When I meet up with old friends I ask them what has happened in the last 24 hours. I like to ground things in the present.
I’m writing this from a flat in Moscow, home to three generations of a Russian family. Over breakfast this morning 11-year-old Ira* showed us a summer-holiday video of her mother, Maria, in a rollercoaster ‘simulator’. Maria is wearing a VR headset and standing on a little metal platform; a shirtless young man is rocking it to simulate the swoops and dives. She is crouching on the platform, screaming in fearful excitement: watching, we all giggled into our pancakes and condensed milk.
Virtual rollercoasters aside, Maria is no coward. She and Sergey, her husband, want to move to Donbass, the embattled region in eastern Ukraine under the control of anti-Ukraine rebel militias. Donbass is a geopolitical flashpoint, but they’re not political: Maria grew up nearby, in a mining town called Stakhanov, named after a legendary Soviet miner. After Ira left the kitchen Maria shared a nightmare from last night, of bombers flying over her family’s new flat.
She and Sergey plan to travel around the impoverished, war-torn schools and colleges of Donbass warning girls about fairy-tale offers of Moscow-based jobs in waitressing, modelling, hairdressing; about promises of a huge salary to send home. Traffickers weave these fairy tales around desperate, unsuspicious girls, and then sell them at a huge profit to pimps in Moscow and beyond.
Maria knows more about this than most: as an 18-year-old in Stakhanov, she too was desperate to leave, and she ended up in sexual exploitation in Moscow.
Sergey knows the inside of the business too. In the lawless young Russia of the 1990s he was a ‘bandit’, on the run from multiple court cases. For no good reason, he decided to pray: get me out of this and I’ll get religion. The courts dropped his cases, so he returned to Russia, forgot his promise, became a pimp, and met Maria. She managed to leave her madam and move in with him, as both common-law wife and business partner.
After a while they did end up joining a church; gradually they came round to the idea of ending their sex business; gradually they decided to go further, dedicating themselves to the freedom of girls who are tricked, lured, or forced into the sex industry.
One day they decided to go out and visit some girls. It was foolhardy: their pimps gather them in remote cul-de-sacs under armed guard. But when they arrived it turned out the madam at the entrance was an old friend of Sergey’s: she waved them in and that was that. From there they started an outreach project to build relationships and offer a way out.
There’s a kind of magic realism about this pair, the humdrum mixed in with the incredible. Sitting with them in their kitchen, eating home-made Donbass cherry jam and drinking tea, Sergey recounts how each member of their family decided independently that they should move. We catch our breath at how straightforward they make it sound: “Besides,” Maria concludes, “We can’t even stay in one flat for more than two years without getting itchy feet.”
I began this with my present moment, and my wife and I are a part of this story: she founded a small fundraising charity, Mayak (.org.uk), which grew out of their work. But really the story is Sergey and Maria’s. If you’d like to be part of it too, look up the website or get in touch.
*Names have been changed.