A fashion accessory, a practical necessity for the Siberian winter, and a valuable asset that has been traded since medieval times. For Russians, fur is all of this and more.
But now animal rights campaigners want to wean Russians off their addiction to fur, and ram home their message that the production of fur involves intolerable cruelty to animals.
Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) claims to be the world’s largest animal rights organisation and is launching an anti-fur campaign in Russia for the first time. The campaign will begin with a series of street billboards featuring the well-known Russian television presenter Olga Shelest. It features a rabbit, and a fur coat stained with blood, and states that for every such coat, 30 rabbits are killed. “Fur is murder,” runs the slogan.
“The main thing is to make sure that the issue gets exposure and people understand what the real source of fur is,” said Robbie LeBlanc, a campaigner for Peta, who was in Moscow for the launch of the campaign. “When people actually see animals skinned alive, having their throats crushed or anally electrocuted, they start to understand what wearing a fur coat actually involves.”
Ms Shelest, the face of the campaign, recalled that when growing up in the provincial town of Naberezhnye Chelny, she owned a coat made of white fox, adorned with foxes tails and heads, and felt “like a queen” whenever she wore it. But when she came to Moscow, aged 18, she heard about the animal rights movement, and soon became a vegan and gave up wearing fur. “When I see those girls now wearing coats with the paws and animal heads on them, it is the least sexy thing imaginable,” she said. “I look at them and think, ‘You are a walking killer.’”
The majority of fur is produced on farms in China, but Russia remains the world’s biggest sales market. Many Russian women find the idea of surviving the long, icy Russian winter without their favourite shuba (fur coat) to be simply absurd.
On the same road as the vegan café on which Peta’s launch took place, there are two large fur salesrooms. Olga, a sales assistant in one of them said she did not see the animal rights movement as a threat to business. “Fur is as Russian as vodka; Russians will always love fur,” she said. “It’s a symbol of status, of luxury. A good fur coat is irreplaceable with anything else. We will never stop loving fur.”
Today in Moscow, the temperature was minus nine and roughly one in every four women in central Moscow was wearing fur. In parts of Siberia, where temperatures can drop as low as minus 50 on a regular basis, the proportion of people wearing fur hats, coats and boots increases.
Among those who even acknowledge animal rights as a concern, the justification for wearing fur is given that nothing else does such a good job at protecting the body from the ravages of the severe Russian winter. But the activists say this is simply nonsense. “There are lots of synthetic alternatives available, many of which look good, are just as warm and are much lighter than fur,” said Mr LeBlanc.
“I think it will take five or 10 years to start changing the way people think about it,” said Ms Shelest, who admits that many of her friends think she is “completely crazy” for giving up wearing fur. In the future, she would like the Peta campaign to include volunteers on the street handing out leaflets with information about how fur is farmed and produced to anyone wearing a fur item. “Already the younger generation are starting to think differently. If people know the whole truth about fur, they will soon change their minds.”