The dangers and hardships of life in Moscow have brought hundreds of Russians to London over the past few years, including prostitutes seeking a less stressful life and women who, reluctant to go home, took to prostitution to pay the bills. Svyeta thinks there are at least a hundred Russian working girls in London, not including those from the other former Soviet bloc countries.
She pulls her cardigan off to reveal that she is covered in purple bruises. "Of course nobody hit me!" she laughs. "I had a goodbye party the night before I left. I don't remember much of it but I think there must have been a fight." So far she has dealt with only English clients who find her from the phone booth card that Tanya, her friend, and Oleg, their "little brother", had made up for her before she arrived. "It doesn't say I'm Russian because I don't have a resident's visa and you never know who's reading the signs. Also I don't really speak English so if people ask me difficult questions I can't defend myself. I think Oleg would disappear pretty fast if the authorities got involved!" she explains.
Svyeta began a degree in engineering when she left school but was uninspired and desperate to get out of Petrozavodsk. She entered a local beauty contest and came third, but the organiser told her that if she accompanied him to Moscow he would get her a modelling contract. "Of course he didn't," she says, without seeming to mind. "He just wanted a young girlfriend, but I was naive and I went with him. I think my parents were pleased for me. He found me this horrible flat in the suburbs of Moscow living with another family who thought I was a tart and hated me. He came to see me a few times a week but I had no money and nothing to do and I got very depressed. I told him I wanted to go out more so he bribed someone to get me membership at a gym in the centre of town that foreigners and hard- currency prostitutes go to. I met some of the girls and they said I could get away from him and earn lots of money. It turned out to be true."
But the dangers of living and working in Moscow began to make life difficult. "I didn't have many clients but some of them were involved in all kinds of business and it made me nervous having them in my apartment. I had steel doors and bars on the windows and I lived with a girlfriend, but I knew a girl who got killed and I wanted to move. I wanted to come to London to see Tanya even before she started working here, but when she called I was really ready to get out."
Now she shares a small flat in the West End with Tanya, which they rent from Oleg, who has lived in London for five years. "I love it here. The English are funny clients. They seem so shy all the time and they keep talking to me. I can't really understand them and it's embarrassing anyway. When they are quiet, I like them more than Russians. Also the money is good and I want to send a lot of it back home to my parents. They think I am a dancer. It would be expensive to live here but there are enough Russians in London for us to help each other out."
Tanya is distinctly less impressed with London life than her newly arrived friend. She slumps herself into the velour sofa still in her coat and scarf and scowls. "I hate Oxford Street on Saturdays," she spits and reaches for Svyeta's empty cigarette packet. Tanya is older, 25, and speaks good English. She had a more glamorous life style than Svyeta back in Moscow and had not expected to have to work in London or to move into this relatively shabby flat.
"Khachik was doing really well back at home, exporting timber. I think I was working the hotels when I met him - I used to skip classes at the Institute with my sister to work and earn money from the foreigners. It was so easy; the Japanese would pay us up to $200 (pounds 130). Anyway, Khachik stopped me working. We moved straight to Highgate when we arrived and we were renting this huge house from some former diplomats or someone. When he left for New York in January I really thought he was coming back but then someone came for the rent and I couldn't pay. I moved in with a friend who was working for Russians only in the West End and, I suppose, here I am."
She gets herself some wine out of the fridge and sits down again. "Bastard!" she spits, but she is smiling.
She sees more clients than Svyeta expects to because she does not have to be so careful about being an illegal immigrant. She is enrolled at a language school and therefore has permission to be here. "I see quite a lot of Russians and darker people (from the former Soviet republics) - mostly Khachik's friends. But lately I have started seeing more English blokes. They are peculiar. You get quite used to Russians being loud and aggressive but basically they are in and out and you know where you are. A lot of the English see it as some sort of date and are shocked when you just ask them what they want and to get on with it. Half of them are depressed and want to tell you all about themselves. I really don't care about their stupid lives."
Usually Tanya sees three or four clients a day. "Sometimes quite a few more. Sometimes none if I'm having a day off. I tend to start work at about five or six - before that I don't bother to answer the phone unless it is someone I know well who might want to come over at lunchtime or whatever. The Englishmen all have regular types of jobs so they come at lunch or after work, not usually so late at night. The Russians have different life styles here and they might easily call you at four in the morning. I try to work at home but I will go to the houses of people I already know.
"Usually I will see them for a short time only. A whole night would be expensive - in the hundreds, though it would depend on the person, of course."
Neither woman has a boyfriend at the moment and both say they would stop working immediately if they had one. Svyeta thinks it would be fun to marry an English gentleman and live in the country but Tanya is more philosophical. "I think I could only marry a Russian, because only a Russian would understand what I am doing now and wouldn't mind so much. An English person would get moral about it and be jealous and stupid." Tanya has in fact been married before, to a boy from her home village in the Ukraine. "I was 18 when I married him and 19 when I divorced him for sleeping with my sister," she says, both hands clasped round her tumbler of wine.
Both women are essentially optimistic about their situation. Svyeta is simply glad to be out of Russia and is still exploring London, and Tanya sees herself retiring to a life of leisure with a wealthy Russian husband in the near future. "If I ever do go back to Moscow," says Svyeta giggling, "it will be in a Rolls-Royce."
"When I go back," sighs Tanya, kicking her shoes off and peering with curiosity at the dark nail varnish on her toes, "it will be in my husband's private plane. I'll be in the Jacuzzi all the way over."Reuse content