There was a particular historical moment, round about 1995 or so, when anyone entering a well-appointed drawing room, dining room, or restaurant in London was sure to encounter a beautiful Russian woman. Though the word beautiful doesn’t really capture the phenomenon. The women I’m remembering were extraordinarily, unbelievably, stunningly gorgeous.
These women were half-Kazakh or half-Tartar with Mongolian ancestors and perfect skin; dressed in the most tasteful, most expensive clothes; shod in soft leather boots; and perfectly coiffed. They were usually accompanied by an older man, sometimes much older, to whom they were perhaps married, or more likely not. They spoke in low, alluringly accented voices and towered over the lesser mortals in the room. I distinctly remember gazing upon one such creature while in the company of a friend, an old Russia hand who’d spent much of the previous decade in the Soviet Union. He stared, shook his head, and whispered, “But where were they all before?”
In the aftermath of the Australian Open, a tennis tournament whose final rounds featured a parade of notably stunning ex-Soviet-bloc players, it is perhaps time to make a stab at answering my friend’s question. Whatever you may say about the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ‘80s, it was not widely known for feminine pulchritude. Whatever you may say about women’s professional tennis in the 1970s or ‘80s, it did not feature many players who looked like Maria Sharapova, the latest Australian Open victor.
Where were they all before?
Though this is a fairly frivolous question (OK, extremely frivolous), I am convinced it has an interesting answer. To put it bluntly, in the Soviet Union there was no market for female beauty. No fashion magazines featured beautiful women, since there weren’t any fashion magazines. No TV series depended upon beautiful women for high ratings, since there weren’t any ratings. There weren’t many men rich enough to seek out beautiful women and marry them, and foreign men couldn’t get the right sort of visa. There were a few film stars, of course, but some of the most famous—I’m thinking of Lyubov Orlova, alleged to be Stalin’s favorite actress—were wholesome and cheerful rather than sultry and stunning. Unusual beauty, like unusual genius, was considered highly suspicious in the Soviet Union and its satellite people’s republics.
This doesn’t mean there weren’t any beautiful women, of course, just that they didn’t have the clothes or cosmetics to enhance their looks, and, far more important, they couldn’t use their faces to launch international careers. Instead of gracing London drawing rooms, they stayed in Minsk, Omsk, or Alma Ata. Instead of couture, they wore cheap polyester. They could become assembly-line forewomen, Communist Party bosses, even local femmes fatales, but not Vogue cover girls. They didn’t even dream of becoming Vogue cover girls, since very few had ever seen an edition of Vogue.
Instructive, in this light, is the career of a real Vogue cover girl, Natalia Vodianova. Born in Nizhny Novgorod to a single, impoverished mother, Vodianova ran away from home at 15 to run a fruit stall in the local street market (successfully, according to her official biography). At 17, she was spotted by a French scouting agent and told to learn English in three months. She did—after which she moved to Paris, married a British aristocrat, and went on to become “the face” of a Calvin Klein perfume and to earn $4 million-plus annually. The fashion world is ludicrously silly and superficial, but it did get Vodianova from Nizhny Novgorod to London, far away from her mother’s abusive boyfriends, which wouldn’t have happened before 1989. Though tennis was, for some, a way out in the past—remember Martina Navratilova—it’s all much easier now: Sharapova and Australian Open semifinalist Jelena Jankovic both left their countries as children to train at a tennis academy in Florida, while losing finalist Ana Ivanovic moved to Switzerland at 15 where she was sponsored by a businessman who is now her manager.
Ultimately, what goes for the fashion world goes for other spheres of human activity. In the past, you had to play chess or be a champion gymnast to come to international attention if you were born in the Eastern bloc—chess and competitive sports figuring among the few party-approved export industries. Nowadays, stars in fields previously unsanctioned by the party—crime novelists, conceptual artists, computer whizzes—from Russia, Hungary, or Uzbekistan have a shot at fame and fortune, too. As for talented entrepreneurs, the sky’s the limit.
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 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.