A boy from a poor family makes good, opens the first sex shop in his hometown, wins the mayor’s job by a landslide, defies the Kremlin, goes to prison, gets barred from politics and ends up where he started: surrounded by sex toys, including a set of erotic Matryoshka nesting dolls that he delights in showing off.
The story of Alexander Donskoy’s entrepreneurial and political odyssey, complete with his decision to open Moscow’s first sex museum, might sound like a bizarre script from a second-rate screenwriter. But it surprises few in Russia in these days of political intrigue and no-limits capitalism.
Donskoy, a youngish-looking 41, his dark brown eyes beaming with mischief, says he had to commission an American artist to design his distinct take on the traditional Russian dolls for his museum shop.
“Russians are not free enough to make a doll like that,” he says.
He puts the wooden doll back on the shelf and leads a tour of the new Museum of Eroticism in the next room, passing through a darkened bar with red walls and drapes and sensual pictures.
He insists that the decision to open a sex museum a stone’s throw from the Kremlin was not political; as a businessman, he says, he merely wanted to be at the center of the tourist and shopping district.
The former mayor of Arkhangelsk, a provincial capital 625 miles north of Moscow, has quite a tale to tell about his journey into Russian politics and back.
Donskoy, who made his fortune running, among other things, a very popular sex shop, suddenly decided “to exercise his constitutional right to be elected” and won the 2005 mayoral campaign in Arkhangelsk, gaining twice as many votes as his main opponent from the ruling United Russia party.
“They were taken by surprise, and when they counted the votes they realized they couldn’t even fake the ballots, the difference was too obvious,” Donskoy says. Thus he became a rare independent player in a political system rigidly controlled over the last decade by Vladimir Putin.
But when his popularity grew and he announced that he was going to run for the presidency in 2008, Donskoy learned the limits of his independence.
Donskoy was arrested on what he alleges were trumped-up charges of abuse of power in 2007. He was released eight months later with a suspended three-year sentence and forbidden to take part in any elections for two years.
The court found Donskoy guilty of using the city’s budget funds to pay for his own security detail, said Sergei Kazakov, the Arkhangelsk regional administration’s spokesman, calling it a serious violation. “He was a good businessman,” Kazakov said by telephone, “but as a mayor he proved to be very immature.”
Donskoy compares his experiences to those of tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who chose to support the opposition political parties and was thrown in prison on what human rights organizations regard as politically motivated charges.
“It was in the prison cell that I realized how much my and Khodorkovsky’s case had in common,” Donskoy said. “Putin could tolerate neither officials nor tycoons stepping out of line in the country’s management model he masterminded and executed in the last 10 years.”
Boris Nemtsov, a onetime first deputy prime minister, is another Russian politician who has found himself marginalized in recent years.
“Donskoy is a very curious and interesting chap, and the Kremlin threw him out mercilessly from its power machine,” Nemtsov, a co-chairman of the newly formed opposition People’s Freedom Party, said in an interview. “His new endeavor has nothing to do with freedom and democracy, which he may advocate, but still it should be encouraged as a way to deal with the country’s [low] birthrate crisis.”
Donskoy says he no longer wants to play games with the Kremlin. But one of the main exhibits in the museum is a kitsch painting depicting Putin and President Obama dressed as ancient tribal chiefs and displaying their contending, ah-hem, manhoods in the middle of a fairy-tale forest.
“Russia is doomed to have Putin as its leader as long as he wishes, and I don’t see a chance of any other scenario unless he desires to step down voluntarily,” Donskoy said. “Any opposition leader who tries to challenge Putin will invariably be made to look like a clown one way or another; this is why I don’t want to join the opposition or continue my individual crusade.”
As he speaks, several young visitors make themselves comfortable in the museum’s viewing hall to watch a film about the history of sex in the Soviet Union.
“We don’t have sex and we are categorically against it,” says a Russian woman during a 1986 live television program in which an audience in a Boston studio talked with an audience in Leningrad, an outgrowth of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika initiative.
“Now we can proudly say we have sex in Russia; many people still want and need to be instructed about it,” Donskoy said. “What we still don’t have is freedom, and I hope that my museum here will help young people to feel freer as life in general is all about freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of choice.”
The young people sit through the end of the film in amazement. Then they join about a dozen more young visitors viewing an 18th century clay phallus from Afghanistan, the oldest exhibit item in the museum; a wooden sculpture from Africa of a man with a prominent phallus made of a crocodile tooth; a collection of explicit Japanese prints; and one of the most popular items in the 4,000-strong collection: a pair of Soviet rubber condoms that had proved useful only for inflating and selling as balloons to children on public holidays, so strong and sturdy they were.
He says the number of visitors has already exceeded 400 a day, even with tickets costing a steep $16 and admission restricted to those older than 18.
The museum, with its sex-toy store and bar, has been open for less than two months but is already drawing close attention from the authorities. A man with the Federal Guard Service, the Kremlin protection unit, came and asked that the Putin-Obama painting be removed, Donskoy says. Donskoy refused.
Leonid Kalashnikov, a Russian lawmaker who is socially conservative, is wary of Donskoy and his museum.
“Alexander Donskoy is a very extravagant person indeed, but his eccentricity should be watched closely, as this museum doesn’t really fit well into the realm of our national culture,” Kalashnikov said in an interview.
But what does Putin’s office think of the new endeavor? Dmitry Peskov, the prime minister’s spokesman, said he had never heard of Donskoy or his museum: “Frankly, I don’t have time for such rubbish.”
For the time being, Donskoy says, the museum’s biggest problem is finding a good chef for the bar to prepare aphrodisiac snacks for customers. “I want to help people enhance their emotions,” he says. “The Kremlin may control parliament, newspapers, television, but they can’t yet control human emotions.”