by Marina KORENEVA
Vladimir Putin recently quipped that Russian prostitutes are "the best in the world" as he dismissed unsubstantiated rumours that Moscow had incriminating evidence on Donald Trump.
But the reality is that Russian sex workers operate in a hidden world outside the law and out of sight -- making them doubly vulnerable to infection and abuse, as AFP journalists found after being granted rare access to an illegal brothel.
In a grand Stalin-era tower block in the northwestern city of Saint Petersburg, a woman in her 30s opens the door of an apartment, introducing herself as Inna, the receptionist of this so-called salon.
"Go into the kitchen. Nadya's working, but Nastya and Madina are in there," she says. Nastya, 31, and Madina, 20, are wearing T-shirts over flimsy nighties and are drinking tea in the small kitchen.
The women only agree to speak to AFP because they trust an accompanying activist from the only NGO in Russia for sex workers called Serebryanaya Roza, or Silver Rose.
The activist, Regina Akhmetzyanova, spends her evening going to such clandestine brothels to give out condoms and to offer sex workers an HIV test.
This is particularly important for prostitutes since infection rates in Russia are currently growing, with more than 103,000 new cases identified in 2016, up five percent on the previous year, while the real total is likely to be significantly higher.
Prostitutes admit they come under pressure to have unsafe sex.
"They've beaten me and threatened me with a knife, forced me to do it without a condom," said Madina, who is from Uzbekistan and speaks only basic Russian.
"I've had difficult situations with clients many times, for sure," added Nastya, who came to the city from the Urals region. "I've learnt not to show my fear."
- 'Absolute pariahs' -
"Russian prostitutes are absolute pariahs who have no real way of defending themselves," says Silver Rose's founder, Irina Maslova.
Maslova knows what she is talking about. The slim blonde in her 40s says she spent six years selling sex in the city before becoming an activist in 2003 and one of the few public advocates for prostitutes' rights.
While prostitution is illegal in Russia, it is punishable by a fine of just 1,500 rubles ($26, 24 euros).
Pimps theoretically face up to three years in jail but are harder to convict since this requires police to track financial flows.
Activists say this legal ban is often used by police as an excuse not to investigate crimes against sex workers.
"We're told our profession doesn't exist, that means, we don't exist for the government on the one hand, but on the other hand, since (prostitution) is an administrative offence, sex workers are totally defenceless and without rights," complains Maslova.
The NGO chief believes that only legalisation of prostitution can bring an end to the abuses against the women and aims to create what she calls a "trade union for sex workers".
There seems little prospect of this currently as officials and lawmakers back conservative policies and stress the importance of fidelity in HIV prevention campaigns.
Prostitution officially did not exist in the Soviet Union but the first prostitutes targeting foreigners appeared in the late 1980s, taking payment in coveted hard currency.
In the 1990s, prostitutes openly solicited for trade on Moscow streets. Since the early 2000s, women have largely disappeared into brothels in residential blocks that may masquerade as massage parlours and operate allegedly under protection from corrupt police.
In 2015, the Kommersant business daily reported that brothels were routinely "protected" by those in the police department supposed to fight internal corruption, citing several former police officers.
- 'We're still people' -
In Saint Petersburg, Russia's second largest city, activists estimate there could be between 4,000 and 6,000 women who earn their living from prostitution.
"These women have all different backgrounds," says Akhmetzyanova. "There are students, divorced women and even housewives -- their husbands don't know or at least claim they don't."
Only some 10 percent work on the streets, while most work in brothels in city apartments, shared by a group of prostitutes with a security guard and receptionist, who takes calls from clients.
Clients find them from small ads pasted on the walls of buildings or on bus stops offering "leisure" or "girls" or simply giving women's names and a phone number. In the brothel, Akhmetzyanova prepares to test the women for HIV when the entry phone rings.
"Quick, girls, quick!" says Inna, looking at the video from a security camera by the door, showing a man going up to the apartment.
Nastya and Madina take off their T-shirts, put on high heels and run out. About 10 minutes later, Madina comes back alone: the client has chosen Nastya.
Every night, the three women who work here have around 10 to 15 clients between them but only receive half of the 2,000 rubles ($34) per hour that each pays.
The third woman Nadya, 33, comes back after her client leaves. She is married but her unemployed husband does not know her line of work. She sighs as she says: "We do what we do of our own accord, that's true."
"But we're still people all the same and it would be nice to be treated that way sometimes."