Our university is holding a Russian documentary film series. We showed one of the films that I reviewed here earlier (https://russianhistoryblog.org/author/andy/page/2/). Our next film is called Miss Gulag, produced in 2007 and directed by Maria Yatskova (for an interview with the director see Sean Guillory’s http://newbooksinrussianstudies.com/2011/06/03/maria-yatskova-miss-gulag-nienhause-yatskova-vodar-films-2007/).
This fascinating documentary tells the improbable tale of a beauty pageant set in a modern-day Russian prison, one of 35 women’s prisons across the Russian Federation. The story of this documentary is simple enough. A group of young women in a Siberian prison – all of whom have come of age in post-Soviet Russia – stage a beauty pageant.
These women grew up during the privatization and collapse of the Russian economy in the 1990s. Unlike their parents, the last generation of Soviets, they had no clear career path, and even if they did they would have trouble finding a job. They grew up poor and hungry, witnessing a corrupt few get unbelievably wealthy while their own family’s standard of living collapsed. “I can’t say that freedom is any different from prison,” says an inmate who had been freed from prison. A former participant in the prison’s annual spring beauty pageant, she was now free and unemployed in a Siberian village, living with her desperately poor father, who weeps as he remembers the good life during Soviet times. Little wonder, then, that these women – part of an unprecedented wave of crime among women in post-Soviet Russia — turned to a life of violent crime, alcohol, and drugs.
The subjects of this film are the untold story about the victory of crony capitalism in Russia. It is a world in which the old communist ideals have collapsed, replaced by a society in which the poor and unlucky – many of them young women — have no protection and virtually no way to get out of poverty. The path from communism to post-Soviet Russia, at least in this documentary, leads to drug abuse, alcoholism, prostitution, and prison. Still, if the Siberian prison is a rough place, it seems no less humane than the world outside its walls. And to their credit, the prison administrators seem to care about rehabilitating the inmates for non-prison life.
The premise of the inmates’ rehabilitation seems to be that making them adhere to familiar ideals of feminine domesticity will turn them into upstanding, law-abiding citizens capable of adjusting to the demands of modern Russian society. The rehabilitation program involves discipline (play by the rules and you’ll get time off), sewing (stitching army uniforms for the all-male Russian army), and a beauty pageant. “I think this will help them in their future lives,” said a prison official, a woman, regarding the rehabilitative potential of the beauty pageant.
The standards for feminine beauty, as in the United States, come straight out of the lotion, shampoo, eyeliner, and lipstick commercials that dominate Russian television. The prison rehabilitation seems to be doing the work of Russian advertisers; it teaches Russian women to feel good about themselves when they look good. It tells them that beauty is skin deep. Judging by the documentary, many women accept this proposition. One contestant, who was cynical and forlorn at the beginning of the documentary, says by the end that she gained a sense of confidence from participating in the pageant that she lacked previously. Making her own costume, applying cosmetics, learning how to strut and preen before an audience, made her feel like a whole Russian woman. Of course, since the parole board sees participation in the pageant as grounds for early release, the contestants have a reason to invest themselves in the process. The system encourages them to trivialize their own sense of beauty.
The pageant is put on exclusively for the female inmates and mostly female administrators – with the exception of two male prison guards, one of whom carries a permanent grin on his face throughout the show. Unstated, yet clear from many shots in the documentary, is an undercurrent of lesbian relationships. The inmate who had earlier been freed from the prison returns at the end of the documentary as a special guest singer for the pageant. She is all gussied up – high heels, black stockings, and hot pants. She speaks to the camera about her intense relationship with an inmate left behind the bars who is also participating in the pageant. They hold hands and appear to embrace as lovers, as other inmates appear to do throughout the documentary. It is perhaps ironic that one of the participants in the pageant may be hoping to get early release – so she can continue her relationship with a former female inmate outside the confines of the prison. Though none of the prison officials say so, it seems clear that one of the reasons for the pageant is to combat the supposedly “abnormal” physical and emotional bonds between women that invariably result from the all-female environment of the prison. In the context of the prison, however, it is the heterosexual relationship that is “unnatural.” The beauty pageant provides a rite of passage out of the women’s prison, preparing the inmates for reentry into the heterosexual world. Once in that world, the prison officials hope, the women will turn away from the emotional and physical comforts of a homosexual relationship and away from the supposedly more male crimes that landed them in jail – armed assault, armed robbery, drug trafficking. Instead, they will find a decent, law-abiding, money-making man and cook and clean. They will look like the women in the TV ads. Rather than staging robberies and injecting heroin, they will take a powder and do their nails.