Extreme Russia: An Extreme Version of the United Kingdom?

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Regular readers of and subscribers to this blog will by now be well aware that we at Mediolana like little more than a genuinely perceptive piece of reportage or analysis – no matter where in the world it comes from. So it was with unexpected pleasure that our Creative Director & CSO stumbled upon a provocative and compassionate documentary broadcast on a channel almost on our doorstep: Reggie Yates’ Extreme Russia: Teen Model Factory, recently telecast on BBC Three (first showing: 27th April 2015). This piece – clocking in at around 56′ 20” – sees the personable former children’s television presenter of Ghanaian descent head to deepest Siberia to observe a number of ambitious teenage girls who have the shared goal of wanting to break into the modelling industry.

What could easily be a topic for salacious and sensationalist car-crash voyeurism is instead handled with striking sensitivity; Yates is clearly moved by the uncertain futures that lie before his documentary subjects, who are portrayed sympathetically as well as realistically. By the end of the programme, the viewer is left reflecting on the state not just of Russian modelling but what can be a brutal and dispiriting global industry. Indeed, after some contemplation we noted that far from coming away with the impression of Russia as a distant and alien society, at least three threads within the documentary resonated strongly with this UK-based company:

1. Systemic Failure. As Yates himself remarked, the Russian education system is not a bad one by many metrics; in fact, in many respects it is easier to be a student in Russia than it is in the United Kingdom, particularly when it comes to financing. However, like their counterparts both in the UK and across much of Europe, Russian graduates are facing a dysfunctional job market, though not one characterised by high levels of unemployment – instead, chronically low salaries for many professional occupations mean that modelling represents much more of an opportunity than it should.

2. An Over-Centralised Society. Alarmingly similar to the United Kingdom’s relationship with London, the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg – which are connected to each other by high-speed rail – are evidently where virtually all the really juicy opportunities in Russian society lie. This chasm between the centre and the periphery is a trend which is crushing the dreams of the majority of young people, who are increasingly being forced to choose – if they are lucky – between the security of their home environments and making themselves anew in the big bad (capital) city.

3. Galaxy of Emptiness. Tigran Khachatrian – the controversial Armenian CEO of Noah Models, who features numerous times throughout the documentary – outlines a dim vision of ordinary life in provincial Russia for those girls who do not break into the modelling industry; while he clearly has a very particular perspective on the exact nature of the alternative that his industry can provide, Khachatrian has a point. Mediocre postgraduate salaries, rampant domestic violence and alcohol abuse, and the world’s highest divorce rate (2012, United Nations) mean that for young females in the Russian Federation, getting on an aeroplane to almost anywhere is the best rational option; in this sense, Russia represents a more extreme version of our increasingly fragile selves.

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