Shrieks as Moscow gets the Full Monty

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ANY VISITOR to a back street near the Lubyanka, once the KGB citadel of an empire's nosy-parker moral arbiters, could draw only one conclusion on Friday night: amid an economic hurricane, Moscow has finally gone mad.

Rising above the capital's bustle came a chorus of hundreds of gleeful voices, all female. "Sex!", they bellowed, in unison. "Sex!" And then again, louder: "SEX!"

Undeterred by their nation's gloom, or perhaps because of it, some Russians are still having fun. That it should be young women, whose source of entertainment is a troupe of greasy-torsoed male strippers - Russia's answer to "The Full Monty" - is further proof that the gender best suited to survive history's trials is not the hairy eyebrowed variety that usually sits in the Kremlin. She is found ebullient and defiant, in micro-skirt and stilettos, at a night club called The Hungry Duck.

A thousand women turned out on Friday night to watch "Dillon's Show", a group of Russian males, who stride about in g-strings on a long bar- top, flexing oiled muscles, tossing mousse-laden locks, and showing off their bottoms.

Queues are customary at Russia's shops and banks, but the line waiting to get in the club - a utilitarian-looking dump once the Soviet Home of Working Artists - was longer than any I have seen in two months. Nor have I seen so many people crammed into one bar. Within the hot gloom and din, there were hundreds and hundreds of girls, bopping on tables, cheering, and knocking back beer in plastic cups as if there was no tomorrow (which, for some here, there isn't).

They paid 10 roubles (30p) to get in. Drinks were free, men were banned until the performance end. But the males were there, swigging beer in feral, prickly-skulled, clumps outside the door. Later, many would clamber through the upstairs windows, to avoid paying their higher (50 rouble) fee. "It's just a good night out," said Olga, an 18-year-old student, before the DJ, a New Yorker, interrupted with another demand that we should shout the word "SEX", louder still. She started again. "Its just a ... hang on a minute. WHOOPIE! OH YEAH!" A sequin-spangled man in a baseball cap, wearing jeans that looked as if they had mauled by a combine harvester and - inexplicably - leather fingerless driving gloves, had appeared on the bar top. Peeling off his clothes, he was preparing to execute a thigh-chafing twirl around a metal bar. The cheering crowd rushed forward into two roving spotlights, eager to touch. Olga was gone. I had more success with Vika, a 17-year-old computer science student. No, her parents didn't know she was there. And, yes, she thought it was all great. She found it funny. (Not everyone did; amid the gyrating throng of spectators, some stripped to their bras, several girls were crying.) "People should be allowed to do what they like," she said Including, we agreed, Bill Clinton. Like most Russians, she regarded the public dissection of the American president's private life with incomprehension.

"We are going to talk about sex, sex, SEX!" yelled the DJ, to another gust of cheers and frantic arm waving. Another man arrived, another inverted triangle of bouncing near-naked sinew, who began simulating copulation, close to the beer pumps.

The show is, it must be said, a good deal raunchier than mere stripping off. In fact, Montys do not come much fuller than this. They have been at it, these young men, since January, performing to women in a society where sexual liberation has evolved about as far as the lung fish, and which - for all its reputation for Slavic glumness - knows how to throw a party.

Their leader is a 24-year-old Nigerian law student called Dillon Oloyede, who got involved because he needed money to pay for his lessons. He has since realised there are sizeable sums out there. He is coy about exactly how much he and his nine Russian fellow performers make a night, but agrees it is more than $100 each - the average monthly salary in parts of Russia.

But it is a tough beat, as a long scar on his ribcage testifies. Three months ago, he was stabbed after a show. Although racism runs deep here, he prefers to think his assailant was high on drugs. He has seen "The Full Monty", and approved, although the other two strippers in the dressing room - a male model and a factory worker - have not.

Like the "Monty" stars, they are survivors, people who know how to adapt to an ailing economy, and make money. They are helped by a certain (though not total) lack of prudery in Russia, which recently showed Lolita on state-run TV.

Mr Oloyede is unashamed of his work. "The important thing to remember is that I am an actor," he said, adjusting his silk, sequinned jock strap. " It is not sex, it is a performance. Being an actor, I feel I have to behave as a president, appearing before my people".

He says this, standing almost naked before me, without the slightest trace of irony.