ST. PETERSBURG—Millions of mothers around the world are desperate for their daughters to succeed in ballet or gymnastics. But in Russia it’s a national obsession. The daily stretching, the workouts, the jumping on pointe shoes—all are painful and exhausting routines for young girls, but generations of moms have not eased up, just as their own mothers did not allow them to give up.
Many of these mothers, who spend countless time and money on classes, like to post pictures of their graceful daughters on social media to tell themselves and the rest of the world that all of their hard work was worthwhile.
Inna Ryazhkina, a mother from Siberia, has even found a way to monetize her daughter’s success: by selling the ballerina’s photographs online.
Child-exploitation experts tell The Daily Beast that she has crossed a line and that the images, which are posted to maximize profits, risk exposing her 13-year-old daughter to sexual predators. It’s a “truly nasty business,” said Yelena Golyakovskaya, a psychologist at the advocacy group Nasiliyu.net.
Ryazhkina is a single mom—just like a third of Russian families—and says she is now supporting the family with thousands of dollars generated from images of her daughter’s body. She created an Instagram account after Anfisa was crowned “Little Miss Siberia.” In 2019, Ryazhkina began posting pictures and videos of Anfisa wrapping her leg around her neck. Starting from age 10, the child was posing for her mother’s camera in high heels. From there, the photographs arguably became more and more sexualized. The hashtag #anfisa_siberia sent viewers to an advertisement for the girl’s website, where the photos are sold for $10 to $110 a piece.
Ryazhkina declined to speak to The Daily Beast, blocking this reporter on Instagram.
Ryazhkina may have taken the enterprise a step further, but Russian social-media groups are full of images of child models. Anfisa’s photographs can be seen on several Instagram pages, along with other partially undressed child models or young athletes.
The blogger Insa Lander was the first to raise the alarm about the practice, publishing an article about Ryazhkina’s online business. The mother agreed to appear on the national Channel One network last week, where she was accused on air of “supplying photos for Western perverts.”
She tried to defend herself by saying that she was “creating art,” and insisting that her daughter was “simply taking beautiful sporty poses in the pictures.” Lander also appeared on the program and said: “The only goal the mother had was to sell the photographs to sexually obsessed people.”
The reaction to the broadcast has been huge. Many parents and teachers are shaken by Ryazhkina’s story, which hits close to home for everyday Russians on social media. Even the most far-flung and poorest Russian towns have ballet and gymnastics schools. There is a strong belief that classical choreography develops children intellectually and aesthetically, as well as physically. Celebrating that achievement in public is still seen as a noble goal.
St. Petersburg is home to Russia’s famous Vaganova Ballet Academy. Mothers bring their daughters here from all over Russia, hoping to start a serious ballet career. Irina Fedorenko, a 43-year-old business manager whose daughter hopes to attend Vaganova, said Instagram has “spoiled the morals” of Russian teenagers.
“We want our 10-year-old to become a professional ballerina, as we think of theaters like the Bolshoi or Mariinsky [Kirov] as churches of art. But ballerinas’ incomes are not huge, while girls make tons of money by selling explicit photographs on social media. My husband and I are seriously concerned about our daughter’s activity on social media. We check what and where she posts.”
Earlier this year, another parent of a 10-year-old St. Petersburg girl was discovered selling intimate photographs of her daughter online. She was arrested and a police report said the 36-year-old grocery store assistant was “producing pornographic materials, taking photographs of her underaged daughter,” local media Neva News reported in March.
Veteran ballet teacher Andrei Bogdanov, of the ballet school in St. Petersburg, told The Daily Beast that he was horrified to hear about the worlds of physical artistic endeavors and evocative photos colliding online.
“When parents ask me how their daughter did at the ‘training,’ I have to explain that their daughter has taken a class of ballet art, which is a cultural experience,” he said. “Everything depends on the parents. Teachers should work and talk with parents, who are the biggest influence on their children.”
The Russian Investigative Committee is now looking into Ryazhkina’s business. Independent experts welcomed the investigation.
“Our state has finally started looking into child-abuse cases. Normally a case like that would have been swept under the carpet but this time the government decided to talk about the issue,” said Golyakovskaya. “Such sexual exploitation could result in really awful consequences.”