I have to side with Matt Yglesias's claim that Russian women have been beautiful for a long time and that it is not the recent advent of capitalism which elevated their looks. I've seen pictures of the younger Natasha, pre-capitalism, and she was beautiful back then too. I know many of her female friends, or have seen early photos of them, and almost all of them are (and were) beautiful. I visited Russia in the early 90s, just as capitalism was taking hold. There was plenty of beauty to go around, although admittedly people dress better now.
Countries don't develop networks of beautiful women overnight. Furthermore, once you get past the point of malnutrition, beauty is not related to per capita income in any simple way. I'll take Cuba, Croatia, Senegal, and Brazil over Australia and Finland, or to cite a closer comparison Slovakia over Austria. One hypothesis is that inequality of male income and power encourages female beauty for competitive reasons. Admittedly much more research needs to be done on this question.
Anne Applebaum has more thoughts on where they all came from:
There was a particular historical moment, round about 1995 or so, when anyone entering a well-appointed drawing room, dining room, or restaurant in London was sure to encounter a beautiful Russian woman. Though the word beautiful doesn't really capture the phenomenon. The women I'm remembering were extraordinarily, unbelievably, stunningly gorgeous.
These women were half-Kazakh or half-Tartar with Mongolian ancestors and perfect skin; dressed in the most tasteful, most expensive clothes; shod in soft leather boots; and perfectly coiffed. They were usually accompanied by an older man, sometimes much older, to whom they were perhaps married, or more likely not. They spoke in low, alluringly accented voices and towered over the lesser mortals in the room. I distinctly remember gazing upon one such creature while in the company of a friend, an old Russia hand who'd spent much of the previous decade in the Soviet Union. He stared, shook his head, and whispered, "But where were they all before?"
To put it bluntly, in the Soviet Union there was no market for female beauty. No fashion magazines featured beautiful women, since there weren't any fashion magazines. No TV series depended upon beautiful women for high ratings, since there weren't any ratings. There weren't many men rich enough to seek out beautiful women and marry them, and foreign men couldn't get the right sort of visa.
In the past, you had to play chess or be a champion gymnast to come to international attention if you were born in the Eastern bloc—chess and competitive sports figuring among the few party-approved export industries. Nowadays, stars in fields previously unsanctioned by the party—crime novelists, conceptual artists, computer whizzes—from Russia, Hungary, or Uzbekistan have a shot at fame and fortune, too. As for talented entrepreneurs, the sky's the limit.
Beauty is a matter of luck, but the same could be said of many other talents. And what open markets do for beautiful women they also do for other sorts of genius. So, cheer up next time you see a Siberian blonde dominating male attention at the far end of the table: The same mechanisms that brought her to your dinner party might one day bring you the Ukrainian doctor who cures your cancer or the Polish stockbroker who makes your fortune.
Sounds great all the way around. Three cheers for markets!!!