Tim Walker: 'There's no cold front from Russia when it comes to hosting beauty pageants'

"Russian males enthusiastically celebrate the existence of their womenfolk"
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The Independent Culture

The Russians like to joke that their country is famous for three things: beautiful women, vodka, and "the third one doesn't matter". It loses something in translation, but apparently it's hilarious. I had the strange and unexpected pleasure of experiencing both items on this incomplete list last week, at the annual Miss Russia beauty pageant in Moscow.

In this country (Britain: famous for bellies and warm beer), we abhor such "sexist" shindigs, as the organisers of the Miss University contest in London discovered on Tuesday evening, when protesters stormed the stage and threw stink bombs. Throw so much as a wink at the stage in Moscow, and I fear you'd face exile to the gulag, or death by radioactive tea. But the female half of the Russian population is – proportionately speaking – gorgeous, and rightly proud of it.

The contest also coincides, by chance or design, with International Women's Day, when Russian males unselfconsciously and enthusiastically celebrate the existence of their womenfolk, who seem happy to soak up the adoration. I'm left to wonder whether it's more or less sexist to ignore the date, as we seem to in the UK.

Muscovite society's great, good and not-so-good consumed vodka cocktails and preposterous amuse-bouches in the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall until the contestants took to the stage. Last year's Miss Russia, a spectacular Siberian named Ksenia Sukhinova, went on to become Miss World. Fluttering her formidable eyelashes, she assured me before the ceremony that the key to victory was "inner beauty". Dayana Mendoza, the current Miss Universe and one of the six-strong judging panel, said much the same thing. I nodded along eagerly as they spoke, thoroughly convinced.

Inner beauty was clearly the concern of the (mostly male and middle-aged) organisers of the event, and of Mendoza's fellow judges; among them a fitness club mogul and the editor of Russian Vogue. As I sat through the swimwear round – 50 leggy Russian girls parading across the stage in high heels and undies – I was so rapt in contemplation of their inner beauty that I spilt champagne on my favourite tie.

After the evening dress round, by which time we were down to the last five young ladies, came the Q&A. A Russian translated the contestants' answers for me, and no, they didn't exactly sound like the soul of wit. But these are girls (some as young as 16) from such faraway provincial towns as Krasnodar and Vladivostock. It's surely too much to expect them to cater to the comic or cultural expectations of their metropolitan Moscow audience, let alone some media type from London who can't understand a word of Russian besides "glasnost" and "perestroika".

The eventual winner's contribution, however, confidently crossed borders – 18-year-old Sophia Rudyeva from St Petersburg hummed a pitch-perfect three seconds of Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee". She's even brunette. A turn up for the books, I'm told, for a contest that goes blonde by instinct – and a clear victory for the intellectual lobby. At the end of the ceremony, I was interviewed by an English-language Russian TV station. I haven't seen the clip, but I believe it's online somewhere, of me, vodka and champagne-fuelled, fervently congratulating the Eurasians around me on their dazzling inner beauty. Sexist, my foot.

***

It's good to see the Today programme taking baby steps into the modern world. Last week, Humphrys, Naughtie et al filmed their first "viral", a word intoned by the presenters as if it really were an extremely embarrassing infectious disease.

A year or so ago, if memory serves, Radio 4's flagship had a traditional website with nothing more advanced than a 'listen again' function. One presenter in particular took pride in his resistance to the technological siege. If I have to listen to John Humphrys splutter contemptuously the word "podcast" one more time, I used to think to myself, I'll be forced to take an old-fashioned blunt instrument to my radio, digital radio, internet radio, laptop or ipod.

Now, however, we have a daily video round-up of the show, a Twitter feed, two presenters born after 1960, and the programme's first valiant attempt at a viral. Yes, any item on virals is at least two years late, and yes, the finished product is the sort of thing my Mum would like were she a fan of the three-minute internet clip (she is not). But still. At least they're trying.

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