Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Miss Gulag: A Woman Should Be Everything Wonderful

by Drew Martin
The opening of a documentary I watched last night begins with a close up of a Russian woman with a doll-like face (pictured top). A wide shot shows us that she is being fitted for a floral dress that touches the floor even with her standing on a chair. She says.

"A woman should stay beautiful not just outside the fence but even in here she should show her beauty, not hide it in these walls. A woman should be everything wonderful. Well...me...I'm in for assault."

Then she turns her head and laughs. This woman is an inmate of UF-91/9, one of 35 prisons for women in Russia. It is located outside of her country's third largest city, Novosibirsk, Siberia. The film is titled Miss Gulag because it focuses on the annual beauty pageant, which was started at this prison in 1990 in order "for women to feel like women." 

After communism, the number of women committing crimes in Russia doubled. Miss Gulag was released in 2007 but shows footage from the 2005 pageant, and it follows a few of the contestants prepare and show off their styles. The pageant has three stages: imaginary uniform (what they would like to wear instead of their drab, prison-issue garb), Greek goddess (as pictured top), and a flower outfit (the winner had a huge white Easter Lily bloom that engulfed her head and shoulders). The best of the best is crowned Miss Spring, with runners-up donning Miss Charm, and Miss Grace sashes.

Part of the incentive to participate is that it shows good behavior and is taken into consideration when an inmate petitions for parole. Most important, the pageant is a breath of fresh air for these women serving long sentences, and who, ironically, work tirelessly on industrial sewing machines stitching together military uniforms for their army. Even the equally beautiful prison guards (pictured bottom) get into it. It is difficult in Miss Gulag to see the difference between the realms of creativity, femininity, and humanity.

Click here to watch a short trailer for Miss Gulag, which jumps in at the pageant.