“Friendship Rental” Business Picking up in Russia

Since the early 2010s, when posts advertising so-called “friends for hire” began appearing on Russian-language websites, the business has been constantly growing, independent news website Meduza writes.

The service allows internet users to pay an hourly fee for an apparently ordinary person to listen to them, give them emotional support, or simply chat for a while as though they really were an understanding long-time friend. The online iteration of the service was apparently invented in Japan, with similar rentals available in Western countries as well.

“I can be a relative or a brother at your wedding on either side of the aisle. I can be your friend at a coffee shop or your travel buddy. I can even be your father or your co-worker. Call me!!!!” a user named Nikolai writes in his advertisement, which has been viewed almost 2,000 times on Avito, a Russian-based classified ads site similar to Craigslist.

Searching for “friends for an hour” on the site turns up dozens of comparable propositions from men and women of various ages. Their services tend to cost between 200 and 2,000 rubles ($3 to $30) an hour. For a price, “friends for hire” are prepared to lend a sympathetic ear, give advice, take a walk around town, go to the movies, or even go out for a drink. The phrase “non-intimate” inevitably appears at the end of every ad. Avito isn’t the only market for these services in Russia: Internet users can hire a friend on Instagram, the Facebook-like social media site VKontakte, and the primarily escort-oriented site Soderzhanki.rumos.

“If we’re just walking around and chatting in Russian, then I take 1,000 rubles an hour. If we’re sitting in a coffee shop and the client is telling me about their problems, I charge 1,500 or 2,000 rubles an hour,” says a man named Ivan, who offers the service. “Because that’s a totally different format. It’s not so easy. I’m maximally involved emotionally, I’m thinking hard to try and help, to find a solution,” said Ivan, a man offering friendship for rent.

29-year-old Yelena Mukhina has tried opening a “friends for hire” agency after doing research on the market in Moscow. Her plan took off with the help of an Instagram account and now runs a staff of 22 “friends for hire”, serving around 10 clients each month.

Mukhina’s staff turns half of their earnings over to her. An hour of “friendship” with them costs 1,000 rubles, but it’s cheaper to buy friendship in bulk: if you hire a friend from Mukhina for three hours, you can get a fourth for free. Generally, most clients order two hours and pay in advance, the entrepreneur says.

Mukhina admits that her business has seen some difficulties because it offers what is still “a very exotic service” in Russia. However, she still plans to expand by opening new branches in St. Petersburg and Kazan. “I’m planning to launch our first new branch toward this next summer,” she said. “But we’d need a turnover of at least 1,000 for each 150 rubles we put in each month. And for that, we’d need more clients. As soon as we get this thing off the ground, I’d like to increase our prices to 1,500 rubles and invest in an advertising campaign,” she told Meduza.