Thursday, January 31, 2008

I first read Anne Applebaum's column on the beautiful Russian women very quickly - so quickly that my only reaction was, "Oh, how nice it is to read something relatively apolitical and more or less positive about this part of the world."

Natalia Antonova's reading of Applebaum's piece was anything but superficial. Here's just one quote from her insightful and passionate response, posted at Global Comment:

I’m not against beauty culture. I do think it’s been, and continues to be, unfairly used against women - especially those who have no interest in participating. Applebaum’s piece has reminded me of the fact that beauty culture can also obscure the issues of traffickers and other exploiters.

I understand the sort of piece that Applebaum was trying to write. She was having fun. I like to have fun too - and get very irritated when pious wailing about Oppressors and Oppressed overwhelms me, because, not every single damn piece of writing has to be incredibly serious and somber and grave. If it was, we’d all shoot ourselves in the head and let the cockroaches take over.

Yet, if you’re going to rely on ridiculous generalizations, your piece is no longer fun. It’s merely tacky. And, quite possibly, damaging.

While in general I agree with Natalia on most points, I nevertheless have a slightly different take on Applebaum's piece, now that I've re-read it.

Applebaum's married to Poland's foreign minister Radek Sikorski, and knowing this, it's hard not to think of the Polish Plumber hype and other labor migration issues while reading her piece - and especially its last paragraph:

Beauty is a matter of luck, but the same could be said of many other talents. And what open markets do for beautiful women, they also do for other sorts of genius. So, cheer up the next time you see a Siberian blonde dominating male attention at the far end of the table: The same mechanisms that brought her to your dinner party might one day bring you the Ukrainian doctor who cures your cancer, or the Polish stockbroker who makes your fortune, too.

For all I know, Applebaum is doing part of her husband's job here, trying to persuade the folks in the West to be a little bit more optimistic about the recent Schengen Zone expansion.

Because, obviously, there's plenty of pessimism out there.

Take this piece by Mark Franchetti, which appeared in the Sunday Times on Jan. 20 - "Britain is target in Ukraine’s people smuggling bonanza. With most border controls in Eastern Europe now gone, people smuggling has become easy business in the Ukraine."

Here's the first paragraph, a description that, I hope, explains why I'd rather read a dozen pieces like Applebaum's:

Chewing slices of pork fat at his house less than two miles from the border with Slovakia, a Ukrainian people smuggler broke into a grin studded with gold teeth as he predicted a sharp increase in trade this year.

My Global Voices translation of some of the reactions to this piece is here.


  1. I don't know about Natalia's response to Applebaum's piece Veronica. Everyone knows, or perhaps should know that beauty isn't contingent on access cosmetics or to Vogue. That sort of goes without saying. The complaint does seem a little superficial to me in this respect.

  2. Ngah! I don't know if my comment made it into your moderation queue, or if it was eaten my Blogger (we're having Internet issues in the Middle East this week... some cable going to Palermo has been eaten by a shark or something drastic like that).

    Anyway, in a nutshell, what I wanted to say is that I thought about the Polish plumber thing too. And had originally liked the piece. But upon closer examination, it just reminded me of all those seemingly benign little assumptions being made about the fact that girls like me are essentially for sale.

    And it also reminded me of my own seemingly benign prejudices.

    So, while I feel like Applebaum meant well... it just didn't work. For me. The "Siberian blonde" and the clever doctor who may cure cancer one day should not be cast as separate entities, imho. I know she didn't really mean that a Siberian blonde could never be a brilliant professional - but it's the same language you hear, over and over again, and there's obviously a reason why it comes up all the time.

  3. I have one dear friend who could, perhaps, be described as "for sale" by some - but her way of describing the men she had relationship with was "sponsors." She is a beautiful woman, well-educated, smart, has a good job - but that job didn't pay enough for her to travel the world and do/have other things she felt like doing/having. And so she had "sponsors" - who, by definition, couldn't re-sell her or dispose of her the way an "owner" possibly could. By definition, she was the one in control.

    It's all about the language, I agree. Except for when it's not.

    As for the "assumptions being made" about you - you know yourself so much better than all those strangers, you know they are wrong in their assumptions, and this is what actually matters.

    That shark that's got your original comment, I've read about it. I guess it was some ship's anchor. :) Me, I've got Marta, and she never lets me finish a sentence during the day. So here I am, insomniac, writing some crap at 6:30 am...

  4. У нас всё решает папа. А кто у нас папа--решает мама :)

  5. Hello,
    Back from a skiing holiday (just great), I discover your post, and especially the March Franchetti (Sunday Times)link, just after reading in my morning newspaper about another form of people smuggling : trafficking of babies from Ukraine.
    The woman who's investigated on it in the past year on account of the Council of Europe is a politician I have a lot of respect for : Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold. (perso page : Now all the Swiss press is making headlines on it.
    Neeka, had you heard about it before? It really gives me the creeps...

