a real Forbes,” she says, “but if the worst comes to the worst I’ll settle for some millionaire dunce who’s come up from the provinces, or one of those dull ex-pats. Or some vile old man.” But no one knows what a gold digger’s future really holds; this is the first generation to have treated this sort of life as a career. Oliona has a mafia mining town behind her and god-knows-what in front of her; she’s giggling and dancing over an abyss.

Back at the academy the lessons continue.

“Today we will learn the algorithm for receiving presents,” the instructor tells her students. “When you desire a present from a man, place yourself at his left, irrational, emotional side. His right is his rational side: you stand to his right if you’re discussing business projects. But if you desire a present, position yourself by his left. If he is sitting in a chair crouch down, so he feels taller, like you’re a child. Squeeze your vaginal muscles. Yes, your vaginal muscles. This will make your pupils dilate, making you more attractive. When he says something, nod; this nodding will induce him to agree with you. And finally, when you ask for your car, your dress, whatever it is you want, stroke his hand. Gently. Now repeat: Look! Nod! Stroke!”

The girls chant back in unison: “Look. Nod. Stroke… Look, Nod, Stroke.”

(“They think they’ve won something when they get a dress out of us,” one millionaire acquaintance tells me when I tell him about the lessons at the academy. “I let them win sometimes. But come on: What could they ever, ever take from us we didn’t actually let them?” “You know what my word for them is?,” asks another. “I call them gulls, like sea-gulls, circling over garbage dumps. And they sound like gulls, you know, when they sit and gossip in a bar together. Kar-Kar! Kar-Kar! Gulls! Funny: isn’t it?”)

As I research the show I get to know more graduates from the academies. Natasha speaks decent German. She works as a translator for visiting businessmen. The translation agency only advertises for girls with “no complexes”: code for being prepared to bed the client. Everywhere you see advertisements for secretaries or PAs with “no complexes” added in small print at the bottom. The phrase somehow transforms humiliation into an act of personal liberation. Natasha is working for a German energy boss. She hopes he’ll take her back to Munich.

“Russian men are completely spoilt for choice; Western men are much easier,” she says earnestly, like one carrying out market research. “But the problem with westerners is they don’t buy you presents, never pay for dinner. My German guy will need some work.”

Lena wants to be a pop star. In Moscow they’re known as “singing knickers”: girls with no talent but rich sponsors. Lena knows perfectly well she can’t sing, but she also knows that doesn’t matter.

“I don’t understand the whole thing of working 24—7 in some office. It’s humiliating having to work like that. A man is a lift to the top, and I intend to take it.”

The red-haired instructress with the MBA agrees: “Feminism is wrong. Why should a woman kill herself at a job? That’s a man’s role. It’s up to us to perfect ourselves as women.”

“But what about you?” I ask her when the students are out of the room. “You work; the academy makes you money.”

The instructress gives a little smile and changes the subject: “Next I’m opening up a clinic that will help stop aging: Would you like to come and film that, too?”

The class continues. The instructress draws a pie chart on a white board. She divides it into three.

“There are three types of men,” she tells her students. “The creatives. The analysts. We’re not interested in those. The ones we want are ‘the possessors’,” and she repeats the tell-all, prison-intimating phrase, “a man behind whom you feel like behind a wall of stone. We all know how to spot them. The strong, silent men. They wear dark suits. They have deep voices. They mean what they say. These men are interested in control. They don’t want a forceful woman. They have enough of that already. They want a girl who’ll be a pretty flower.”

Do I even need to mention that Oliona grew up fatherless? As did Lena, Natasha, and all the gold diggers I met. All fatherless. A generation of orphaned, high-heeled girls, looking for a daddy as much as a sugar daddy. And that’s the funny thing about Oliona and the other students: her cunning comes with fairy-tale fantasies about the tsar who, today or tomorrow or the day after, will jet her off to his majestic Maybach kingdom. And of course it’s the President who encapsulates that image. All the shirtless photos hunting tigers and harpooning whales are love letters to the endless queues of fatherless girls. The President as the ultimate sugar daddy, the ultimate protector with whom you can be as “behind a stone wall.”

When I see Oliona back at her flat she brings out a tome of Pushkin. She met a Forbes at the club the other night who is fond of literature. She’s learning whole stanzas of “Eugene Onegin” by heart:

Whom to love, whom to believe in,
On whom alone shall we depend?

Who will fit their speech and on,
To our measure, in the end?
… Never pursue a phantom,
Or waste your efforts on the air
Love yourself, your only care… .

“I’ll slip them in, just when he’s least expecting it.” She winks, keen to show off her cunning.

The Forbes has already taken her on a ride in his private jet. “Can you imagine: you can smoke in there, drink in there, throw your feet up on the seat. No seat belts! Freedom! It’s all true, you can really have the life; it’s not just in the movies!”

She met the Forbes when she went up to the VIP room.

“He’s handsome as a God,” Oliona tells me, whispering with excitement. “He was giving out hundred dollar bills to girls for blow jobs. Kept going all night. Imagine his stamina! And those poor girls, they don’t just do it for the money you know; every one of them thinks he’ll remember them, that they’re special, so they try extra hard. Of course I refused when he offered: I’m not like THEM… Now we’re seeing each other. Wish me luck!”

