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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.

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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.

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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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