No mink in Moscow? Protest: Stripped-down animal rights protesters take their cause to fur-loving Russians, but attract little support.

September 25, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Anyone who hopes to persuade a Russian not to wear fur better have the cunning of a fox, skin thicker than a mink's and the humor of a hyena. People here consider the fur hat a birthright, and a prudent woman who could never dream of buying a car would think it unremarkable to have a full-length fur coat parked in her closet.

Toni Vernelli was well fortified yesterday, full of sly strategy, the warmth of conviction and a willingness to laugh. Snow was in the forecast, and she and two Russian confederates were parading along the sidewalk, pretty much naked, shouting, "Only animals should wear fur."

Vernelli, a 26-year-old Canadian who works for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, had flown all the way to Moscow to take her clothes off and protest. She put on a small black bikini bottom and attached a long black tail. She painted her body yellow, with black leopard spots. She had a smudge of a nose, delicately painted whiskers and perky little black ears. Elena Surovikina and Larisa Yermolayeva, also nearly naked and made up, joined her. They held up a banner to cover their bare breasts and stood outside Moscow's huge exhibition center, where a four-day Fur Fair was getting under way.

It turned out they were in little danger of freezing. The snow held off, the thermometer struggled up toward 50 degrees, the women looked positively toasty and about 150 television, newspaper and magazine photographers warmed the air around them.

"I expected bare arms and legs would be enough," Vernelli said, smiling, as the photographers shouted at her to drop the banner and expose all. "I didn't expect they would want a full monty."

Little attention paid

Most of the numerous visitors lining up to get into the fur show couldn't see the three women. There were too many photographers. Anyone approaching risked concussion by camera from the jostling crowd. And most of the show-goers were so eager to see the fur inside that they didn't pay much attention to the commotion.

"It takes time, education and patience," Vernelli said. "I think most people in Russia wear fur. But education changes people. I once ate meat. No one becomes Gandhi overnight."

An elderly man walked by. Told what was going on, he looked sympathetic. "They must be cold," he said. "Someone should give them 100 grams of vodka."

Vernelli said that once Russians understood how cruelly animals were treated when they were raised for fur, they would stop wearing fur, just as many people have done in Britain, Canada and the United States.

Going around naked, she said, was a small price to pay if she could make someone understand the barbarity of killing 40 animals, stitching them together and wearing them.

"I've dumped red paint on myself and rolled around on the ground," she said. "In New York, I threw the dead bodies of foxes against the window of a fur store. I spent eight hours in prison, covered in fox blood and entrails.

"I prefer taking my clothes off to spending eight hours covered in fox blood. Taking my clothes off is minor. Unfortunately, it's what gets attention."

Svetlana Svistyunova, a television reporter, kept losing her cameraman as she fought for position. Right now, with Russia embroiled in deep economic crisis, she said, most people are too scared about what might happen next to debate the morality of (( fur. But there's always time for unclothed and attractive women.

"People look at fur protests as the games of rich people," she said. "And the photographers only want pictures of naked girls."

Svistyunova has traveled in the West, however, and was so influenced by the anti-fur movement that she's left her own fur coat in the closet for the past two years -- except for several trips to Siberia.

"I started to think it was cruel to wear a fur coat," she said, before walking off, in her leather coat.

Inside, 152 exhibitors from 21 different countries were showing off fox pelts, Danish mink and fur coats made in Russia, Greece, Italy, the United States and elsewhere. Few were buying.

Economy in limbo

Business of every kind has been frozen here, as the ruble jumps up and falls down and the banking system has stopped working.

Steven Hurwitz, a British skin dealer, said he has been shocked to discover how dependent he was on the Russian market.

"We only sell 25 percent of our fur directly to Russia," he said, "but we sell to Lithuania, Greece, Turkey, and it all ends up in Russia."

The rest of the world had never imagined that Russia, where fur clothing is as common as jeans are in the United States, would become such a voracious consumer of imported fur. But after the Soviet Union fell apart, he said, the Russian industry died as it lost the heavily subsidized feed that had supported it.

Farms were out of date, and out of the way; transportation was too expensive and production too inefficient. They would require too much investment to modernize, and a hostile bureaucracy blunted outside interest.

jTC The deep desire for fur, however, never subsided.

"Sometimes, you look at a fur coat and you can't take your eyes off of it," said Marina Radina. "You want nothing more than to put it on."

Radina, 36, and her friend, Nadya Strelnikova, were happily trying on mink, red fox and chinchilla at the exhibit. Both work for a magazine devoted to the mobile phone industry, and both had been saving all of their salary for several months in hopes of buying a fur.

"Russian women will always want fur," said Strelnikova, 26.

"Crises will come and go," Radina said, "but we'll always have cold winters."

Maxim Manukhin, director of the Russian Moden-Kloto fur company, said Russians would never abandon fur. If Russia can get through this crisis, he said, the fur business simply must come back.

"We have 30 degrees below zero in the winter," he said, "and not everybody has a car. They want fur. It has always been like this, and I think it always will be."

He leaned forward, his voice conspiratorial.

"This is not California," he said.

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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