The one thing Oliona will never, ever think of herself as is a prostitute. There’s a clear distinction: prostitutes have to have sex with whomever a pimp tells them to. She does her own hunting.

“Once, when I was working as a dancing girl, my boss said I had to go home with one of the clients. He was a regular. Influential. Fat. Not too young either. ‘Do I really have to go home with him?’ I asked my boss. ‘Yes.’ I went back to his hotel. When he wasn’t looking I slipped some Ruffinol in his drink and ran off.”

Oliona tells this proudly. It’s a badge of distinction.

“But what about love?” I ask Oliona. It’s late; we’re taping an interview in her apartment. We’re drinking sticky, sweet Prosecco. Her favorite. The nervous little dog snores by the couch.

“My first boyfriend. Back home in Donbas. That was love. He was a local authority.”

Authority is a nice word for gangster.

“Why didn’t you stay together?”

“He was at war with another gang—they used me to get to him. I was standing on the corner. I think I was waiting for a tram. Then these two guys, big guys, grab me and start putting me in a car. I kicked and screamed. But they just told passersby I was a drunk friend. No one was going to mess with guys like that. They took me to an apartment. Tied my hands to a chair. Kept me there for a week.”

“Did they rape you?”

Oliona keeps on sipping the sweet Prosecco. Keeps on smiling. She’s still wearing a sparkly dress. She’s taken off her high heels and wears pink, fluffy slippers. She smokes thin, perfumed cigarettes. She talks about everything matter-of-factly, even with amusement: the story of a very bad, but somehow slightly funny, working day.

“They took turns. Over a week. Occasionally one would go out for pickled fish and vodka. The whole room smelt of pickled fish and vodka. I can still remember that room. It was bare. A wooden table. Dumbbells. A workout bench: they would lift weights in between sessions. I remember there was a Soviet flag on the wall. I would stare at that flag during the sessions. In the end one of them took pity on me. When the other went for more vodka he let me go.”

“And your authority?”

“When I told him what happened he raged, promised to kill them. But then he made peace with the other gang. And that was that, he never did anything. I would see those men often. One, the one who let me go, even apologized. He turned out to be a nice guy. The other would always smirk when I saw him. I left town.”

As we pack up Oliona is as thoughtful as I’ve ever seen her: “Actually could you avoid what happened in that room in your program?”

“Of course. It could be dangerous.”

“Dangerous? No, it’s not that. But it would make me seem, well, sad. Depressing. I wouldn’t want people to see me that way. People think of me as bubbly. That’s good.”

I feel bad for making her talk about what happened. “Look, I’m sorry I raised all that. I didn’t mean to. It must be awful to bring it all up again.”

Oliona shrugs. “Listen. It’s normal. Happens to all the girls. No biggie.”

Oliona’s relationship with the Pushkin-loving Forbes didn’t last long. “I thought at first he wanted a bitch. So I played that role. Now I’m not sure, maybe he doesn’t want a bitch. Maybe he wants a nice girl. You know, sometimes I get confused, I can’t even tell which one I am, the nice girl or the bitch.” This isn’t said dejectedly but as always softly detached, like she thinks about herself in the third person. Whenever I look for a vein of sadness in Oliona it melts away. As a director it’s my job to catch her out, find a chink, pull the emotional lever where her façade crumbles and she breaks and cries. But she just turns and twists and smiles and shimmers with every color. She’s not scared of poverty, humiliation. If she loses her sponsor she’ll just start again, reinvent herself, and press reload.

‘Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia’ by Peter Pomerantsev. PublicAffairs.

At 5:00 a.m. the clubs get going properly; the Forbes stumble down from their loggias, grinning and swaying tipsily. They are all dressed the same, in expensive striped silk shirts tucked into designer jeans, all tanned and plump and glistening with money and self-satisfaction. They join the cattle on the dance floor. Everyone is wrecked by now and bounces around sweating, so fast it’s almost in slow motion. They exchange these sweet, simple glances of mutual recognition, as if the masks have come off and they’re all in on one big joke. And then you realize how equal the Forbes and the girls really are. They all clambered out of one Soviet world. The oil geyser has shot them to different financial universes, but they still understand each other perfectly. And their sweet, simple glances seem to say how amusing this whole masquerade is, that yesterday we were all living in communal flats and singing Soviet anthems and thinking Levis and powdered milk were the height of luxury, and now we’re surrounded by luxury cars and jets and sticky Prosecco. And though many westerners tell me they think Russians are obsessed with money, I think they’re wrong: the cash has come so fast, like glitter shaken in a snow globe, that it feels totally unreal, not something to hoard and save but to twirl and dance in like feathers in a pillow fight and cut like papier-mâché into different, quickly changing masks. At 5:00 a.m. the music goes faster and faster, and in the throbbing, snowing night the cattle become Forbeses and the Forbeses cattle, moving so fast now they can see the traces of themselves caught in the strobe across the dance floor. The guys and girls look at themselves and think: “Did that really happen to me? Is that me there? With all the Maybachs and rapes and gangsters and mass graves and penthouses and sparkly dresses?”

Excerpted from Peter Pomerantsev's new book, Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart Of The New Russia (PublicAffairs, November 11).