MOSCOW -- Alfia Karimova's path to animal-rights activism started when she was shopping online -- for a fur coat.
The 34-year-old woman from the industrial city of Magnitogorsk was already the proud owner of an elegant silver-fox-fur coat. And with winter coming, she was in the market for another, this time mink.
But as she surfed the web for the perfect mink "shuba," she happened across an article describing how some coat makers use animals that have been skinned alive, electrocuted, gassed, confined in small cages, or ensnared in cruel traps.
And she was horrified.
"Of course it's a cause of constant shame. How was it possible to live for so many years, never pausing to wonder and understand that what you're consuming is in actual fact perpetuating cruelty and barbarism?" Karimova says. "It's a mystery to me and a shame. It's a reason I want somehow to make up for this guilt and at least do something."
So, in this rough-and-tumble steelmaking city in Russia's Urals region, a place where fur coats, called "shubas," and sable hats, called "shapkas," are ubiquitous, Karimova became an outspoken animal-rights activist -- and a vegan to boot.
And in October, she participated in a demonstration outside a fur shop where she and about 10 other activists passed out leaflets, chanted slogans, and urged shoppers to switch to more animal-friendly winter garb.
It may not seem like much, but animal-rights activists say it's a start.
No Longer A Nonissue
In fact, the tiny demonstration in Magnitogorsk was one of a series of rallies organized by the group Vita last month. The protests spanned 46 cities, from Vladivostok in the Far East to Stavropol in the south to Belgorod in the west.
In one of the largest of the demonstrations, about 400 young activists turned out in St. Petersburg. Some came in butcher's and executioner's outfits waving banners that read "Wear fur, wear death" and "Our fashion is murder."
The rallies are still modest in number, with just 2,000 participating nationwide. But activists say their mere existence is a sign of how the Internet -- and with it rising awareness of animal cruelty -- is rapidly transforming what has long been a nonissue in Russia into a hot topic for the younger generation.
Dinara Adeyeva, head of Vita's St. Petersburg branch, says it's growing "very quickly." "It is noticeable. We hadn't expected so many cities to carry out these protests when we put out the ad on social networks and posted information," she adds. "[We hadn't expected] that so many of Russia's cities [would hold demonstrations] -- and even more importantly, cities in Siberia where it is normal to say you can't get by without animal fur."
According to Vita, Russia is a major consumer of fur from China, where animals are "farmed" and then "harvested" in often cruel circumstances. A disturbing video clip
posted on the Vita website shows fur being cut from live animals. "It's not growing interest; it's more growing empathy -- the increase of information about cruelty meted out to animals and the level of awareness of people," Adeyeva says. "As a rule, these are young people."
'We Just Need Fur Coats'
To be sure, animal rights remains a fringe issue in Russia, where most will say that fur coats are indispensable to weather the country's bitterly cold winters.
Tellingly, researchers at Russia's main state pollster, the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), declined to comment on attitudes toward animal rights because they haven't even taken any polls on the subject.
Olga Kazayeva, an analyst at the independent Levada Center, says their most recent poll -- over two years old -- indicated that only 4 percent of Russians took part in animal-rights activism. Kazayeva says Russians in general have a "positive attitude" toward animals, but she's skeptical that any movement will take off in the coming five to seven years.
"We think this is because there really are many other urgent problems in Russia. In contrast with day-to-day problems like income, the problems of animal rights are not on the agenda for Russians," Kazayeva says.
PHOTO GALLERY: Animal-rights activists march in St. Petersburg.
And even those who are disturbed by animal cruelty, like 24-year-old Muscovite Ksenia Podolskaya, are loath to give up fur. "I feel hurt looking at the pictures and knowing the stories," she says. "But it won't stop me wearing a fur coat or buying another one, for example to replace my old one. We just need it."
Podolskaya, who grew up in the Urals before moving to the capital, says most of her friends own fur coats -- and some own several. "It looks beautiful, it's really warm, and it's very light," she says, adding that it would be difficult to replace fur with more animal-friendly garb.
Learning To Care
Peter Hoeffken of the German branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says a weak civil society is Russia's main barrier to increasing awareness of animal cruelty issues.
He points to a video, secretly recorded by Vita, that recently circulated on YouTube
showing state circus workers whipping and beating a kangaroo and two monkeys. There was little reaction outside the small community of animal-rights activists and no circus employees have been punished over the incident.
Hoeffken adds that Russians are generally "less sensitive" to the issue, as was the case in Germany 20 years ago, although that insensitivity has since faded.
Despite the obstacles, activists like Karimova believe it is crucial to get information like that in the circus video out to the public to combat widespread apathy. And in doing so, she hopes others will experience the same type of conversion she had.
"I just didn't think. I lived like the majority of people. The reason we pursue this activism is that [these problems] simply haven't crossed the majority of people's minds," Karimova says.
"They behave like this, not because they are some kind of monsters or are evil and want to sponsor this bloody hangman's business. They just don't think about it; they are living on autopilot, just like we all did once upon a time."