| This is the 298th story of Our Life Logs |
My mother used to tell me that every time you pluck a flower, you disturb a star, so, be very careful about hording beautiful things just for the sake of their beauty. Even nature comes with a price, though we may not know it.
I was born into a poor, but loving family in the small town of Yaroslavl, Russia, in 1985. As a young girl, I watched my parents come home from work with long faces. They always smiled as they saw me, but I knew from their eyes that they struggled. By the time I was 16, I wanted to thank them for their selflessness. To help bring in money, I started working part-time as a waitress in a local restaurant in Yaroslavl.
It was there that I met the girl who would change my life.
Darya was a kind and generous 18-year-old girl who came to the restaurant at least two or three times a week to chat with me. Eventually, we formed a friendship. She told me she came from one of the richest families in Vladivostok, a few miles away near the border of North Korea. When I told her about my family, Darya proposed that we go shopping together after I got off work.
Of course, I had no money for the fancy clothes she wore or expensive makeup and protested her offer. Darya simply looked at me and said, “I have enough money for both of us.” Every time I resisted her kindness, she would just smile and say, “That’s what friends do, and you’re my best friend.”
After a few weeks of silly conversations and shopping sprees, I took Darya to meet my parents. She brought them a large ham with vegetables and fruit. My parents turned downed her lavish gesture, but Darya laughed, “Please, my family has so much money. It feels criminal not to try to help others who work hard and have little.”
Our friendship continued for six months. Then, one day after I got off work, Darya told me that she was leaving to go to the United States to a place called Dallas, Texas, to stay with a friend of the family. She asked me to go with her.
I wanted to come along, but my parents said, “Absolutely not,” for days despite my begging and the gifts Darya continued to bring. Darya patiently answered all their questions and even gave them telephone numbers with all the names of people they could call to make sure I was safe. Eventually, they allowed me to go. And so, in 2001, Darya and I left my small hometown to embark on what I was sure would be the greatest adventure of my life.
I spoke very little English, so Darya took care of my passport and exchanged the $1000 my parents had scrimped together for me. I thought we’d spend the whole flight in the same giggly conversations that led up to our trip, but Darya didn’t speak. She was feeling sick and wanted to sleep. I was so delirious with excitement that I didn’t pay any attention to the cold air that settled around Darya.
Once we landed in Dallas and got our luggage, Darya introduced me to a very big and scary-looking Russian man named Feodor and abruptly went to the bathroom, saying she would meet us in the car. As Feodor and I walked through the airport, I tried to make conversation, but he never responded. I kept looking over my shoulder for my friend, but it was of no use. I never saw Darya again.
As we got to the parking lot, Feodor pushed me into a long black car where I was promptly beaten and raped. I remember begging for mercy. I cried and screamed while I was brutalized for what seemed like hours. I was still a virgin and every time I was raped, first by Feodor and then by the driver while Feodor drove, I bled more and more. They only stopped raping me to get some rags to clean up the car.
I had no money. No passport or papers. No one knew who I was. I calmed myself down thinking my parents would call the numbers and save me. I later learned that those numbers belonged to sex traffickers and were disconnected after my parents tried calling.
• • •
We arrived at a nondescript hotel where I was led like a mule to a barren room. They told me to shower and put on the clothes that were in the bathroom waiting for me as I “had a date coming.” They said that if I tried to run, then they would find my parents and kill them.
I did as I was told. That night I was raped several times. I stopped counting at 20.
I found that when horror comes all at once, the psyche seems to slowly fall away as if it can no longer endure or feel what the body and mind are going through. I was never mentally present during the many rapes I endured. I wasn’t anywhere else, but I was never present either.
After a year of various hotel rooms, Feodor brought me to a home where there were about 20 girls my age that came and went. It was rare if any of us spoke a word, much less come up with an escape plan. Even so, I learned the eyes of a person can tell you their story if you really look at them. When the other girls and I really looked at each other, we could read the horror behind each other’s eyes. We could feel the heartbreak. And every once in a while, we could even hear the other’s soul fracture into a thousand pieces.
I tried going to the police only once, but I soon learned that the force was under Feodor’s payroll. I was never allowed to go anywhere alone after that. I was handcuffed to the bed while I slept. Even during the darkest of these times, I felt very lucky I was still alive.
In this new location, I saw women murdered in front of me. I saw many beaten so badly that they were dumped on the street like garbage. And twice, I witnessed a couple of men come into the room for women, who had been beaten so much that they became comatose, and begin cutting them up to sell their organs on the black market. This was the reality that shared the air I breathed.
Knowing this, I became more resolute to survive. And if I were going to die, then I wanted my family to be able to have my body to bury. I wanted them to be able to visit my grave and put flowers on it. I didn’t want them to endure the grief and trauma of never knowing what happened or where I was.
Upon my 18th birthday, I had been a prostitute for a little less than two years. I had long since been emotionally present, my psyche slowly fallen away as if to separate itself from what my body and mind were going through. There seemed to be no hope.
In 2003, I had a client come into the hotel room, and like usual, I didn’t look at him. The only thing I had any control over in my life was what I chose to see. I refused to look at men or women who purchased me…until that night.
