From Russia, With Brains
playmate victoria zdrok is passionate about freedom and the american way
"I once had to write an essay titled 'Why I Love Lenin More Than My Mother,'" Victoria Nika Zdrok says, recalling one of her grade school assignments in the Ukraine. "In kindergarten we learned little poems about Lenin and what a wonderful man he was. The indoctrination started early."
Victoria and the heavy-handed Soviet system were not a good match. Miss October is very much a woman of her own mind, and an impressive mind it is. She speaks five languages -- Russian, Ukrainian, English, French and German. She is enrolled at two Philadelphia colleges in a dual law-and-psychology program; after finishing the seven-year course, she'll be an attorney and a clinical psychologist. (With a J.D. and Ph.D. to add to her 36C, think of the vanity plate possibilities.)
To unwind, she reads 19th century French poetry. "Let me read you one of my favorites," Victoria says as she pulls a volume from a shelf inside her book-filled suburban Philadelphia apartment. Leaning back against the sofa, her body tucked away inside a conservative navy pinstriped suit, she reads aloud in melodic French, then begins to translate the meaning.
Even as I try to pay tribute to her intellectual prowess, my attention is diverted to a large photo of Victoria. Earlier in or interview, Victoria had fetched the centerfold from this Playboy spread and placed it in my hands.
"Have you seen it?" she had said innocently. No, I stammered, I had not. I swallowed.
"It's a very nice picture," I said.
She smiled sweetly. Not knowing exactly what to do with the photo after that, I laid it sunny-side up on the table between us. And now, Victoria the brain translates poetry directly across from me.
"There's a funeral," Victoria says. "The only bird in the village is being buried, and the girl who loved the bird is crying. A cat comes up to her and says, `I'm upset you are crying. If I had known that you liked that bird so much, I would have eaten the entire bird, not just half. And I would have told you that she flew away to a beautiful country. You would have missed the bird, but you would not have felt such grief and sadness.'
"I love the poem," Victoria says, "even though I don't agree with its meaning - that some things are better left untold. I like to know things. I'm an explorer."
It was Victoria's thirst for knowledge and intellectual freedom that led her on her journey to the United States. Her father, a photojournalist, and her mother, a professor, were not members of the Communist party. "I was very talented, but I knew I could not make it in a system that lacks democracy and freedom of expression. In history classes, teachers discouraged any questions that did not conform with their line."
Victoria began applying to study in the U.S. when she was 13, after meeting some American professors in Kiev. For three years she pleaded her case at the doors of government functionaries in Kiev and Moscow, filled out form after form and was subjected to "every possible medical exam." She recalls one fat apparatchik who leered at her and asked, "Why do you want to go to America? That's a society for prostitutes and drug addicts. Is that what you want to be? Finally, at 16, she was granted permission to study at a high school in Florida. By the time she was 18, she had zipped through college, receiving her degree from West Chester University, outside of Philadelphia. Her goal, after receiving her joint J.D. and Ph.D., is to explore areas "where law and psychology intersect - for instance, to work with battered women or on issues involving child custody." I glance at the photo again. I ask her what made her decide to pose for Playboy. "I've always believed that professional women should be able to freely express their sensuality and not feel like they're constricted by society," she responds. "I feel that I am reaching out to women with a message of support. If you model, you do not have to be considered limited in your cognitive capacities. I know the Catherine MacKinnon followers would disagree, but that's why I love this country. People can have their own opinions. There was no equivalent of Playboy in the old Soviet Union. It was banned, along with many other Western publications. To me, the magazine represents free-expression ideals."
Victoria has her own ideas about what she finds insulting to women. "The commercials that show women with new washers and driers. To me, that's oppression." Victoria says she found posing for the centerfold to be a "sensual experience. It had to be, in order to express that message." But she admits, "When I was doing the shoot, I couldn't wait to get home and read a book. I need to be intellectually stimulated constantly."
-- Michael Gerhart
Photography by Richard Fegley