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September 1, 2006

Prison Beauty Pagents

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Siberian Prison Beauty Contest

Siberian Prison Beauty Contest

Photo Credit: Witold Krassowski

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THE TROUBLE WITH FREEDOM

Finally, contest day arrives. The prison is awash in hairspray, lipstick, nail polish, and all manner of female accoutrement not normally allowed in the prison. As the final decorations are pasted onto outfits, former inmate Natasha Patalakhova, 29, anxiously heads toward the other women, flowers in hand. Released seven months earlier, she has returned to see her friends compete. Patalakhova, who served eight years for armed assault, had been the acknowledged star of previous pageants, winning and even directing the event. But since leaving these prison walls, she has struggled to find her way. The government has refused to replace her lost passport because of her conviction, and without it, she cannot travel or apply for a job. (In Russia, a passport must be presented to any potential employer.) So, caught in this catch-22, Patalakhova is living in limbo.

Patalakhova's teen years in Siberia, as a refugee from Kazakhstan, taught her how to survive. Her hardened out outlook landed her in a dangerous gang, and when her boyfriend died of a drug overdose, Patalakhova single-handedly gathered a group of vigilantes to raid the dealer's den. Armed and masked, they infiltrated the home, but in a moment straight out of a Theodore Dreiser novel, Patalakhova heard a child cry out, "Mommy, who are these people?" and called off the crime. She was still arrested for armed assault, receiving a 14-year sentence. "My prison days continue to haunt me," she says. After serving eight years, Patalakhova finagled the coveted early release, no small thanks to her work in the pageants. She returned to her village of Voskresenka, where she is now apparently stuck. She has an option to work (illegally) as an aide at an elementary school, thanks to a family connection, but the job pays only $15 a month-- nowhere near enough to survive. Today, however, Patalakhova brings a different message, as she enters the prison like a rock star to hoots and cheers. Wearing thigh-high boots and wide, Jackie O. -- style sunglasses, she is the vision of free-market capitalism.

"Everything is great, girls!" she says. "I can't say that it's easy on the outside, but freedom is the best!" Her speech moves many to tears. Later, as the inmates return to their daily routine, the new infusion of energy is palpable. Nona Madjidova, the pageant favorite thanks to a giant lily concoction gown, has been crowned Miss Spring, but the real buzz is about Patalakhova's visit and the new Russia that awaits them all outside the prison walls. "I told them they could have a fresh beginning," says Patalakhova. "I told them to forgive each other, help each other, and strive to get home. What else could I say?"


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