Out of Russia: Catering for corpulence in post-Communist life

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MOSCOW - Wendy's, the US hamburger chain, used to run a television advertisement mocking a Russian fashion show. It showed a clumsy parade of fat babushkas draped in billowing brown smocks. I can't remember exactly how this was supposed to sell hamburgers, but I think it had something to do with variety - or absence thereof. The Cold War was still on and, we were told, there was no room in the central clothing plan for anyone who didn't look and dress like Leonid Brezhnev's tubby wife. The message: Communism catered to the corpulent, captalism to the chic. Take your pick (and don't worry about all those sloppy beefburgers).

A few days ago, though, I met Maria Slobodskaya, founder and president of 'Robin Bobin', Russia's first club for the flabby. A hefty woman of 38, she looks like an old-style Kremlin wife herself, only a lot less grumpy and a lot more energetic. She quickly demolished the notion that, in Russia at least, being fat was ever fun or fashionable: 'Our fat people are suffering.'

Far from being privileged, she says, they are persecuted, not by politics but from ignorance and too many years squeezed into clothes that don't fit. 'A third of our population is overweight. But there was not a single organisation in the whole country to help them.' Now, along with the champions of countless other forgotten or suppressed causes, Mrs Slobodskaya believes the time has come for Russia's fat people to unite and fight.

Her own initiation to the cause was simple: she got tired of searching for big enough blouses in Moscow's shops. Instead of just cursing the system, like most Russians, she decided to do something about it. She set up her own company, Seasons, and now churns out clothing for the well-endowed. Her largest garment - a 68 in Russian sizes - is as big as a two-man tent. When a Moscow magazine wanted to illustrate an article about Mrs Slobodskaya's garments, it needed two models for each dress.

Forming clubs has been a Russian passion for years, ever since Mikhail Gorbachev decided that the Communist Party and its various subsidiaries - stodgy Soviet bureaucracies such as Komsomol - might be a bit out of touch with the needs of ordinary Russians. As early as 1987, an editorial in Pravda was already reporting with some alarm that two years of glasnost had produced more than 30,000 'amateur associations'.

Every conceivable interest, fetish and enthusiasm was catered for: dog lovers, heavy-metal fans, environmentalists, fascists, motor-cyclists, victims of Stalin, fans of Stalin. Everyone seemd to be forming or joining a club as the permafrost of Soviet life melted away. Somehow, though, fat people got left out. 'Many people with weight trouble felt ashamed. Others didn't know they had a problem. We know nothing about nutrition in this country,' says Mrs Slobodskaya.

But now that they do have a club the response has been overwhelming. Set up only a month ago, Robin Bobin has received 5,000 membership applications in Moscow alone. Another 10,000 people have written asking how to set up local chapters. 'Fat people are an important social force.'

Robin Bobin's aims are explained in a turgid two-page typed manifesto. It begins: 'The club aims to provide pyschological, socio-economic and medical aid and all other forms of assistance to people of excessive weight in order to facilitate their social adaptation and promote the realisation of their creative talents.' There follows a long list of proposed club activities. They range from setting up special kindergartens for fat children to the sponsorship of academic work on the 'theory and practice of being fat'. It ends with a rousing call for fat people of the world to unite.

Club meetings are a lot less dreary. Enlivening its most recent gathering in a second-floor auditorium of the House of Journalists was the singer Sergei Krilov, probably Russia's most famous fat celebrity. He spent two hours answering anxious questions from the floor on how to cope with corpulence. His advice: don't worry about it. 'The aspiration of every fat person is to become a normal one and then to become abnormal again. Fat is a privilege not a defect.'

A huge woman in the back row asks what he thinks is the most difficult part of being overweight. 'Gym class in school. I hated jumping. But one day I locked myself in the sports hall and kept on trying to high jump until I could finally do it.' What does he hope to achieve during his life? 'My life-long dream is to go to the beach in shorts and feel comfortable.' Finally, a rotund man sitting near me asks what the government can do to help: 'Don't bother about the government. Life is a lot better when you can forget it even exists.'

And life in Russia would be lot better for everyone, skinny and fat alike, if there were more people like Mrs Slobodskaya and the other members of Robin Bobin. 'We are not interested in politics,' she says. 'People should learn to help themselves.'