Muscovite Notes: `Priests have the same urges as other men'

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IT HAS been an amazing end-of-millennium decade for most Russians. KGB colonels have turned cocktail waiters, ex-Bolshoi dancers are aerobics instructors and strippers, poets are now advertising copywriters.

When I first met Sviatoslav Scherbakov, he was wearing a red jumper with the word "Gucci" in coloured letters across it and a pair of fake Levi 501s. His hair was long and tied at the back in a ponytail. It was 1992, and as a fashion statement it was certainly no worse than others in Moscow, which made you think you were navigating your way through the pages of a 1950s National Geographic. At the time Sviatos was working as a fixer for Western photographers who had arrived in post-Soviet Moscow faster than the first IMF loan but, unable to speak the language, were as helpless as newborn babies.

It was a week later when I discovered why Sviatos's hair was so long and his nails so well manicured. Sviatos, as well as deriving an income from western news desks had another, more profitable source of income. He was an Orthodox priest who had abandoned the gloomy interiors of the golden domed churches to bless the shiny new cars and apartments of the nouveaux riches.

He wasn't the only Russian priest to have understood that the first generation of money-making Russians would feel the superstitious need to assuage the gods of greed by a sacrificial offering - in this case hard currency.

For a time, in the mid-1990s, the broad seven-lane Kutosovski Prospect beyond the triumphal arch was littered by men in dark habits holding homemade cardboard placards offering divine benefaction. Anything from businesses to cars. Apartments, depending on the size, were blessed on a sliding scale which started at $100. The dark-windowed 4x4 Cherokee jeeps, the Russian mafia's car of choice, came slightly cheaper.

Sviatos's rise from the pulpit had a meandering route. For a while, after he graduated from the Yekaterinburg seminary where he studied for a decade, he sold ladies' underwear before boning up on his English language skills to become a translator.

At the time, he was in his early thirties and dating the curvaceous 18-year-old Masha. When I asked him if sleeping with women half his age ever went against the religious teachings of the Orthodox Church, he simply sighed and told me that priests had the same urges as other men. Look at Rasputin.

He lived in a one-roomed apartment which he shared with his aged pilgrim mother who, when she wasn't travelling around Russian churches, slept on a truckle bed in the kitchen. It wasn't an easy partnership. Sviatos, who rarely eats Russian food, complained bitterly when his mother sent his German yoghurts and Italian spinach pasta down the communal rubbish chute, claiming the barcodes to be the sign of the Devil.

On one occasion she nearly fused his laptop by dousing it in holy water. His girlfriends were banned and Sviatos was kept awake by his mother's religious incantations echoing around the flat into the early hours.

But that was then. Now, in line with the rest of Sviatos's five-year- plan of personal development, he only dates Westerners, complaining that Russian women's mentality is too primitive.

Sviatos's hair is now fashionably short and he wears authentic Levis, a dashing fur-lined black leather jacket and Italian boots. His girlfriend moved in with him when his mother was dispatched to return to a church in Yekaterinburg. Though recently made redundant from the picture desk of a German magazine based in Moscow (and now the entrepreneurial zeal of Russians no longer appears to require religious blessing), he is confident of finding a position elsewhere.

If he doesn't, he admits he might have to return to underwear sales.

Georgina Wroe is the author of `Slaphead', a novel set in Moscow (Headline, pounds 5.99)