Sunday, September 27, 2009

Where Did All Those Gorgeous Russians Come From?

Though this is a fairly frivolous question (OK, extremely frivolous), I am convinced it has an interesting answer. To put it bluntly, in the Soviet Union there was no market for female beauty. No fashion magazines featured beautiful women, since there weren't any fashion magazines. No TV series depended upon beautiful women for high ratings, since there weren't any ratings. There weren't many men rich enough to seek out beautiful women and marry them, and foreign men couldn't get the right sort of visa. There were a few film stars, of course, but some of the most famous—I'm thinking of Lyubov Orlova, alleged to be Stalin's favorite actress—were wholesome and cheerful rather than sultry and stunning. Unusual beauty, like unusual genius, was considered highly suspicious in the Soviet Union and its satellite people's republics.

Ultimately, what goes for the fashion world goes for other spheres of human activity. In the past, you had to play chess or be a champion gymnast to come to international attention if you were born in the Eastern bloc—chess and competitive sports figuring among the few party-approved export industries. Nowadays, stars in fields previously unsanctioned by the party—crime novelists, conceptual artists, computer whizzes—from Russia, Hungary, or Uzbekistan have a shot at fame and fortune, too. As for talented entrepreneurs, the sky's the limit.

Beauty is a matter of luck, but the same could be said of many other talents. And what open markets do for beautiful women they also do for other sorts of genius. So, cheer up next time you see a Siberian blonde dominating male attention at the far end of the table: The same mechanisms that brought her to your dinner party might one day bring you the Ukrainian doctor who cures your cancer or the Polish stockbroker who makes your fortune.

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