Marry an oligarch, then get him to publish an exclusive book to publicise his love and admiration for you. Or, more specifically, if you’re Olga Rodionova, pose in a series of ‘edgy’ photos with not much more than a smile to announce yourself to the world. An article in today’s Observer Woman monthly tries to shed more light on one of the new Russia’s fastest-rising females.
In this post-feminist world, perhaps this is the newest (or is it oldest?) form of empowerment, and you have to admire the sheer audacity of it (not to mention Rodionova’s attitude to, shall we say, self-promotion) but isn’t it a bit depressing that the one of the best ways to carve attention and impact still seems to involve disrobing? Or is it really that black and white? While Olga and Sergey epitomise in many ways the ostentatiousness of the new Russia – money, sex, glamour – they’re not as clear-cut or textbook as first appears. This isn’t the first time her husband has indulged her fantasies and put them into print. Far from it. It started a decade ago, the oft-asked question from photographer to aspiring subject: ‘why don’t you try it naked’? But she is hardly the usual subject either. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they shun the limelight, (though with that sort of hobby, it’s unlikely that in a country that’s still conservative, even as it changes, that high society would welcome them with open arms) and she sees this as a noble act of expression, of strength, even if it’s of the most unreconstructed kind.
There’s no doubt that Bettina Rheims’ images are far more than simple tacky puff pieces, in fact we can only estimate the money that went to into their manufacture was at least sizeable. But what is their aim? They’re certainly explicit enough to at least match, if not eclipse the famous (and now rather dated) Sex that added another level of notoriety to Madonna’s already gargantuan profile, even if Rodionova doesn’t have the existing image to begin with, but as an act of self-promotion it can’t really be beaten. For the record, Olga is pragmatic about the collection. “We decided to do something that will go down in history” she states, though where this fits in with the Iraq War and Mumbai bombings I’m not sure. Her confidence and attitude aren’t in question though. As is her almost detachment from the images: “People don’t understand here, they can be primitive: they confuse the image with the person.” So, if they’re not her, then what do they really represent? Her husband, Sergey, sees them as art.
“This is about the freedom of a woman who dares to appear the way the artist sees her and who is aware of her beauty and strength…. It is also about the freedom of a man who is so sure in his feelings, in his family and in his relationship with his woman that he fully approves of her self-expression. I would be proud if this book occupies a place in the history of art.” I’m not so sure everyone that would purchase book would see it with such lofty ideals. It’s certainly yet another way to set the couple apart from the rest of their money-laden contemporaries.
The book won’t be onsale in Russia. “Our society is not ready for such things” Olga sagely notes. “Men prefer their wives to stay at home under lock and key. No one wants feminism here.” But is it feminism? Or is it ‘art’ wrapped up in exploitation, in high-class pornography. Maybe it says as much about the country they inhabit as the pair themselves. That is more easy to conclude than the motives and merit of the book, but you have to at least take your hat off to the Rodionovas. They know how to make an entrance, and they will at least shake up the system. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people waiting for the sequel as well….