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Russia: Army Puts On A Pretty Face

Contestants at the competition's 21 June finals in Moscow The Russian Army these days tends to be associated with the war in Chechnya, brutal hazing rituals, tiny salaries, and fading glory. President Vladimir Putin has been eager to add shine to the country’s demoralized armed forces and attract increasingly reluctant conscripts. On 21 June, military officials staged a grand show in Moscow aimed at showing the army's human face. Or, to be more precise, the army's prettiest face. RFE/RL reports on the Russian Army’s second-ever beauty pageant.

Moscow, 22 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Kseniya Agarkova is not just a pretty Russian brunette. She can shoot rifles, assemble machine guns in a flash, and floor the fiercest attackers.

Lieutenant Agarkova was also crowned Miss Russian Army 2005 yesterday in Moscow, outmatching 18 other long-legged beauties serving in Russia’s armed forces.

“Beauties in Shoulder-Straps” is the second beauty pageant staged by the Russian Army as an attempt to boost its waning prestige and encourage young men and women to join its ranks.

Waiting behind the scenes for the performance to begin, the nervous young women checked their uniform and makeup one last time.

Despite stage fright, they appeared eager to praise the army and dispel its bad reputation.

Anna Minkina, a cheerful 22-year-old blonde serving as a senior lieutenant in the railway forces, says becoming Miss Russian Army is actually not the contestants’ main ambition.
“We are soldiers. Serving is our patriotic duty. And for us, machine guns come first.”

“The main goal of each girl is to help increase conscription to the armed forces," Minkina says. "We want to prove and to show everybody that serving in the Russian Army is not only possible, it is needed and prestigious. I want to tell young men who have reached conscription age not to be afraid to go to the army, there’s nothing terrible there. Thanks to our contest, people will see that even girls are capable of serving in our ranks. Come and serve!”

Minkina says women feel no discrimination from their male colleagues in the army. She admits her uniform sometimes gets strange looks in the streets, but she says people quickly understand she is just like everybody else. Maybe even “a little better,” she adds, flashing a broad smile.

Anna Kachan, another contestant, works as an army psychologist in Russia’s Far East region. She says that, as a psychologist, she felt she had no right to turn down a challenge such as the beauty pageant.

“When I was asked to take part in the contest in Khabarovsk (Far East), my first reaction was laughter, horror, disbelief," Kachan says. "But I always tell my patients, ‘How do you know you can’t do something if you don’t try?’ I understood that if I refused, I might just as well forget about my whole career as a psychologist.”

The prestige of the Russian Army has been plummeting, together with its funding, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The war in Chechnya and the horror stories about violent hazing in the army are also pushing increasing numbers of conscript-age men to dodge their military service.

Yesterday's beauty pageant was therefore an occasion for the army to offer a softer, more positive image of life in the armed forces and raise patriotic feelings.

Spectators attending the show at the army’s Moscow theater indeed had a chance of hearing a wide range of patriotic songs -- including “Our Army is the Strongest,” performed by children dressed in army fatigues.

Gennadii Dzyuba, a Defense Ministry spokesman who helped organize the show, says the beauty pageant offered a welcome change from the usual problems associated with the Russian Army.

In addition, he is convinced that few young men will be able to resist signing up for the army after seeing the "beauties in shoulder-straps."

“When the girls arrived in Moscow and visited the offices of a newspaper and of other organizations, the young men who were there were climbing the walls and saying: ‘We’re running straight to the military commissariat, we want to serve!’" Dzyuba says. "This is a friendly, positive event that enables people to look at the Russian Army not through its problems but through a good, positive thing.”

Major General Nikolai Burbyga, the head of the jury, is more pragmatic. He has little hope that the beauty pageant will significantly improve turnout in the army, but he says such a contest is much needed to break the routine of daily military life.

“We staged the first contest two years ago. Our sociologists studied opinions in the forces in different regions, and came to the conclusion that such a contest is needed," Burbyga says. "It kind of invigorates life -- everyday life is very monotonous.”

But, if the pretty contestants have already broken a few hearts in Moscow, they make it clear that serving their country takes priority over finding husbands.

“We are soldiers,” the young women tell their audience in one of their songs, “Serving is our patriotic duty. And for us, machine guns come first.”

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