Maria of all the Russias: At a junction on the Trans-Siberian railway, joy unconfined: she's Mexican, she's here, she's the opium of the people. Report and photograph by Andrew Higgins

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The chartered TU-134 jet slid to a halt on an icy runway on the edge of Siberia. It was 11pm, 20 degrees below zero and snowing. The tarmac heaved with people in fur hats. Many had been waiting for hours.

A black Chaika limousine pulled up alongside the plane; an air force band struck up a rousing march - or at least as rousing as can be expected when trumpeters worry about lips being welded to metal mouthpieces by the cold. A television crew, lights ablaze, charged forward. Anxious girls in embroidered dresses moved into position to offer a traditional welcome of bread, salt and thick Ural Mountain honey. Leonid Bagdatyev, a veteran reporter from Tass news agency, scribbled in his notebook. Viktor Morinov, a keen young correspondent for Radio Maximum, delivered a breathless on-the-spot account into his microphone: 'It is a dream come true, a fairytale come to life. Here she is . . .'

Pandemonium. A thin line of police fought back the crowd. There, bathed in television light at the door of the plane, stood their idol - heart-throb and hope to an entire country. She was dressed wholly in black: fur coat, slacks, scarf and boots. (A gushing report of the scene in the local newspaper, Zvezda, would compare her to Anna Karenina.) She smiled, sashayed down the steps, pecked at the ceremonial honey and then spoke: 'Buenas noches.'

For this they risked frostbite - a fleeting glimpse of a slightly plump, 32-year-old Mexican actress unable to speak a word of Russian but who, courtesy of a 125-part telenovela, mesmerises millions of Russians before lunch and after dinner every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

'I've been meeting people at the airport for 20 years,' commented Anatoli Asherbka, a stunned Perm Province official. 'I've never seen anything like it.' The motorcade zoomed off into the night.

The object of their devotion is a low-budget and even lower-brow soap opera, Simply Maria, produced in Mexico City by Televisa and dubbed in a bored Russian monotone for viewers of Ostankino Television across the former Soviet Union. It is the chronicle of a simple village girl, Maria, who loses her virginity to rich Juan Carlos, bears a son, Jose Ignacio, gets dumped, marries earnest Victor, feuds with wicked Lorena, pours out her heart to sweet Rita, opens a dress shop, moves to Paris and wins over gaga Gustavo del Villar, patriarch of her first love's family.

Even the most banal Mexican saga is still a long way from the Perm Trans-Siberian railway junction, outpost of Russia's rusting military-industrial complex and enthusiastic consumer of Terminator vodka. Perm is the classic Soviet city, covered in grubby concrete, closed to foreigners until 1989 and the site, until 1991, of the last camp for political prisoners, Perm-35.

Now it can celebrate. Perm has been graced by 'Maria', or rather by Victoria Ruffo, her husband, Eugenio Derbes, and a flunky from Mexican television brought along to hand out fizzy sweets to fans.

It is not the first time a Mexican star has caused a commotion. Two years ago, Veronica Castro, over-the-hill queen of an 18-year-old series, The Rich Also Weep, visited the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. Swan Lake had to wait for her fans to calm down. Nor is Simply Maria the only soap opera on offer. Ostankino TV's rival, Rossiya, screens Santa Barbara. The American alternative, though, is considered too cerebral.

Simply Maria is pure, uncluttered escapism. And the show's current roadshow takes this distant, sunny dream of overflowing Mexican mini-bars, attentive Latin suitors and good-over-evil morality deep into Russia's frigid heartland.

The Perm Evening News anticipated the big day with a front-page article: 'We All Await Victoria Ruffo.' For Zvezda, the biggest selling local daily, the emotion was too much. Its headline writer gurgled like an infatuated schoolgirl: 'Ahh. Maria, Mary, Mary-pooh.'

She almost didn't make it. High over a frozen forest, her chartered plane shuddered, lurched sideways and slipped into a nosedive. Panic. Then passengers heard what had happened: the pilot had invited 'Maria' to take over the controls. Disaster became a delight. 'I love her; I love her,' cooed Irina Krotova, a dazed 16-year-old, over the whine of engines. 'She is like no one else. I will never have another moment like this.' She clutched a Polaroid snapshot, inscribed, in Spanish: 'To Irina, with Kisses.'

'She is our new narcotic,' explained Vladimir Lenskikh, chief foreign relations bureaucrat, later. 'Our people need something to distract them.' Helping in the task is Mr Lenskikh's wife. She works for Perm TV and is making a two-part series on the Mexicans. Local journalists fill their papers with gleeful news of 'Maria' but are deeply depressed. 'This is all part of the liquidation of culture,' said the editor of Perm News, a shaggy intellectual called Grigory Bazhytin.

Canny dignitaries lined up to see her. Knocked out by jet lag, she slept through a scheduled meeting with the mayor but did make an appointment with the local Orthodox bishop. Candidates for local elections praise her, including even Mikhail Arnopolsky, director of the city's main purveyor of high-brow culture, the Tchaikovsky Opera and Ballet Theatre. 'Life is so grey, why not let people have some fun?' Less forgiving is Sister Olga, an Orthodox nun selling Bibles and icons in the main bookshop off Komsomolsky Prospekt: 'The anti-Christ is among us. Satan fights for our soul.'

A more immediate target is their pocket-books. A ticket to see 'Maria' in the flesh cost 10 times more than a night at the Perm ballet, 40 times more than a play at the drama theatre. The whole venture was organised by an obscure charity called Childhood. Talk of money is taboo. Sergei Murzin, who travelled to Mexico City to negotiate terms, says only that he took hundreds of letters from Russian housewives begging Maria to come. 'She is the one bright spot in millions of miserable lives. She shows life can be beautiful. She changes dresses every time she appears on the screen.'

To get to Perm, the Mexicans needed to change planes at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. Also waiting in the VIP lounge that afternoon was Radovan Karadzic, leader of Bosnia's Serbs. Maria got mobbed. Mr Karadzic got ignored. So much for the deep bonds of kinship and faith that are supposed to bind Russia and Serbia.

No Russian is ever going to pay 20,000 roubles (pounds 9) to watch Mr Karadzic perform. But this is what thousands did in Perm for a seat in the Sverdlov Factory Palace of Culture. The place was packed. The show - the first of four - kicked off with the Simply Maria theme song, amplified to ear-splitting volume. Then a man in a white suit read out questions for 'Maria' from the audience: 'Why are you so cruel to Juan Carlos?' 'Were you not tempted to kill Lorena?' 'How much does bread cost in Mexico?' and, from a devoted but befuddled fan on a Perm collective farm, 'Why do you always milk cows from the left? Is this common practice in Mexico?' Ms Ruffo answered in Spanish. A glum-faced Russian with greasy hair, a beard and tenuous grasp of Spanish translated.

The only other item on the programme was a skit. Ms Ruffo pretended to be French, chased her husband around a sofa and babbled in Spanish with a heavy French accent. Not a word was translated. Not a soul understood. Everyone loved it. 'I've no idea why this is happening,' confessed Ms Ruffo. 'I think it should be studied.' She always dreamt of being an actress but never imagined conquering Russia. 'Maria's message,' she said, 'is simple - kindness and love.' Simple, but seductive when the alternative is a long winter in Perm with only a bottle of Terminator vodka.

(Photographs omitted)

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