When I arrive at the beauty pageant “Miss USSR UK”, several women smile rehearsed smiles at me and tell me I look “amaaaaazing”. A voice coach tries to convince me that the presentation of what I say is potentially as important as the content of what I’m saying. But I have not come to this grand old building in East London as a participant. I’m here as an observer, to understand why this event is taking place at all.
Miss USSR UK, established in 2012, is a beauty pageant named after a country that no longer exists for people who weren’t born there. Its 2017 winner, Russia’s Anastasia Boil, is 23 years old, and was born three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
For some former Soviet countries, the idea of holding such a beauty show is controversial in itself. The Baltic states have repeatedly made statements criticising the idea that the Soviet occupation is something to remember with fondness.
“We find the concept of the pageant disgraceful. The Soviet legacy is not something to be cherished,” said a statement from the Lithuanian embassy. “The USSR was a backward totalitarian state which brutally annexed the Baltic countries during WWII.” It cited the mass deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia, the suppression of the anti-Soviet resistance and forced collectivization as examples of this brutality.
Lithuanian diplomats have previously requested that all references to the country be removed from the contest because of its “inappropriate political and historical context.” Miss USSR UK continues to have a Lithuanian candidate.
Other countries have played down the significance. Latvian diplomats in the UK merely consider it a private event “not relevant to the real Latvia.” The Estonian embassy gave me a similar statement. As for me, a woman with some Estonian heritage who lived in Russia for more than three years, attending such an event is probably the most singularly masochistic act I have ever undertaken.
Outside the pageant, girls with solid blonde curls blow smoke, and I try to convince the overzealous security that if I can’t attend the press conference then there will be no article. As we argue, I see two small children running through holding sparkly dresses wrapped in plastic. They’re smiling. They’re happy to be there.
Once I’m inside, weird things happen. I meet the singer Sonique, who tells me she once performed in Chechnya, for the controversial leader Ramzan Kadyrov. “It was the president’s birthday, and I was performing for him, and then [Vladimir] Putin was there, and we met him after, and he was saying that he liked my music, he liked my voice,” she says. I decide not to mention the “gay concentration camps” happening on his watch.
I corner Julia Titova, its organiser. She’s wearing a red dress with a long, sweeping tulle skirt. She stops just long enough to give me her card.
A former club promoter, Titova told Artefact magazine last year that the idea for Miss USSR UK came out of an existing contest, Miss Russia UK. “There were a lot of contestants from Baltic and post USSR countries. But I thought, why would girls from Kazakhstan for example represent Russia?” she told the magazine.
Germans use the term ostalgie to refer to nostalgia for aspects of life in East Germany. But is it possible to look at an “Evil Empire” that spanned continents in quite such a rose-tinted light?
“I think it’s not nostalgically for Soviet Union itself, it’s more nostalgia about the Soviet Union as a great power,” said Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the Russian pollster, Levada Centre. “The Crimea annexation was so popular, because it gave this feeling that Russia is a great country again.” Nostalgia is also, he suggests, “the sign of a failure to be successful integrating in a new society”.
I watch people take photographs in front of the Miss USSR UK brand-sponsored backdrop. Pose, hold, slow switch. Pose, hold, slow switch. Smile, pout, smile, pout. All participants and volunteers seem to be rather strangely linked. “I met Julia maybe three years ago at Pizza Pomodoro,” says musician Tony Moore, of the band Cutting Crew (he was also an early member of Iron Maiden), which performed at the event. He spoke fondly of Titova and how she had admirably pulled off such a remarkable event under high pressure. When pressed on its deeper implications of its name he replied, “this is a question I don’t know how to answer and I don’t think I’m qualified to answer.” A fair comment, but it makes me wonder – why are so few attendees questioning the very concept of “Miss USSR UK”? We bond over the Music Venue Trust, of which he is a firm advocate. He is affable and easygoing.
A 15-year-old girl from Georgia smiles at me. She’s genuinely delighted to be present. She basks in the envy of her friends and has a nude manicure. It would feel mean to ask her what she thinks about Russia invading Georgia in 2008. An older man from Moldova says it fosters a sense of community and is a real opportunity for people from these countries to connect. Titova herself sold it as “a kind of a community where we help girls who just arrived to the UK to find new friends and opportunities.”
A former participant from Russia seems sincere in her delight, or at least enthusiastically drunk. She tells me that the general language of the event is Russian, and they don’t get to choose their own dresses because they are all allocated by sponsors. She criticises the event organisation, and asks to remain nameless. I feel that all former participants I speak to have a nervousness about them. I feel like I’m back in Russia, only everyone works in marketing.
There is a Q&A session. I do not ask any questions because I cannot hear the answers, and security won’t let me close enough to listen. In the bathroom, I hear a girl ordering a cleaning lady to wipe the floor. I also hear a burly man in an expensive suit telling a doorman that he is “simple staff”. No wonder they dislike attendees so vehemently. I have a flashback to Victory Day in Moscow, May 2015. A friend and I cross a bridge over the river to buy food, and step off, only to be told by two police officers that we are not allowed to return. We argue. The police officer says “This is Russia, what can you do?”
A London magazine for Russian expats, Russian Gap, is complimentary in its coverage. Maybe I am a killjoy. Everyone really does look amaaaaazing. But it still needs to change its name.