As I knelt beside the chair in the room, he asked me how much and how long. I told him 30 minutes, but he could buy more if he wanted for the price. As I waited for the man to speak, I steadied my eyes to the dingy carpet around his feet. But he said nothing. After at least ten minutes passed in the silence, I looked up at the man.
What I saw shook me to the core. This man was Russian. I could tell. He slid off his chair so that he could level his face to mine and ask in Russian, “How long have you been a prostitute?” I immediately burst into tears. I had not cried since I was in the long black car.
• • •
That evening, the Russian gave Feodor money for the whole night. I don’t know what he told Feodor but whatever it was, it worked. He put me to bed and told me to sleep. And I did, for the first time since coming to the United States.
When I opened my eyes, I saw the Russian man reading the newspaper, and on the table sat two trays of breakfast. He must have seen my confusion and fear because he immediately assured me that he did not want to have sex. He just wanted me to eat. I thought maybe he was crazy, but I ate anyway. The warm food made me feel so full.
As the man walked me out of the room to Feodor, I could feel his hesitancy to let me go. I told him it was okay. He then leaned very close to my ear and said, “The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.” As Feodor gave me a suspicious look, I told myself to put the Russian and his quote out of my head. But the quote went on to live in my heart, where it still lives today.
The very next night, Feodor told me I was to see the same Russian man at 6 pm, but there would be no spending the night this time—no matter how much money he had. I went to the hotel room door, knocked, and waited. From the corner of my eye, I saw a lot of cash being given to Feodor and before I could sit down at the table and wait, everyone burst into our room at the same time. I saw blue uniforms with guns drawn. I saw gray uniforms with guns drawn, Finally, I saw the Russian man who seemed to simultaneously move me behind him, draw his weapon, and aim it at Feodor. I then heard him say in Russian, “Give me this chance to drop you like the pig you are right now.”
I peeked around the Russian to see Feodor drop to the floor and spread his arms and legs out just like a pig who wallows in garbage.
It turned out, my parents had reported me missing at the end of the first month I left. They knew something was wrong, but they were very poor and could not bribe anyone. In Russia, that meant no one cared. However, two years later, the Russian man (whose name was Sven) was working with the Russian Embassy, Interpol, Homeland Security, and a couple of other agencies. He found the listing and followed the lead.
Sven stayed with me during the interrogation by federal and international law enforcement agencies where I was questioned for almost 30 hours. I had to reveal the most intimate details of my life, all the rapes, starting with the first one with Feodor in the long black car, the many beatings, and acts of degradation I suffered.
On the last day of my trial, I ended my testimony by telling the courtroom that modern slavery takes many forms and is known by many names. But no name can describe the true horror and evil the word really means.
The judge gave Feodor the most time with 120 years. Darya (whom they found holed up in the attic of her mansion in a suburb of LA) got the least as she told her attorneys and the court that she had been a trafficked victim herself and they made her go find other girls. Even if that was true, the judge gave her 20 years.
One day, about halfway through the trial, Sven led me to my hotel room so that I could rest during a recess. When I looked up to thank him, I caught a glimpse of something familiar from the corner of my eye. I saw my mom and dad sitting on the bed. I screamed and cried all the way across the room and sank into their loving arms. I knew no safer place than where I was at that moment. I was convinced that Sven had something to do with them being in the United States.
I found Sven standing at the door with tears in his eyes. He looked at me and said, “May you always remember the path that leads you back to the love you deserve.”
I have become very aware every time I leave my home that nothing may be as it seems. The next time you stay in a hotel room and you see a chambermaid rush in to clean your room while you wait for her to finish, look closer. She may be a woman being trafficked for enforced labor. Or maybe, you will notice a very young girl being held very tightly by her arm walking through a public place with a man who will not meet your eyes or anyone else’s. Make sure to look again. In 2018, there were over 15,000 prosecutions in the US for global trafficking. They surround us and live among us. And they may need your help.
This is the story of Valentina Spektor
Valentina grew up in a very poor, but loving family in Vladivostok, Russia. At 16, she went to work, meeting a girl whom she befriended and accompanied on a trip to the United States. Unfortunately, this was when her friend cut ties, and Valentina was sold into sex trafficking. Valentina survived this lifestyle for two years before she was helped to freedom. Since the trial, Valentina has determined to be a light to others. She has made her home in the United States with the help of her husband, Sven (yes–the same man who helped free her). Valentina loves ANYTHING TEXAN, including and especially horses, cows, pigs, chickens, rabbits, etc. Valentina really loves Texan FOOD!! Brisket, ribs, BBQ, Tex-Mex, anything. Sven likes anything Valentina likes. Sven still works for the Russian Embassy but is NOT a diplomat, rather, he is in law enforcement. Valentina travels and gives speeches about trafficking all over the world. Sven is usually with her and in the audience. Together when they do get some downtime together, they both love climbing and hiking and when they get to the top of every mountain, they look around and say to each other we are not afraid to fail. We are afraid not to try.
This story first touched our hearts on March 21, 2019.
| Writer: Samantha Seconds | Editor: Colleen Walker |
If you are interested in learning more about Valentina’s journey, please read her other story with us:
Valentina was sold into sex trafficking at the age of 16 and endured two years of brutality. The very man who helped free her and the other enslaved women stayed by her side, and, as fate would have it, the two would fall in love.