On closer inspection, I noticed that the lips of Mother Russia and of the child had been painted a bright carmine red. That was all. The monument was not defaced in any other way. It was hard to be sure. Kids might have done it for a joke.
But when I entered the village of Domoslavl, there could be no mistake. A teenage girl, dressed in white like the statue and with lips painted the same shade of red, was sitting on a bench. Down the whole length of the village, outside the fairytale wooden cottages, other girls were sitting on benches in the gathering dusk.
It was as my source had said. Here, on the edge of the Valdai lake district, one of the most beautiful national parks in European Russia, the population was reduced to such poverty that young women were selling themselves as prostitutes to passing drivers. The war memorial marked the start of the sex zone.
Last August, I drove up the same road and saw country people hawking buckets of berries, and workers from the Red May crystal factory, paid in kind rather than cash, trying to sell goblets and vases by the roadside. A year is a long time in Russian politics. Three prime ministers have come and gone. But ordinary Russians have only got poorer.
How do you start a conversation with a prostitute? In Domoslavl, it was all so obvious that the conversation happened naturally. "Yes, it's true," the pretty girl in the white dress said simply. She introduced herself as Katya. Soon she was joined by a fat lass in a white blouse, also called Katya. And a woman with straggly blond hair called Ira. And a giggly girl in velvet called Vika.
They were working. They were ready to serve clients, to be sure. But consciously or unconsciously, they were also making a statement. By theidentification with the statue, they were saying: "We and our country have come to this." It was a cry of despair, one they could not or did not want to articulate to me. "Some other girls did it," was all they said, when I asked who had painted the lips of Mother Russia.
With a pimp hovering in a nearby shop doorway - he made a note of my car registration number - our conversation was necessarily terse. Pretty Katya gave direct, practical answers but was not inclined to chat.
The girls earned 50 roubles (pounds 1.25) for oral sex and 100 roubles for intercourse during daylight hours, she said. The rate went up at night. The mafia controlled the business and the police took their cut. "Sure, it's dangerous and frightening for us," said Katya. "The clients take us off the road and we do it in their cars. So far, none of the girls has been hurt."
Katya, 21, said she had trained as a hairdresser but there was no work in the area. Fat Katya, 18, said that her qualification as a seamstress was equally useless as jobs were unobtainable. Ira, an older married woman with children, said that since her husband was unemployed, she had to go on the game to keep the family.
The area north of the industrial city of Tver is, indeed, an economic wasteland. Apart from the Red May glass factory, turning out crystal that nobody wants, there are few employers. The textile factories in the town of Vyshny Volochok are dying. Collective farms have collapsed while private agriculture has yet to flourish.
The region, with its pine trees and lakes, has great tourist potential but the infrastructure is not there to attract visitors who can get the same beauty with more comfort and service in Scandinavia. Girls who might have made hotel receptionists or waitresses turn to the oldest profession.
"If there is nothing for the older generation, then it is even harder for the youngsters to find a place in life," said Valya, a retired teacher, tending her goat on the grass verge. "It's common knowledge that this [the prostitution] is going on. Of course, we don't like it. We find it painful and embarrassing. But we all turn a blind eye to it."
"Never happened in my day," laughed Nina Vladimirovna, a pensioner. Suddenly she had to dash for the bus, the only one of the afternoon in this public transport desert where bus and train timetables are made not to co-ordinate.
The police station at Vyshny Volochok, the nearest administrative centre, looked like a Wild West jailhouse. On the pavement outside, a middle-aged man in a shell suit stood smoking with a swaggering youth in a cowboy hat, shoelace tie and square-cut black boots.
"Have you got permission from the chief?" asked the junior detective inside the station. I answered in the affirmative. He agreed to speak on condition that I did not name him.
"What can I tell you about the situation on the road?" he said. "We know who all the pimps are. And the ex- prostitutes, who are now madams. We know that something stands above them. The mafia, Russian in this case, not Caucasian. The girls are mostly local. They get transported from village to village by minibus.
"Both soliciting and exploiting prostitutes are illegal in Russia. Of course, the girls are only to be pitied, really. We would like to help them but it is a hard struggle. They simply won't give evidence against the people using them."
On the street outside again, the shell suit and the cowboy had met the police chief. Laughing, they all got into a car and zoomed on to the highway.
Returning to Moscow, I passed through Domoslavl once more. At a motel outside the village, some "hitchhikers" I had seen before were still flagging down cars in the same place for the second day running. In the town five lorries were parked. "Broken down," said one of the drivers. "I know about the girls, poor things. Would never use one. Happily married man with kids, hurrying home to the wife."
Five lorries, all broken down in one village. And as I drove away, I saw in my mirror a couple of girls approach the cabs. Waifs in white dresses. One of the most haunting sights in this suffering country.Reuse content