"Do you have a problem?" asked the pert young woman behind the counter. "Er, just looking, thanks," I said as I browsed through the orgasm creams and ejaculation delay sprays.
This was not Soho, or even Moscow, where sex shops hardly raise eyebrows any longer. This was deeply provincial Ryazan, the centre of a farming region south-east of Moscow which sends potatoes and other produce to market in the Russian capital.
The women of Ryazan are known for their loud voices. There is a Russian expression: "to shout like a Ryazan farmer's wife". But, until now, I had never made a mental connection between Ryazan and the erotic. Unless the sight of women carrying buckets from the well on yokes, still a fairly common feature of the Russian countryside, can be considered sexually arousing.
Here though, in the middle of Ryazan old town, in the shadow of the 17th century Uspensky cathedral, was a little lilac-coloured house called Magazin Intim. Dr Sergei Grigoriev, a sex therapist, launched the venture last year to co-incide with celebrations marking the 900th anniversary of the founding of Ryazan.
A large plastic penis hung outside the shop. I do not usually frequent such establishments but you will understand that in this case I found it hard to resist the lure.
"You'll have to talk to the doctor," said the pert young woman when she realised my problem was that I was short of a story. "He'll tell you everything you want to know." In the back office, Dr Grigoriev was playing with a Siamese kitten. He was enormously fat. The mind boggled at the idea of him... but we will not go into that.
He seemed friendly. "We're here to help people," he said. "They're put off by the idea of going to hospital with their sexual problems. They find it easier to come to a shop. At first they pretend they are just looking. Then they start to speak about what's troubling them."
The commonest problems are impotence and failure to experience orgasm. Dr Grigoriev said Russian living conditions were often to blame. "There is still a terrible housing crisis. Granny is often listening through the wall. The men take to drink and the women give up hope."
Dr Grigoriev said he treated men who had become impotent as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, and amputees, including veterans of the war in Afghanistan. "I can give them artificial penises. They are able to give physical pleasure to their women and this gives them mental relief."
Dr Grigoriev kept a straight face as he said this but I found it hard to imagine many "real" Russian men getting mental relief in that way. I began to feel he was "hanging noodles on my ears" (telling me tall stories). Altogether, there was something rather odd about the shop.
Although the doctor insisted his services were of a purely medical nature, the product range - blow-up dolls, vibrators and pornographic magazines - suggested otherwise. Unusually for the Russian provinces, the goods were priced in dollars rather than roubles, and expensive too, a fact which could not have escaped the attention of those who "protect" local business.
Behind the shop was a warren of rooms whose use was unclear. The doctor's business card said: "Grigoriev Sergei Viktorovich, Director of the Production- Commercial Individual Private Enterprise 'Sergei'."
It was a relief to walk out into the warm, spring sunshine. And then I saw an extraordinary sight. The police were holding up the traffic, as they did in Soviet times for the Zil limousines of Communist Party officials, to allow the passage of a convoy of buses and foreign-made cars. It was a mafia funeral.
In a flash, I understood why earlier in the morning I had seen thugs with mobile phones and machine guns on the steps of my hotel. Now I realised they must have been preparing for the funeral.
Later, I read all about it in the local paper. Four people had been wounded and citizen Gordiev and his female partner, citizen Sazonova, killed in a shoot-out at the Rus night club.
Not only was there sex in Ryazan but violence too. I could not put my finger on it but, in an obscure way, I felt the sex and violence were related. Certainly this was a murky world I hardly expected to find in the Russian provinces. Moscow would seem a safe and innocent place after this.
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