In this excerpt from British journalist of Russian heritage Peter Pomerantsev‘s book “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible,” he describes what it’s like to attend a modern day “gold digger academy” in Russia.
“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-colour-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 jewellery on a first date, the man should think you’re poor. Make him want to buy you jewellery. 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 favourite 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 profession, 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, $US4,000 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, f**k 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.”
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 civilisation, 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 theatre, 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.
Republished with permission from Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev. Copyright © 2014 by Peter Pomerantsev. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a division of Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.
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