In A Russian Wasteland, Teens Dream Of Supermodel Fame

Dasha Metelyova practicing in Murmansk
Dasha Metelyova practicing in Murmansk
Julia Smirnova

MURMANSK — Dasha Metelyova gets up shortly before 6 a.m. to apply her makeup and do her hair. In the hall of her apartment building, the paint is peeling from the walls. Dasha steps outside, where it is still dark because this time of year here it only gets light around 10 a.m. Soon the polar night will begin and last until February, creating permanent darkness. The sun is not to be seen. Little lamps will be lit in the windows to replace sunlight for the house plants.

The most difficult time, Dasha says, is right after polar night ends. The lack of light tends to make people feel weak and want to sleep. Many people get sick during this period, and there are extra vacation days at school.

Dasha, in short boots, walks through the snowy streets and changes shoes at school. Like all her friends, she wears high heels despite the fact that she's only 14. This is quite common in Russia. Most of the boys at the school want to join the army when they grow up, like their dads.

Today Dasha's class is doing math, Russian, literature and history. The teacher quotes Anton Chekhov to the effect that everything about a person — face, clothes, soul — should be beautiful. Dasha's parents expect her to perform, and she is a good student with top grades. She also has been playing the cello for eight years. But above all, Dasha wants to be a model.

Dasha at home in Murmansk — Photo: Julia Smirnova

Her mother has forbidden her to cut or color her hair. Not because she has other plans for her daughter but because she supports Dasha's dream. Have you ever seen a model with short hair? she asks. Dasha's mother primarily wants to ensure that her daughter leaves home. In Murmansk, she says, Dasha has no opportunity. And that's irrespective of the way the current economic crisis in Russia plays out.

Teenage wasteland

This port city was once the flowering outlying post of the Soviet Arctic. In 1989, Murmansk had 468,000 inhabitants. It now has only 300,000. The city is comprised of bleak industrialized buildings, most of which have seen better days.

Anybody who wanders into the local swimming pool on a Sunday can hear the click-click of heels. The girls have removed their winter boots and donned stilettos. The gym area on the second level has a mirrored wall, and the girls line up in a row before it. Viktoria is the teacher showing them how models move. As the girls straighten their backs and look straight ahead, the column starts moving. They go around and around the hall, single file, double file, turn, smiling for this, straight-faced for that. The lesson lasts an hour.

When the girls are supposed to line up according to height, Dasha looks around her uncertainly. She is currently 1.58 meters (5'2" feet) tall, but her heels add a good 10 to 12 centimeters. She hopes she'll grow a little more, but a little won't be enough. She says the modeling school makes her more confident. "I walk on the street the way I would on the catwalk."

Many of the girls here have the same dream she does: to leave Murmansk. It's the way model Natalia Vodianova, who hailed from Gorky on the Volga River and came from a very poor family, made it to Paris and onto posters for the big fashion houses. Some 120 girls attend the modeling school. The youngest is seven, the eldest 16. Most of them will never make it to fashion shows in Milan or Paris.

Murmansk — Photo: Anna

Viktoria, 19, the teacher, also dreams of a modeling career. She's a graduate of the school, and stays on a diet to become even slimmer. At one casting, she was told her shoulders were too broad to be a model, something no diet can change.

Dasha's family belongs to the lower middle-class and can't afford much. She loves horses, but riding lessons are expensive. If nothing comes of the modeling, then she wants to join the mounted police. Except that such a force doesn't exist in Murmansk. So she might go to the military school in Moscow, where she could ride her horse during parades on the Red Square.

Dasha's father repairs ships in the Murmansk harbor for about 1,450 euros ($1,718) a month, and he's practically always away working. Dasha's mother works in her school and functions as deputy director for equipment and security. She earns around 730 euros ($865). The family saves about 500 euros every month and have a two-room apartment in a working-class neighborhood at the edge of the city.

After school, when Dasha is at home, she checks for news on the VKontakte network, the Russian version of Facebook. She looks at the pictures of a pale beauty named Alexa Yudina, who also hails from Murmansk and attended the same modeling school as Dasha. She was discovered at 15 and immediately went to work a Prada show in Italy. She's already been photographed seven times for Vogue. For Dasha, she's a role model. Infinitely far away.

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

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"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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