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Today, the Washington Post made me gnash my teeth

Sweet Jesus, Anne Applebaum, stereotype much?

Of course there were many very famous “sultry” women in the USSRthings did not begin, and end, with Stalin and Liubov Orlova (an actress from the 1930’s). Where on earth do people get such ideas in the first place? Just because nobody was wearing Chanel does not, somehow, mean that there was no beauty, no style, no sensuality.

And no, not everyone in the USSR wore polyester. But thanks for checking with actual people who lived under the regime.

Why is it OK to assume that before the introduction of Vogue, an entire country couldn’t possibly understand what beauty and style is all about? Sure, consumer goods were practically nonexistent. Sure, looking “different” may have garnered you some unwanted attention. Yet, the Soviets had their own pop culture, they had their own sirens – whether sauntering across the theater stage or walking home from the bus stop. Because the Soviets, amazingly enough, were human beings, with or without Western influence.

While I appreciate the fact that Anne Applebaum isn’t screeching about them evil Russians and, instead, finding something she deems positive, her outlook also completely disregards the thousands of women who have been trafficked from the Soviet Union following its dissolution. Those gorgeous women she sees hanging out with the older men in the posh restaurants? I sincerely hope that 100% of them are there of their own volition, enjoying their time, having a blast.

However, as someone who has actually done research, I’m not entirely sure that my hopes correspond with reality.

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.

Before, it used to be “evil Russians.” Now, it’s “attractive Russians” (with an occasional smattering of “evil” – I should also note that people use the word “Russian” to refer to practically all of us who came out of the USSR, but that’s a whole other conversation).

I don’t mind the “attractive” in principle. I get equally tired of condescending Western women who roll their eyes at the poor foreign dears – wearing that make-up! Balancing on those heels! The Feminist Revolution will save you, my darlings, each and every one! Just shut up and don’t speak for yourself!

I merely want there to be a balance. Is that too much to ask for, in this day and age?

Now, if you think all of that is bad, take a look at Applebaum’s last paragraph:

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.

Why is there the distinct assumption that the blonde at the dinner party could not possibly be a doctor? Or, for that matter, a stockbroker?

There is nothing wrong with earning a living as a model, but a lot of stereotypically beautiful women also have other jobs. The former Miss Universe from Russia was a policewoman. My last Ukrainian doctor wore seamed stockings under her lab coat, carried an enormous designer bag, and could very have been “the blonde at the party.” Oh, and she was a good doctor too.

Assuming that women like that exist for the sole purpose of validating male attention is, at best, incredibly prejudiced. Under the guise of a simple compliment lies an incredibly vile sentiment: you only exist to be looked at.

You deserve it, after all, because you’re different. Foreign. Shut up and be pretty. Don’t want to shut up? Wipe that lipstick off your mouth. That’s the way we do things around here.

Here, send Applebaum an e-mail. Tell her how incredibly obtuse she’s being. I simply don’t have the strength to bother at this point.

Thank you to the wonderful writer and journalist, Veronica Khokhlova, for tipping me off.

15 thoughts on “Today, the Washington Post made me gnash my teeth

  1. Excellent take down of this article, Natalia! It seems to me that people in the US just cannot stop stereotyping people from the former Soviet Bloc. And it’s not like they weren’t exposed to “beautiful people” from that part of the world prior to the recognized end of the USSR…I remember when watching the Olympics in various years how taken with certain female athletes like Katrina Witt (East Germany), Svetlana Boginskya (USSR), Aurelia Dobre (Romania), Oksana Baiul (Ukraine) and certain male athletes (like Dimitri Bilozerchev- USSR) various announcers and spectators seemed to be- through out the late 80’s and early 90’s. Why? Because they were attractive people, and Dimitri was not wearing make up or high fashion!

    I think part of it is because in US media, often times amid the cold war, people from the Eastern Bloc were protrayed as one of two ways, physically, in US media: dangerous and sexy or unattractive, the later being more common, because “the USSR”, well, they were the “bad guys”. It amazes me that people have still not gotten over this mentality.

    And excellent point…there IS every possibility that the good looking well dressed Eastern European IS a doctor!

  2. I hope you realize that Anne Applebaum is poking fun at Western stereotypes of Russian women, from Stalin to the present, and not at the women themselves.

