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When Lena, 20, arrived at a seedy hotel here after a call from the Amazonka escort service dispatcher, she felt fortunate. The client took one look at her waist-length, platinum-blond hair and chose her over the two other prostitutes the dispatcher had sent over for his inspection.
But her luck soured when a vice detective knocked on the hotel room door, ordered her to get dressed, and put her into an unmarked police van. The nice young client turned out to be an undercover police officer.
At the station, however, it was the detectives who felt unlucky. Upon their release, as the women greeted each other with jaunty, knowing smiles, Lieut. Andrei Demikhov let his frustration spill over. That sense of futility is one reason the Saratov police force, the local governor, and many other local officials are behind a drive to legalize prostitution here.
And that has fomented organized crime and a staggering rise in venereal disease, AIDS and tuberculosis in Saratov. Syphilis rates alone are four times higher here than they were three years ago. All these disturbing trends are cited as reasons to legalize prostitution. Plenty of officials in other Russian cities with similar problems, notably St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, are also debating legalization. But Dmitri Ayatskov is the first regional governor in Russia to take the plunge and sponsor legislation to open government brothels.
If he has his way, licensed prostitutes would work freely in a designated area -- provided they are of age, pass regular health inspections, register their clients, and pay taxes. The local legislature is set to vote on a law legalizing prostitution in the coming months. Even if the local legislature passes a bill, Saratov is unlikely to become another Amsterdam overnight. For one thing, such a bill would clash with Russian federal law and would almost certainly be challenged on constitutional grounds.