Russians prefer fur to animal rights

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IT WAS a bracing autumn morning in Moscow, yet three young women were standing outside in nothing more than underpants, fluffy ears and a film of yellow stage paint, daubed with black spots.

Billing themselves as "exotic leopards", the trio had arrived to protest outside a fur fair that opened in Moscow yesterday. But they found themselves unexpectedly confronted by 80 Russian photographers, cameramen and correspondents who trapped them in a tight circle.

The advance publicity had promised nudity, and the hacks weren't going home without it. "Drop it, drop it," the press demanded, referring to a banner that was covering the protesters' upper torsos. The women refused, remarking that the banner's slogan - "Only Animals Should Wear Fur" - was the whole point.

A few years ago, such scenes would have been unimaginable in Russia. When anti-fur protesters pulled a similar stunt in Red Square two years ago, they ended up spending eight hours behind bars. This time their protest outside the Expo-Centre beside the Moscow River was watched by a knot of Interior Ministry police who looked on mildly amused.

But not all attitudes have changed, which is why the "leopards" were there. Russians are as wedded as ever to the fur coats. They sweep aside ethical complaints by arguing that it would be impossible to survive in minus 40C without burying themselves beneath a soft layer of fox, sable or mink.

Such is the demand that six tons of skins are imported each year into Russia, supplementing the output of nearly 100 big fur farms. "Ethical arguments are all right for foreigners, but here they are not taken seriously," said one of the on-looking policemen, "The conditions here are completely different."

Changing that view is a huge undertaking in a country in which almost everyone, at the very least, owns a fur hat, and where the population can instantly tell one another's social standing from what sits on top of their heads.

Yet the protesters, from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), were hopeful. "It is the ultimate bastion," said Canadian Toni Vernelli, 26, who was one of the trio, "but it is falling".

But is it? Prices in Russia rose by 43 per cent in the first half of this month. Many thousands of people have been laid off by collapsed banks and businesses, including a swathe from Moscow's cosmopolitan and middle- class generation of twenty-somethings. The economy is a mess, and certain to worsen.

In spite of this, yesterday's exhibition was teeming with visitors, picking their way from $5,000 mink to $8,000 sables. "It is like feasting during a plague," remarked Yelena Sukovkina, 32, another of the protesters, as the guests filed into the Expo past her.

Russians claim that when crises erupt, those with money to spare do two things: They buy gold, because it is unlikely to devalue, and they buy fur - a luxury asset that they call myagkoye zoloto (soft gold).

It will, it seems, take more than a melt-down to get Russians out of fur. "Winters will always be cold. All women love a natural fur, and they always will," said Marina Radina, 36, browsing through the racks.

Even so, the Peta protesters can claim one small victory: Two months ago a shop opened in Moscow selling fake furs.