  6. This is a really thought-provoking polemic. My wife is Russian and beautiful, but also has 4 degrees, speaks 4 languages and works in human rights.

    It's nice to read something that is vaguely positive, but when I think of Slavic women marrying western men, my first thought is that it is an appalling reflection on the state of gender relations in Russia and Ukraine. Then I think of the social and economic inequalities that are implicit in such relationships, even though I'm (of course) convinced that they weren't a factor in my marriage. We still get asked whether we met on the net (no, in SPb university) and whether she taught me Russian (no, I was fluent before we met).

    It's the one-sidedness of Applebaum's piece that eventually gets my back up. Russian women are only beautiful - they're not intelligent, educated, professional, articulate, activists. They're just decorative and attractive, sufficiently like us to be presentable in a hotel lobby, sufficiently different to give a thrill of the exotic. Re-reading Applebaum's piece, I realise that it reeks of a new Orientalism - that these women belong to the western construct of Russia as the other - unknowable, dangerous, illicit, thrilling, the place to go when in disgrace or to make a fortune, and whose image is formed in the West not by Russians (thanks Natalia for pointing out that Applebaum hadn't ASKED any Russians about what they wore in the CCCP), but by commentators like Applebaum.

    I have the biggest problems with Applebaum saying that this is all about market value. All she is describing is one dimension, and saying that that dimension is for sale and that that is ok. So at one end there’s the Siberian blonde “brought to your dinner party by [market] mechanisms” at the other end there’s the trafficked prostitute in a back-street massage parlour, coerced into having sex with strangers, but brought to the “market” by the same “mechanisms”. And that’s not acceptable.

  7. This may not be entirely helpful, but in regard to Applebaum's fixation on "market value" as noted by the previous commenter, Applebaum's entire journalistic career has been in the service of conservative media outlets in the Anglosphere, such as the Economist, the Spectator, etc., according to her web site (her current stint at the Washington Post might be an exception). With that in mind, it might not be surprising that she sees former Soviet bloc populations almost exclusively as commodities to be used for Western purposes. This is also a consistent position taken by American foreign policy conservatives. That well-known American view doesn't endear us to Eastern Europeans.

    Even if, as I think Neeka's post pointed out, Applebaum's article is meant to support free migration of Polish labor throughout the EU as promoted by her husband, the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, it's unfortunate that Applebaum provides such support by "objectifying" former Soviet bloc citizens and even implies, I think, that selling themselves to the West is the best thing that these people can do for themselves -- which position is also promoted by American foreign policy conservatives. Again, that American view of the former Soviet bloc doesn't endear us to the people who live there.

  8. Yeah, let's start a campaign to revoke Applebaum's Pulitzer! The history of Gulag reflects badly on the Soviet people. (Just kidding.)

  9. There's one thing I keep wondering about: if I wrote a piece about the encounters we've had with post-Soviet health care professionals in the recent years, would I get criticized for being biased and one-dimensional?

    Because, you see, I don't have many positive stories on the subject. Just two, I'm afraid: my ob-gyn here in Moscow, without whose support I would've gone nuts during pregnancy, and most nurses and doctors at Isida, where Marta was born (though not every single one of them). Oh, and there's also our dear family friend, an outstanding ophthalmologist, who happened to be near Obukhiv on the day they found my father's body: it was so kind of her to ask Mishah if he, perhaps, wanted her to go inside the morgue and do the identification (he declined the offer).

    As for the negative episodes, I don't want to recount them here and now, because thinking of just one of them, the latest one - and the last one for my father - is kind of unbearable. You know, that bitch of a nurse who sent my father off to the woods to die simply because she didn't know there were people looking for him.

    My point is, I do know that good doctors exist. Some of them are pretty, others ugly, but that's irrelevant. What matters to me is that neither I, nor my parents have been too lucky locating the ones who'd do good rather than harm.

    And if I were writing this piece, I wouldn't bother with disclaimers, wouldn't bother mentioning that not all doctors here are assholes. Because my assumption is that most people know this and don't really need me to inform them. (And there's also the word limit to consider, and the need to keep the piece focused.)

    I tend to think of Applebaum's piece this way, too. Whether we like it or not, the women she describes do exist. Which does not preclude the existence of all sorts of other women out there. But if she chose to include everything in her piece, she'd end up writing something as huge - if not as worthy - as Gulag.

    I don't think Applebaum chose the best way to highlight the labor migration controversy: she should've been less subtle.

