THE BLEMISHLESS SUPERMODELS in the glad-rag mags and the haute runways of the London, Paris, New York and Milan fashion weeks are among the most photographed women in the world. Increasingly, these girls originate in Siberia, that legendarily vast Cold War wasteland associated with the terrifying Stalinist Gulag, which today houses a hyper model-casting industry and training schools for kindergarteners to midteens.
Stalin’s paranoid regime, and those that came after, exiled into northeast Russia entire ethnic groups, the spetsposelentsy (special settlers): Volga Germans (the Russlanddeutsche, invited in the 18th century to immigrate by Catherine the Great), Chechens from the Caucasus, Baltic Latvians, Mongol tribes, Inuit, Tatars, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz....
Today, little more than three generations after the first exile brought together reciprocally suspicious ethnic peoples, the result of natural subethnic miscegenation is utterly captivating: the girls with huge eyes, elfin ears, cascading bronze hair and snow-flushed skin (the consequence of an annual average temperature of a subarctic -5 ºC) seem straight out of infantilist Japanese manga. These teenyboppers have in spades every characteristic that Milan and London and New York first toast, and then camouflage with thickest maquillage and mica.
Every year, snug in Train No 239 on the 9,259-km-long Trans-Siberian Railway, avid model scouts from both Russia and the West have been scouring the Eurasian Steppe running the second exile: expatriation to the Catwalks of Chic.
As documentaries like Searching Siberia (2009), and Girl Model (2012) showed, the search for petits modèles often resembles a hustle: Despite the utopian hardsell, no more than a handful of the girls selected will contract with the West’s major model agencies. Most will shuttle between Siberia and Asian centres like Tokyo, Hong Kong and Beijing, paying the rent for pokey, shared quarters, transacting through phrasebooks, sliding down the slope of cultural alienation.
Siberia is being trawled because much of the exoticism of its putative models lies in their scarcity; unlike in the West, you can’t pick them off the shelf, during moppet beauty pageants or after high school. This scarcity seems counterfactual when you consider that Siberia comprises the entire Asian portion of Russia, or 76 percent of Russia’s land area. But, in fact, it houses less than a quarter of the country’s population of 143 million; the density is three people per sq km, and the population of the largest city in 13.1 million sq km, Novosibirsk, tops out at 1.5 million. It’s obvious why the girls here are, in any worldly sense, naifs: they’ve never been exposed to The Walk; they know nothing about Cool; they don’t yearn to grace the cover of Vogue; they haven’t the faintest about the pitfalls of the adulation that the model scouts tell them is theirs for the asking.
Here, model castings are held in awkward, drab community halls and gyms. The participants arrive wearing bikinis, or sometimes underwear. Identified by number patches pinned to their modest two-pieces, their name, age and vital statistics written on white cardboard, aspirants walk and talk and pose, often with self-conscious artlessness, for beady-eyed evaluators. Those with ‘potential’ are photographed and videotaped, and their portfolios sent to model agencies all over the world.
For the children, the run-up to the casting can be traumatic: Siberian modelling schools—there are eight in Novosibirsk alone—are as deeply immersed in age-inappropriateness as their counterparts elsewhere, and put girls as young as four through training in pouting, dressing, sashaying, posing, dieting and cosmetology. At the scout stage, caprice and melancholy rule: the future will be decided on the evidence of a tottering sashay in six-inch heels that are glaringly irrelevant in Siberia’s geological autarchy of permafrost and sludge.