I lived in Moscow in the 1990s in the heyday of a nightlife newspaper called The eXile, a skinny, obscene paper with a shocking pink X on the cover run by two American frat boys who wrote very good political coverage and spilled the rest of their ink celebrating the economic and cultural moment that, as they said, rendered any man with an American passport able to fuck any Russian girl he wanted to, for money, for gifts, for breakfast at the Starlight Diner in the morning. There was some self-awareness and humor in this stance, “In my country, I’m a total loser, but here I can get pretty chicks!” But it was a callow take on a noxious moment, too.
I always liked the paper for its honesty.
I was young and female and dating in Russia at the time, and the prostitution was a fact I had to deal with. Russian girls who were out at night in bars and restaurants were, mostly, selling sex. If not pro then “semi-pro” as the terminology went. There were prostitution nightclubs where all the other women were hookers. There were many, many bars with young and beautiful women sitting alone on the barstools, silently waiting for male clientele. Routinely, I was assumed to be one of them until I started speaking. (I am American and speak Russian with an accent). For me, it was a strange period of power inversion. I was used to men pursuing me, not an environment in which the women were the pursuers. I was used to being sexually interesting, but most men discovering that I was American and thus not available for the night suddenly found me asexual and pointless. I’d see the brightness leave their eyes, feel the sudden shift as they waited for their moment to get away. I became invisible as they looked over my shoulder for the next girl.
All this to say that it feels like I’ve read 1,000 Perestroika memoirs, but it wasn’t until reading Zarina Zabrisky’s Explosion that I realized I’d never read one from the perspective of one of the Russian girls who were selling sex at that cultural moment. And that now that it’s come, Explosion feels essential and obvious, and I am overjoyed to have discovered it. (Also, thanks to Melanie Page at Grab the Lapels for having recommended it!! See Melanie’s review of the book, and interview with the author.)
(Also, perhaps a note that needs to be added: There were lots of girls in Moscow who were not involved in the prostitution culture, and I knew them too. But they’re mostly not who Zabrisky’s book is about.)
Zabrisky’s stories cover a time span in Russian history from Chernobyl (harrowing story, with the reveal so well done it’s still giving me chills) through Perestroika and the wild ’90s, to eventual emigration to the United States and the present. The heroines (and one hero) inhabit different worlds—some urban intelligentsia, some daughters of alcoholics in the provinces, one successful emigre business guy. In the earlier years they concern mostly the prostitution culture, poverty, drugs. The later American stories reflect more on Russia as a country and a motherland, and ask what it means to lose it. They ask, having lost it, which Russia it is, exactly, that the emigres remember and want to love? They lament the state of the country’s current politics.
The details Zabrisky reveals about being a young woman in Russia at that time are excellent. In a story called “Honey Hued Eyes” the sixteen-year-old girl narrator has been having sex with a female friend with the titular honey-hued eyes, “all boys being away in the army.” (So funny! I knew lots of Russian girls with early teenage lesbian affairs, ostensibly for the same reason.) But then she decides to lose her virginity to a gross old guy who gives her a gypsy cab ride. Here’s how she explains it:
“One winter day, I got a ride from a gypsy cab. Gypsy cabs were illegal cabs. Plenty were available; men would give girls a ride for free “for a talk” and would ask for stuff, but if you said “no,” it was a “no”—usually. It was dangerous at night and girls got raped …but that was their own fault, right?”
On the day the story takes place, the narrator writes, “Then he asked me if I wanted to fuck. And, though normally I said no, I said yes.” They have sex. He offers her money, which she turns down. And then he offers her advice, which is to never give anything away for free. He says he works for the KGB and offers to set her up as a prostitute for foreigners in the fancy hotels. “We will pay you three thousand roubles a month and in five years will find you a nice Finnish or Swedish man and marry you off abroad. Deal?”
The story is only a few pages long. The narrator turns down the offer. We find out that she got pregnant young, moved to Finland and ended up married to a Finnish man anyway. Her honey-hued friend was not so lucky. The two girls’ twinned fates make the story a short, brutal revelation on the casual commodification of young womanhood and concurrent valueless-ness of young womanhood. Maybe more obvious in Russia at that time, but true everywhere.
In the next story, the narrator’s sister is a prostitute for foreigners working in a fancy hotel.
The book sometimes got too melodramatic for me. I didn’t believe the teenage junkie in “Beast” would kill her boyfriend; the story about nostalgic drunk women lionizing Pussy Riot felt… about as complex as that sounds. But I always found them rescued by the details. (How does a girl manage baby diapers in a village without running water in her house! Awful, fascinating question. The friendship that young mother strikes up with another young mother at the local well feels, in its way, just like Brooklyn.)
I came to this book connecting with the parts about Russia, but left it connecting as a woman, which, oddly, is kind of my story with Russia itself. The magnified Russian femininity—the high heels and hookers and even the mothers and motherland—has always been a distorted mirror to hold up to my own, and to learn from.