March 09, 2006

Russia: Railroad-building babes?

“Russian women are not very good for figure skating,” said Russian Olympic skating coach Alexei Mishkin during the Torino games. “They are good for building rail tracks in Siberia, for example. They are just too strong and big.”

Strong, definitely. All the Russian women I met had street smarts and cool self-confidence. But big, burly and suited for building railroads through a place where those without body fat might not make it to March? Where is Coach Mishkin looking for his skaters? Evidently not in Moscow or St. Petersburg, where there are way more babes than babushkas. This ain’t your mother’s Russia.

Thin, sleek woman-wisps walk the sidewalks of Russia’s two largest cities, their long legs and high-heeled feet pumping the sidewalks with a lacy-edged click-clack-get outta-my-way-Jack cadence. They’re fit, trim and gorgeous. Womanpower not likely to sign up for a track-laying stint in Siberia. These ladies work, enjoy life, and, if they’re flush, eat a lot of sushi. Nice lean protein. In St Petersburg, there’s a sushi restaurant on every corner.

So ubiquitous were these beauties that I made notes about them in my daily travel journal. One entry, written on my second day in St. Petersburg, after having spent half a week in Moscow, reads: "Well. I’d been wondering where the babes were, and I saw them tonight on Nevsky Prospekt. I knew they had to be here. This couldn’t be a Moscow-only phenomenon. And, sure enough, at 5 p.m., after work, the streets filled with them. Strutting their stuff in tiny, midriffed garb. Pout for pout, sashay for sashay, chests thrust proudly forward in the best knock-‘em-dead tradition, these girls could take on Moscow any day.”

I asked Sasha, a porcelain-faced redhead who lives and works in St. Petersburg and escapes to her country dacha on weekends, how Russian women achieved and kept their sculpted figures. It was July, and the weather was superb, but I hadn't seen a single person running, biking or otherwise working out. Sasha told me the secret was the expensive new see-and-be-seen gyms blooming in trendy parts of the cities: “When we were younger, in Soviet times, the government made us do sports, so no one wanted to do it. But now that you have to pay to go to a fitness club and it costs a lot of money, everyone wants to go!”

Coach Mishkin is looking for skaters in all the wrong places. They're not at the railroad yard with sacks full of tools, waiting to be hired on as track-laying laborers. They're at the gym.

(Sadly, though, there is a problem. Athletes need good lungs, and a lot of the babes smoke.)