    What is unfortunate about Anne Applebaum’s article is that, as you pointed out, she apparently believes that female beauty doesn’t exist until it’s commodified, packaged, and literally sold on the market — in other words, the only beauty worth noticing is that which is literally purchased with money.

    Anne Applebaum apparently also believes that commodifying doctors and stockbrokers for sale to the West is also an unqualified blessing for the people of the former Soviet bloc.

    To my mind, what is unfortunate about Anne Applebaum’s article is not what you take to be her condescending attitude toward Russian women, but what I take to be her implicit point that the best thing that former Soviet bloc populations can do for themselves is to quite literally sell themselves to the West, and specifically to repackage themselves for sale to the Anglosphere. I think these former Soviet populations are beginning to turn away from that prospect, and that is probably a good thing.

  3. Well, I think you’re right on the money (pun intended) when you talk about the parallel she draws between beauty and being for sale. I didn’t even notice that, I was so tired already.

  4. Also, and this needs to be said: I don’t think any of this is particularly intentional on Applebaum’s part.

    It’s pre-programmed thinking. As I said up above, you think you’re giving someone a compliment, but, in reality, the story is different.

  5. Really fascinating.

    I have to say, I’m not 100% sure all this ‘discovery’ of the Russian beauties is necessarily always a GOOD thing. I have read about the mass exploitation/importation of teenage models, mail-order wives, etc and *that* wouldn’t have happened in the old USSR either.

    With additional capitalist opportunities, you always have an additional possibility of greedhead exploitation of the poor and naive.

  6. Thanks for sharing this. What an unbelievably patronising load of American drivel that article was! I certainly gnashed my teeth at it!

    “They didn’t even dream of becoming Vogue cover girls, since very few had ever seen an edition of Vogue.” Because that’s obviously what every girl dreams of becoming!

    Anne Applebaum – Shush now! Enough already!

  7. I wish I had something deeper to say, but the truth is when I saw her name I got A Tribe Called Quest’s track “Bonita Applebum” stuck in my head.

  8. I agree with you completely. There’s something deeply depressing about an “enlightened” columnist such as Applebaum taking it for granted that attractive Russian women exist solely to please wealthy western women. There’s a real lack of self-awareness about the piece.

    The whole thing is kind of sad.

  9. I am old enough to remember Soviet times (I suspect, Natalia, that you are not). There were, definitely beautiful women in the USSR, and to suggest there were not is silly.

    I disagree with Applebaum about most things. But in this case, Applebaum is, in some things, correct.

    Real beauty was not “proletarian”. To be too pretty, or too refined, was suspect. Many girls I knew could not find jobs in shops because they were pretty.

  10. I remember the USSR. Well, from the time I started to have memories, which might have been around 1986. I wasn’t around in the 1970’s, but I have pictures of my mother from that period. She was glorious as were her sisters, and had no problem finding jobs.

    However, there might have been a real difference between what was acceptable for labourers and shop assistants and what was acceptable for office workers.

    Remember Slujebnii Roman? Alisa Freindlich’s character was criticized for her deliberately plain clothing style. Then again, she was also the boss, and had real power.

    I think it honestly dependent on where you were and what you were doing. The USSR was not a monolith, far from it.

  11. I lived in Kyiv, early 1980’s. My husband lived in Kyiv and (illegally) Leningrad in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

    There is a difference between being attractive and being very pretty or beautiful. Many women in Kyiv were (and are) attractive/pretty. But beauty is rare.

    I don’t agree that beautiful women were viewed with suspicion as Applebaum stated. Only that it didn’t conform to proletarian ideals, and that she has a point on that issue.

  12. Well, I am going to come off as hugely biased here (perhaps I’ll provide pictures, so you can judge for yourself) – but my mom was beautiful. Drop-dead gorgeous. Like, ridiculous beauty. Think Tatiana Drubich – only hotter. I think her looks did cause her problems – the way looks would cause problems for a lot of women, not just Soviet women. I could be wrong.

    If you lived in Kyiv in the 1980’s – for all you know, we saw each other! Well, I was born in 1984. Perhaps you passed me in my pram. Did you see a loud, blonde baby in a white kerchief? That was me, lol.

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