    I also think it was pretty misleading to mention Lyubov Orlova the way she did - and the links at the beginning of Natalia's piece are really helpful. I myself would add Sofiko Chiaureli to the list.

    There was something else I wanted to say, but it took me too long to find a nice picture of Sofiko, and I don't really remember what it was anymore. I'd rather spend a few more minutes thinking about Sergei Parajanov (who loved Sofiko) and then go off to bed.

  10. Not sure how the numbers compare, but when you guys talk about trafficking and prostitution from the post-Soviet East, Turkey and the Middle East should be factored in as a popular destination, not just the West.

  11. I, too, would have to agree that Applebaum got a little sidetracked here.

    No matter how evil the system (and evil it was), no matter how crappy the fashion industry (and crappy it was), the USSR still had its sex symbols.

    Undoubtedly, Soviet pop culture had a different scale and scope. In Stalinwood and Brezhnevwood, the system controlled every step of the process. The system required that all entertainers enroll in state-controlled professional associations. It also required them to attain arts degrees in addition to any degrees they already had — and many had degrees in engineering and medicine.

    True, the system used its stars to brainwash its subjects. However, that doesn’t make every star and every subject part of the “dumb blonde” stereotype. Equally true, physical attractiveness does help career advancement, but it does not always translate into intellectual mediocrity. (Take Tymoshenko:)

    Except for all of the above, I applaud Applebaum’s efforts to prep the West for closer contact with the East. In contrast, the pork piece by Franchetti reeks of racism in that it profiles "the Ukraine" as a nation of pork-eating people smugglers.

    The West and the East should have a clear and unbiased map of each other so as not to get lost in the Siberia of stereotypes.

  12. I don't know Veronica. I think most people understand and get beyond these stereotypes. But I do know that everything is for sale or has some value. Perhaps Natalia's complaint about Applebaum's piece has some value. I don't know.

  13. I don't think there's a problem with having sponsors or talking about said sponsors.

    But I don't like the classical assumption that a beautiful woman who gets money and/or gifts from men cannot also be a talented professional (in whatever field - hell, I qualify sex-work as professional for what a great actress a top sex-worker has to be) in her own right. I also think the framing of a beautiful woman always being passive, waiting for the men with the big bucks to show up, to be off.

    I just had someone on my blog the other day, bemoaning the fact that "all these women want" from relationships is material possessions. "These women" = of course, Ukrainians.

  14. My take of the article was that it is something that was written to fulfill a deadline, and as a result, wasn't meant to be taken very seriously. And as anything that is turned in to beat a deadline, it wasn't very well thought out, the result of which has caused offense to some.

    No offense, but I do think Natalia's post is a bit ignorant of the western view of Soviet female during the cold war. I would say there were two main archetypes: the androgynous commissar (such as in the movie Ninotchka) and the portly babushka. There was also the East German women’s olympic swim team, which tended to support the butch stereotype.

    I am 33, so I was only 16 or so when the USSR dissolved. Maybe my memories are not typical, but for my friends and me, Kornikova was the first indication to us that Russian women could be hot. During the cold war the USSR was basically a black hole. The only things coming out of USSR was olympic sports, ballet, and communism. After the 30’s, Hollywood did not make movies about the USSR because of the political orientation of the writer’s union. Even today there is very little Russian made media that is available in the US unless you live near Brighton Beach.

    Today there is still the common belief that while Russian girls can be quite attractive, Russian women do not age gracefully. This is where I think the notion of using cosmetics, contentious diet, and clothes and hairstyles that don’t make you look like David Bowie, can make a difference. Take Alla Pugacheva for instance, she looks younger and more attractive now than she did in the 70’s. Although I imagine she didn’t get that way through natural means.

  15. Sigh, I should have read Natalia's post a bit more closely before posting. I think she understands the thought process behind Appelbaum's article. I should also state that my post wasn't meant to cause offense, I am just really bad with words.

    That said, I would guess that if women in the west get catty around eastern women, it is generally out of jealousy, not feelings of superiority.

  16. really, all that needs be said about applebaum's totally moronic column is said HERE:

  17. I was asked again to delete part of my comment to Genia. Below is the latest edit...


    Yes, quite often there's something on baby trafficking in the news here. Extremely shocking - but not surprising at all.

    [One American citizen's case]: she had a daughter in Kyiv, using a Ukrainian surrogate mother - the baby was taken away from her and she was accused of human trafficking. Her trial should take place sometime soon, I guess.

    The hospital that did all the surrogacy arrangements and where the baby was born is the one where I had Marta - a wonderful place, as far as I am concerned - but definitely not so for [that woman], it turns out.

    A very heartbreaking story, regardless of who's right and who's wrong.