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Changing Lifestyles : Prostitution Rising as Tough Times Wear on Soviet People : In the Cold War era, call girls worked for the KGB's political goals. Now they're on their own and motivated by money.

November 12, 1991|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KIEV, Soviet Union — Larissa sits alone at the bar of the Intourist Hotel. She is 20, with long chestnut hair and the face of a Ukrainian madonna.

She is also a hard-currency prostitute who sells her body to strangers for valuta --dollars, deutschemarks, lira and yen.

Lighting up her first cigarette of the evening, Larissa smiles sweetly and explains why she dons her leopard-print mini-dress and black boots several nights a week and makes her way to this chilly hotel lounge to dangle her long legs over a bar stool.

"For us, life has become very difficult," Larissa says. "I have a little daughter to raise, and I work in (a) children's hospital but the pay is only 200 rubles a month ($6.50 at the tourist exchange rate). It is not enough to live."

Unlike the beautiful call girls of the Cold War era, Larissa and thousands of young women like her are not working under direct orders of the KGB--their prime motivation is economic.

And if the police are involved nowadays, the women say it's often to collect bribes for averting their eyes from this supposedly illegal activity.

The proliferation in most Soviet cities of sleek, pricey prostitutes with a Western clientele illustrates the depth of the economic and moral collapse in this onetime superpower.

Last year, the Soviet press wrung its hands as it reported a poll in which 60% of schoolgirls said they want to be \o7 valuta\f7 prostitutes when they grow up. When American broadcaster Ted Koppel visited Moscow last year to film a special television report on sex in the Soviet Union, he found a study in which women ranked prostitution 8th among the top 20 preferred professions.

Many of the young women haunting hotel bars today have attended college and speak English. But the Soviet system doesn't pay doctors and university professors enough to live on. So women turn to the world's oldest profession, selling the only thing they have for which there is always a steady demand.

Across the Soviet Union, police charged 5,849 women with prostitution in 1990, according to Interior Ministry statistics. But that was just women caught \o7 in flagrante delicto\f7 and doesn't begin to reflect actual figures, police and the women themselves say.

Larissa's husband, for instance, sends home money each month from St. Petersburg, where he has found a construction job. But even their combined income isn't enough to fend off 30% monthly inflation in the post-\o7 perestroika \f7 Soviet Union. So about a year ago, without telling her husband, Larissa started moonlighting.

She doesn't consider herself a prostitute, it's only a "hobby," she says, and she plans to quit in two years after saving up enough money.

Already, she has been able to buy a Lada car, a brown leather jacket and a five-room flat, an unspeakable luxury in this land of chronic housing shortages. But like any red-blooded capitalist, Larissa is also thinking long-run.

"You see, I have a dream, I would like to open a little boutique and run my own business. Each month I put away some money," she says.

But it's difficult to sock away dollars in this profession, when there are so many people who must be paid off.

Unlike some of the more seedy Moscow hotels, the Kiev Intourist prides itself on running a clean ship, and there are no obvious on-the-make ladies lounging in the hotel lobby or knocking on doors at midnight wearing a big smile and not much else.

But hotel manager Nikolai T. Yefimov acknowledges that prostitutes do get in, despite the OMON gray beret Interior Ministry troops that guard the entrance each night and the private security guards who stand at each exit.

"This is the result of democracy," Yefimov says. "Before we didn't have any freedom but we had order. Now we have freedom, and we also have narcotics, prostitution, rackets and black markets."

"We pay a lot of money for these guards but the prostitutes remain a very big problem for us," he continued, shrugging his shoulders. "If you go to the guards they'll say, 'Oh, there's no problem,' but I'm not so sure."

His suspicions are not unfounded. Larissa says the security guards let her slip through a side entrance for 50 rubles--one-quarter of her legal monthly wage.

That's just to sit at the basement bar. If she meets a customer and wants to go upstairs with him, she must pay the hotel staff an additional $30. In dollars, not rubles, and the average Soviet citizen has no access to dollars.

Larissa, who charges $100 an hour, says Italian and Japanese businessmen are the most generous and sometimes give her $200. Americans, she adds, can be cheap and sometimes pay only $50.

Right now, she has no pimp, just a number of thuggish "friends" who materialized suddenly at the hotel bar one evening when she was spending too much time talking to another woman instead of looking available.

"All the girls at this hotel used to have a manager, and we each paid him $100 a month," Larissa says, "but he got in trouble with the police, and now we are on our own."

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