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THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION < go to "News from Russia" Index

Turning Tricks for Tuition

By Bryon MacWilliams

"Come on in," she says, the hem of her blue velvet teddy kissing the lacy tops of her black, thigh-high stockings. She steps back into the foyer, pulls the door wide. With a flourish she straightens her spine and squares her shoulders, inviting scrutiny. Her spaghetti straps pull taut. The heel of her left black pump nestles into the crook of her right. She smiles, then gives a little shake of her head that causes a long ponytail of dyed blonde hair to sway behind her.

Beauty marks fall across the left side of her face and neck. Her cheeks and forehead are lightly powdered, paler than her almost translucent skin. She later admits to spending too much time indoors: If she isn't studying in the library, or attending lectures, or commuting for hours by train, then she is in this semi-dark apartment tending to the desires of men.

It is with their money that Svetlana, which she says is her real name, pays for her third year of education at the Moscow State Pedagogical University, one of the most prestigious teacher-education institutions in Russia. She also is one of tens of thousands of female students in cities throughout the country who work as prostitutes or carry on exclusive relationships with so-called sponsors, in order to get through college.

"Give me your coat," she says. "Take off your shoes, OK? There are some slippers. Oh yeah, do you prefer tea or coffee?"

She walks into the kitchen, shuts the door. A large bed with a single pillow and sheets in a leopard-skin pattern occupies half of the room. In the other half, a sofa and two easy chairs frame a coffee table upon which are placed a clear glass vase of silk flowers, a box of individually wrapped chocolates, several clean juice glasses on a chrome platter, and an ashtray.

Another young woman appears from the kitchen wearing a wrap of green silky fabric embroidered with colorful threads in an Asian style. She smiles, asks to be called Alyona.

A classified ad on a Russian Web site says that the two Moscow Pedagogical students offer two-hour encounters that entail elements of classic and erotic massage followed by sexual intercourse. In addition to a sum of 2,000 rubles ($63), paid in advance, they request of their clients "cleanliness, integrity, attentiveness, and tenderness."

Each woman retains 300 rubles ($9.50) per client. The remainder go to the mamochka, or mama, one of the madams who dominate the sex business in the Russian capital.

From their earnings the young women also must subtract $350 per month for use of the large apartment on the ninth floor of a prefabricated cement building around the corner from the Victory movie theater. That means that they each must have sex with 19 men per month before they are able to keep any money for themselves.

"Our parents are quite contemporary. We tell them we work as waitresses. They don't ask us any questions," Svetlana says. She commutes daily from the suburb of Domodedovo while Alyona commutes from Troitsk.

Both women hold stamped student identification booklets, called student tickets, that look like small passports, about half the size of an actual passport, with hardbacked, booklike covers. Both say they are studying to become schoolteachers.

The Russian Internet is replete with Web sites that offer free search engines that match potential clients with students. Nearly all such sites provide the woman's age, body measurements, types of sex she practices, corresponding costs, and even reviews from former clients.

Svetlana and Alyona are among the least expensive prostitutes who advertise on the Internet. Two hours with them cost about the same as a night with one of the women who line the shoulders of the main thoroughfares out of the city. College students from provincial Russian villages and former Soviet republics can usually be found among the dozen or so young women who gather in semicircles in parks, alleys, and empty parking lots, where potential clients swing the headlights of their cars slowly along the lineup before making a choice.

Many students prefer to offer their services at nightclubs or casinos, charging between $200 and $300 for a night of sex.

An American lawyer working in Moscow said he recently had been paying $300 per night, twice a month, over six months, to a student he met at an upscale club near Pushkin Square. "She told me she was in school, majoring in urban planning. I forget now the name of the school. ...

She talked about exams, about how it was a crazy, busy time at the start of the semester. It made me feel like I was back in school. It made me feel younger."

A half-dozen encounters at $300 would cover annual tuition at most institutions. But hidden admissions costs -- such as bribes of $10,000 to $15,000 at more-prestigious universities and institutes here -- pose dilemmas for even the best students. While many might shun outright prostitution, some are not averse to intimate relationships with one or two men who provide for living costs as well as their educations.

"Right now it's very fashionable to have a sponsor. Usually, girls try to limit their sponsors to one special man," says one woman who says she is a graduate student of international relations at the elite Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She recently placed an ad looking for a sponsor on the site Flirt.Ru, under the pseudonym Masha.

"I'm not risking anything, and I don't post my photograph. It's relatively safe," she says over coffee at a popular cafe downtown. She already holds a degree in foreign languages from Moscow State University, by all accounts the best all-around university in the country. She lives with her mother, an elementary-school teacher, in a small city about 100 miles south of Moscow.

Masha estimates that she needs 5,300 rubles per month, or about $168, upon which to live and continue her studies. Students traditionally do not work in Russia, whereas those who do often are limited to part-time jobs because class schedules and workloads are more demanding than in the United States. "Students' stipends are very small," she adds. "Even at prestigious institutions, they amount to 300 rubles. What can you buy in Moscow for 300 rubles?"

The Russian capital has long been ranked the most expensive city in Europe, and among the priciest in the world. Indeed, the bill for instant espresso and frozen pastries at a coffee bar comes to 289 rubles -- about $9.

Masha has already met with several men, all married. She wants someone steady, someone who will view their relationship not solely as commerce. The men are proposing between $20 and $50 per encounter. She is undecided.

"I don't know my worth," she says.

There is no such ambiguity for Alina, a law student who says she intends to become a tax inspector upon graduation from the Institute of Economics, Finance, and Law. An hour of sex with her costs 1,000 rubles ($31.50), while two hours cost 1,500. Nontraditional sex, ranging from adult toys to bisexual contact, is subject to negotiation.

She is the only student among the three young women who share a two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a five-story building just down the street from the Moscow Zoo. They are all from Ukraine. Alina, a pseudonym, is a divorced mother of one, from Kherson, on the Black Sea.

She used to work as an elementary-school teacher, earning the equivalent of $60 per month. She holds a degree in German from the Pedagogical Institute, in Odessa. She said she was struggling to meet tuition and textbook costs for the current semester here, as she rents an apartment and sends money home to support her child and family.

Music from the CD Chant can be heard as she answers the door on a recent sunny afternoon. Even though this reporter had told Alina that he wanted only to interview her, she appears as advertised on the Web site: of petite stature with shoulder-length blonde hair, wearing a black-lace teddy with black thigh-high stockings, black panties, and black high heels. Inside, the curtains are drawn. A stack of clean sheets is on the washing machine in the bathroom. A full-length mirror stands in a corner of her room, illuminated by a red lamp. A shelf above the bed holds at least 20 stuffed animals.

She never accepts money passed hand to hand, she says, because to do so would invite bad luck. She has no regrets. "It's not like I'm a murderer or a thief."

Stuffed animals, too, sit on the top shelf of a bookcase int he apartment of Svetlana and Alyona. They joke that a grinning crocodile is the Soviet-era cartoon character, Crocodile Gena. On another shelf below are several English textbooks, one of which is a pirated version of the popular title Happy English. "We like [American] films," Svetlana says.

Adds Alyona: "The one Pretty Woman -- is that a true story?"