Friday 27 April 2018

Here come the girls...Russia's female elite make waves

An Olympic gymnast, who is also Vladimir Putin's rumoured girlfriend, is taking over a major Russian media group. She's just one of the country's female elite making waves across the world

Natalia Vodianova walks the runway during the Stella McCartney Ready to Wear Spring / Summer 2012.
Natalia Vodianova walks the runway during the Stella McCartney Ready to Wear Spring / Summer 2012.
Former gymnast Alina Kabayeva.
Dasha Zhukova
Miroslava Duma

Gabrielle Monaghan

Europe's relations with Moscow are at their lowest ebb since the Cold War. They have been affected by the tough sanctions imposed on Russian president Vladimir Putin, his officials and acquaintances for backing the separatists who shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine in July.

Putin's toughness also extends to the role of women in post-Soviet Russia, a conservative society where feminism is seen as a dirty word. This was never more evident than during the arrest and imprisonment in 2012 of members of Pussy Riot, the female activist group that performed an anti-Kremlin song in an Orthodox cathedral in Moscow.

Yet Russia's female elite in fashion and media are making waves across the world, albeit not always for the right reasons. Here are four of the most influential:

Alina Kabayeva

The former Olympic gymnastics champion has quit as an MP for United Russian, the president's party, after being appointed to run a major pro-Kremlin media company owned by one of Putin's friends.

At 31, Kabayeva is half Putin's age, but she is thought to be the president's girlfriend. Putin and his estranged wife Lyudmila announced their divorce in 2013, following years of infrequent and awkward public appearances. His spokesman has denied rumours that he and Kabayeva are now married and have two children together. In 2011, when Kabayeva graced the pages of Russian Vogue, she said that a boy rumoured to be her son was her nephew.

Before being elected to the state Duma, Kabayeva won gold in the 2004 Olympics for rhythmic gymnastics and is a five-time European champion. She was a flag-bearer during the opening ceremony of this year's controversial Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Kabayeva is taking over the helm of the National Media Group, which owns 25pc of Channel One, Russia's main state-controlled television channel. The company is controlled by Yuri Kovalchuk, a finance and media magnate whom the US Treasury dubbed as Putin's "personal banker" when it placed him on a sanctions list over the annexation of Crimea in March.

Dasha Zhukova

Not content merely to sit back and help oligarch boyfriend and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich to spend his fortune (he's worth around e10.8bn), Zhukova has become known in her own right as a magazine editor and gallerist.

She is the mastermind behind Garage, a biannual high-fashion and contemporary-art magazine, and curates the Garage Museum of Contemporary Culture.

The 33-year-old set up the latter - Moscow's answer to IMMA - in an abandoned bus depot in 2008 in a bid to bring modern art to the masses. She is also the founding partner of the art website

Save for an interview that appeared last month in The Sunday Times's Style magazine, the mother-of-two has rarely spoken to the press. Zhukova's reservations about media scrutiny are understandable: she was forced to make a public apology in January for posing for photographs on a designer chair shaped like a semi-naked black woman. It did not help matters that the photos happened to appear Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday in the US.

When asked by a journalist once to name her favourite artists, she responded: "I'm, like, really bad at remembering names."

Miroslava Duma

Known as 'Mira' to her 823,000-plus Instagram followers, Duma owns Buro 24/7, the Huffington Post-style fashion news website that published Zhukova's infamous photos.

Duma is one of Russia's most blogged-about IT girls and is known as the most elegant of the rich Muscovites who frequent the front row at fashion shows around the world. She was born into poverty but her family's fortunes improved after her father became one of Russia's countless oil magnates. He went on to run the government department for fuel and energy and, later, became a senator.

With a master's degree in international business and business administration under her belt, Duma went to work for Harper's Bazaar Russia at the age of 20. She also founded the charity Peace Planet in 2005 and, six years later, set up Buro 24/7, which she is striving to expand across Europe and the Middle East.

Duma considers Russian fashion to be undergoing a revolution after seven decades of "cultural and economic stagnation" under Soviet rule and a later obsession with flashing brand names.

She said: "People who have money from the '90s, they are fed up a little bit, all this bling-blinging and Versace and stuff, and in fashion, they, of course, want to be respected by people who understand fashion."

Natalia Vodianova

This millionaire supermodel is not just a pretty face. Her rags-to-riches story began with a grim Soviet childhood in Nizhny Novgorod in southwest Russia, where she was the daughter of a single mother who illegally sold fruit on the street. She helped care for her sister, who has cerebral palsy and severe autism. At 15, frustrated with the drunk behaviour of her mother's live-in boyfriend, Vodianova left home and set up her own fruit venture. After she won a local modelling gig, she realised she could earn more from one show than from an entire month selling fruit.

After working for several international brands such as YSL, Chanel and Calvin Klein, Vodianova is now commanding $4m (e3.1m) a year, according to the latest Forbes rankings of the world's highest-paid models.

She is divorced from English aristocrat Justin Portman and currently lives with in Paris with Antoine Arnault, who runs Berluti, the luxury retailer of men's shoes, and is the son of LVMH chief executive Bernard Arnault.

The mother-of-four also heads a charity foundation called Naked Hearts, which has built 120 children's playgrounds and parks in Russia over the past 10 years.

Irish Independent

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life