- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

MOSCOW — An anti-fur campaign being introduced by an animal rights group today holds little fear for furriers, who say Russian women will never give up their fur coats, which are prized both as status symbols and protection against the bitter cold.

The anti-fur group, called Vita, hopes to emulate the success of their counterparts in the West, who have made the fur coat an endangered species on the streets of London and New York.

During a rally at Pushkin Square in central Moscow today, Vita will ask women to hand over their fur coats, hats and stoles so they can be destroyed. The event is timed with the start of “maslenitsa,” or Shrovetide, when Russians traditionally begin spring cleaning before Lent.

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But the activists face an uphill struggle trying to win over Russian women, who consider their fur coats as essential — whether they have just one that was bought after years of scrimping or closets brimming with mink, sable and white fox.

“For a Russian woman, fur is not only fashionable, it’s necessary,” said Helen Yarmak, one of Russia’s top fur designers, who has salons in Moscow and New York. “When it is as cold as it is here, people really need fur.”

After the warmest January on record, winter arrived in Moscow this month with temperatures below minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and the streets are crowded with women in fur coats and hats. Few seemed willing to do without.

“How else are you going to keep warm in this weather?” asked 29-year-old Nadya Ivanova, wrapped in a brown mink coat.

She said she doubted anyone would turn up today to hand in their furs. “Every young Russian girl dreams of getting her first fur coat. She’s not just going to give it away.”

Vita officials sympathize with the women but sympathize more with the animals.

“We know it’s difficult for people to give up things that are fashionable and expensive, but we want to make them aware of the cruelty that goes into making their fur coats,” said Yelena Maruyeva, Vita’s director. “People don’t understand how badly animals are treated on fur farms, how they’re abused.”

Animal rights groups say the millions of animals raised for their pelts around the world are frequently mistreated — kept in small, filthy cages for the duration of their lives before being killed, often painfully.

Vita models itself on People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which for nearly three decades has been waging a high-profile campaign against animal cruelty in the United States. PETA has scored dozens of celebrity endorsements in its war against fur, with many posing in the nude for its “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign.

Vita has had less success. Its attempts to recruit high-profile supporters in Russia have largely failed, with only a handful of minor celebrities agreeing to give up fur.

Russia is the largest consumer of fur in the world, according to the British Fur Trade Association, with Russians spending about $2.5 billion a year on furs. Industry groups say fur sales have soared in recent years as Russia’s economic boom drives demand for luxury goods. Furs at Miss Yarmak’s boutiques can cost as little as $500 or as much as $400,000.

Fur hats and coats have long been a symbol of prestige among Russians, with the most-expensive furs, such as sable, considered the most prestigious. “Fur is a symbol for a Russian woman, of the love of a man or of how hard they’ve worked,” Miss Yarmak said.

Representatives of Russia’s fur industry dispute claims that animals are mistreated.

“The industry is regulated, and there are standards for our fur providers,” said Natalya Chirkova, a spokeswoman for Soyuzpushina, Russia’s largest fur auction house. “It’s impossible to have good quality fur if the animals are treated badly.”

She also argued that fake fur and other synthetic materials are worse for the environment than genuine fur because their production leads to large-scale factory pollution.

Vita admits it’s unlikely many people will turn in their furs today. “I can’t even get my relatives to do it,” Miss Maruyeva said. “My aunt said she knows it’s cruel but can’t appear in public without her fur coat.”

Still, Miss Maruyeva said, recognition of animal rights are still in its infancy in Russia and Vita is hoping that by raising public awareness, Russians may one day turn against fur.

“We’re just a drop in the sea right now because there’s no history of animal rights in Russia. But when we show people footage of the fur farming and the cruelty, they start to understand. So it is possible.”

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