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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high