Sexual politics: The mayor who turned provocateur

Russia's first sex museum depicts the country's prime minister with two enormous phalluses. Shaun Walker meets the founder

A 19th-century wood-carved African phallic charm seems like an odd object with which to fight against Vladimir Putin and the Russian political system, but that is what Alexander Donskoi claims he is doing.

Mr Donskoi is the founder and curator of Russia's first sex museum, which opened in Moscow last week. His path has been an unusual one.

In the middle of a light-hearted tour of the museum, which features sex toys from around the world, silicon female mannequins "with working organs" and statuettes of various rutting animals, Mr Donskoi casually mentions his past. "I've been looking for something interesting to do since I came out of prison," he says. "I used to be the mayor of Arkhangelsk."

And suddenly it all comes back. A local businessman, Mr Donskoi went into politics and managed to beat the candidate standing for Mr Putin's United Russia party, becoming mayor of the northern city of Arkhangelsk in 2005. Mayoral elections were the last directly elected posts after Mr Putin abolished elections for regional governors in 2004. By mobilising a local support base, Mr Donskoi scored a narrow victory. He announced his intention to stand for president in 2008. Not necessarily a realistic ambition, but one that appears to have frightened the authorities into bringing a court case against him.

Mr Donskoi was eventually arrested at the end of 2006, on charges of falsifying his academic qualifications, and spent the next two years in and out of courtrooms and prisons. He was released on the day that Medvedev became president in 2008, banned from taking part in elections and from leaving the country, he says.

"My plan was to be mayor for eight years and then go into politics at the national level," says the 41-year-old, sitting at a table in the museum covered with vintage pornography books. "Afterwards I thought long about what to do and I decided on this. First and foremost it's a project about freedom. We don't value freedom enough in Russia, and that's where all our problems stem from."

The unlikely new project is housed in a basement just off Moscow's Novy Arbat thoroughfare, famous for its huge Khrushchev-era tower blocks, and in post-Soviet Russia, known for the dozens of casinos that lined it until gambling was banned in most of Russia in 2009. As well as the museum hall itself, the complex also features an "intimate cafe" with red leather couches, and a large sex shop selling everything from Korean-made silicon artificial female genitalia to lubricants and sexy underwear. A local touch comes in the form of erotic matryoshki, an adult take on the traditional Russian "nesting dolls", featuring a fully clothed woman on the outer layer, with each subsequent doll shedding an item of clothing until the final figure emerges stark naked.

A screen in the museum shows short erotic clips from Soviet cinema, from awkward conversations about sex in 1950s to bare-breasted women frolicking in a sauna in a perestroika-era film. It ends with the famous quote from a 1980s talk show: "There is no sex in the Soviet Union". There is certainly plenty of sex in modern Russia – the country has some of the most sexually charged nightlife and widespread prostitution of any in the world. Yet there is still much confusion around how sex should be approached in public discourse – there is no sex education in schools and little discussion on television.

As the museum garners publicity, there is likely to be strong criticism from the Orthodox Church, a deeply conservative institution which has successfully lobbied to keep sex education out of Russian schools, and is deeply against displays of sexuality in public life. One of its top spokesmen even suggested earlier this year that a dress code should be introduced for women, to stop them wearing overly provocative clothing.

Mr Donskoi says he has no time for the Orthodox Church. "We are a secular state and people should be able to express themselves however they want," he says.

"I remember when I was mayor, the top Church figures would drink expensive whisky during Lent; they would try to hold negotiations with me about getting in on business deals. I don't think these people can teach us how to live." He also criticises moralising politicians, who preach family values in public but in private, he says, are some of the country's biggest users of prostitutes.

Mr Donskoi says that in promoting "sexual freedom", the museum is a political statement, but the only overtly political comment is part of an exhibition of lurid sexual art by a St Petersburg-based artist. The most bizarre painting in the set shows a naked Vladimir Putin phallic sparring with an equally naked Barack Obama. The American President is clutching a wad of dollars, while the Russian Prime Minister has a bearskin over his head, is surrounded by oil and gas, and is painted with not one but two enormous phalluses. Around them fly dozens of small dragons, all of whom are also well endowed. "It's a very political work," says Elena, one of the museum's guides. "Everything on here has a deep political meaning. I'm just not quite sure what exactly it is, yet."

The only visitor on a weekday morning was a rather sheepish looking middle-aged man, but staff say that the museum has proved popular with all age groups, and that in the first three days since the opening, more than 1,000 people have visited.

"We've actually probably had more women than men," says Elena. "Then there are a lot of couples that come together." The older generation are the most curious, she says, but also often the most embarrassed. "Sometimes we get old men in, and I try to show them around and they say, 'Sorry, but I'm from the Soviet school and I find it embarrassing to talk about such things.' But they soon warm up, and before long they're asking questions, and telling stories about their own lives and past."

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