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There she is, Russia

Stack is a Times staff writer.

Miss Constitution had yellow curls that bounced down her back, wide blue eyes and a sweet if faltering singing voice. She shimmied barefoot, donned a swimsuit in freezing temperatures and spoke plausibly about the responsibilities of the Russian state.

When her moment of glory came, Masha Fyodorova was draped in the Russian flag and handed the keys to a brand-new, pink-and-orange Mini Cooper. She strolled off the stage in a shower of confetti and sparklers, an economics student from the provinces reborn as the official paragon of patriotic womanhood.

The gathering Friday of B-list pop stars and hundreds of die-hard pro-Kremlin youth activists on the edge of Red Square was beauty pageant as patriotic ceremony, emblematic of today’s sexed-up, nationalistic Russia.

In between trilling traditional songs extolling the Moscow scenery and strutting in their bathing suits, the blond from Rostov-on-Don and three other nubile finalists paused to answer questions about authority, state obligations and the role of the elite.

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“Who is the only source of authority in the Russian Federation?” the announcer asked.

“The multiethnic people of the Russian Federation!” one of the women fired back.

Organized by the government and the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, or Ours, the pageant was aimed at whipping up public enthusiasm for the constitution. The 15th anniversary of the post-Soviet constitution has come at a sensitive moment, as President Dmitry Medvedev, backed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is pushing for the first-ever amendments.

Among other changes, the amendments would lengthen the presidential term to six years from four. Putin, first as president and now as prime minister, has steadily centralized power and cracked down on freedoms. Many analysts believe that the amendments, now just a formality from being passed, are designed to give Putin and his allies an even stronger hold on power. They predict that Putin, who was forced from office by term limits this year, is laying the groundwork for a prolonged return to the presidency.

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If so, no one here was complaining. Putin is wildly popular among Russia’s youths, who credit the former KGB agent with restoring their country to its rightful wealth and power.

“These days all the youths are rallying around the authorities,” said Isabela Berberian, a 20-year-old chemistry student and Nashi member who rode an all-night bus to attend the beauty pageant. A short girl with yellow hair and extensive eye makeup, she stood shivering in the front row of the crowd, eager to cast her vote for Miss Constitution.

“Everything should be branded,” she explained, nodding approvingly at the stage. “Youth groups have their brand, Nashi. And now this will be a brand too, Miss Constitution.”

These young people say they consider themselves “Putin’s generation.” They talk eagerly and earnestly about preserving Russian culture, fixing up monuments to the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is known in Russia) and diminishing Western influence. But for all their patriotic fever, they are still college-age students, with requisite hormones and off-color humor.

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“I’m looking for the ideal Russian woman,” said Alexander Titarenko, an 18-year-old management student. He guffawed and added: “I’ll be voting for the most beautiful girl.”

One by one, the four finalists burst forth on stage, stripped to skimpy dresses and gyrated with backup dancers. American hip-hop poured from the speakers: “Nasty girl, I want to do you all night long.”

Pavel Astakhov, a high- profile lawyer and television anchor who sat as a judge, was visibly enthused. “They’re remarkable,” he told the crowd suggestively. “Exactly what the constitution should be: precise, elegant and with plenty of -- content.”

Pop musicians and TV personalities clambered onto the stage to deliver lines like, “Two hundred years ago we thought the constitution was the wife of the czar, and now we’re celebrating this holiday.” Or, “We’d like to have a close relationship with the constitution. Are you with me?”

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A dance troupe performed a break-dancing number, titled “I Love the Constitution,” to the improbable accompaniment of the repeated lyrics, “Sometimes I feel like I want to get away.”

Soon, the women lined up like schoolgirls for a quiz, interrupting one another to shout out their answers.

“What is the highest form of expression of the authority of the people?” the announcer asked.

“Uh,” the dimpled brunet from Moscow hesitated. “Can I call a friend?”

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She could not.

“People can organize demonstrations and strikes,” she said, fumbling for words. “They can go to the corresponding organs of the state --"

“Elections and referendums!” the other contestants interrupted.

The announcer moved on.

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“Now, the whole world is in financial crisis. Can Russia use the financial crisis to strengthen its international position?”

Certainly, the contestants replied.

“Russia can do all!” one of them crowed. “The ruble is strengthening. Our love for life is getting stronger.”

The announcer chuckled. Everybody in Russia has been watching worriedly as the ruble has slumped, along with employment and public confidence.

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“We have four optimists on the stage who believe the ruble is getting stronger!” he said. The women kept smiling.

“Clap for us!” a redhead from Moscow exhorted the crowd. “We are so cold up here.”

The crowd applauded. Pink ballot boxes moved among the audience members. At the beauty pageant, at least, the voice of the people would be heard.

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megan.stack@latimes.com


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