Why you should care

Because most people aren’t going to make it to the Prada runway.

Julia Smirnova is a Moscow correspondent for Die Welt.

On a dark winter morning in Murmansk, Russia, 14-year-old Dascha Meteljowa gets up just before six. She does her makeup, fixes her hair and then leaves the flat. In the stairwell, the paint is peeling; Dascha steps out into the dark. It’s the polar night — 24 hours of darkness — during which people place daylight lamps in their windows, to provide sunlight for the plants. And themselves.

Dascha walks in ankle boots through the snowy streets. When she arrives at school, she changes her shoes. High heels, just like her friends.

Today Dascha’s class has math, Russian, literature and history. Her teacher quotes Anton Chekhov: “People should be beautiful in every way — in their faces, in the way they dress, in their thoughts and in their innermost selves.” Dascha’s parents expect their daughter to achieve. Dascha is a good student, scoring A’s and B’s. She has played the cello for eight years. But that doesn’t matter to Dascha or her parents.

Dascha has a singular goal: to become a model. Her mother forbids her to cut or dye her hair. Not because she has different plans for Dascha, but because she supports her. “Did you ever see a model with short hair?” she asks. Dascha’s mother desires one thing: for her daughter to leave their homeland. In Murmansk, Dascha has no future prospects, her mother says.

The harbor city was once the Soviet Arctic’s flourishing outpost. In 1989, Murmansk had 468,000 inhabitants, compared with today’s 300,000. The cityscape is made up of desolate panel-built concrete blocks, most of which are derelict. Not unlike prison, another place where people secretly plot their escapes.

At 14, she is 5-foot-2. Her shoes give her another 4 inches, perhaps 5. She hopes she’ll grow a little, but a little won’t be enough.

It’s Sunday, and upstairs from the city’s indoor swimming pool, girls once again swap their winter boots for high heels. For hours, the swimmers will hear footsteps above, where the sports hall has a mirrored wall. The girls line up in a row, and their teacher, Victoria, shows them how to move like models. The girls tilt their backs backward and their gazes forward. Then the parade sets off. They walk in circles around the hall, either alone or in pairs, sometimes twirling, sometimes smiling, sometimes not.

When the girls are told to arrange themselves in order of height, Dascha looks around with uncertainty. At 14, she is 5-foot-2. Her shoes give her another 4 inches, perhaps 5. She hopes that she will continue to grow a little, but a little will not be enough. After the lesson she says feels more self-confident: “I walk along the street as though on the catwalk.”

Like Dascha, many girls in the hall hope to move away from Murmansk. Just as model Natalia Vodianova — aka the Cinderella of the Volga — made it from deprived circumstances in Gorky onto the catwalks of Paris and the billboards of fashion stores. Almost 120 girls attend the school of modeling, the youngest age 7 and the eldest 16. Most of them will never make it to Paris or Milan.

During a casting, she was told that her shoulders were too broad for a model’s. But dieting doesn’t change your shoulders.

Model Alexa Yudina on the runway.

Alexa Yudina on the runway.

Source George Chinsee/Corbis

Modeling school teacher, 19-year-old Viktoria, used to dream of a modeling career herself. She attended the same school and dieted to become even slimmer. During a casting, she was told that her shoulders were too broad for a model’s. But dieting doesn’t change your shoulders.

Dascha’s family belongs to the lower middle class. There’s a limit to what they can achieve. Dascha loves horses, but riding lessons are too expensive. If she doesn’t make it as a model, perhaps she will go to military school in Moscow, she says, where she could ride a horse across Red Square during parades. Her father repairs ships in Murmansk harbor, for about $1,675 a month, and is almost always away, traveling for work. Her mother is a deputy principal at a school and earns about $840 a month (teachers in Russia beyond the Arctic Circle receive a supplement). Almost $580 a month goes to the bank. Every family in Russia wants to buy a flat of their own, and the majority buy on credit. The Meteljowas have a two-room flat, in the working district on the outskirts of Murmansk.

When Dascha gets home from school she checks Vkontakte, the Russian Facebook clone. She looks at photos of a pale beauty named Alexa Yudina. Alexa comes from Murmansk and attended the same modeling school as Dascha. She was discovered at age 15 and flown straight to Italy for a Prada fashion show. She has already been photographed for Vogue seven times. Alexa is Dascha’s role model, she says. Her dream.

One, odds are, deferred.

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