MOSCOW - The 40-minute drive from Moscow's Sheremetyevo 2 International Airport to the heart of the Russian capital dazzles new arrivals with impressions, not least of which is the sight of a large number of prostitutes lining the route almost to the Kremlin itself.
With an absence of laws on prostitution that might keep public places clear, the city's sex industry over the past decade has literally emerged from the shadows and dug in beneath the very noses of Russia's rulers.
Girls and pimps openly ply their trade round the clock and risk only small fines for lacking residence papers, for creating noise or "unauthorized business activity". Cash is often simply pocketed by underpaid policemen.
But enough is enough, say city politicians, who acknowledge that the so-called "nochnye babochky", or night butterflies, may generate between 15 to 50 million dollars a month and involve an estimated 70,000 women, many of whom are driven into the business by poverty.
"The problem can't be ignored any longer, it just keeps growing," said Oleg Bocharov, the head of the Moscow city parliament's committee for law and security. "I believe prostitution in the city should be fully legalized and regulated."
"In Moscow it involves tens of thousands of girls and women mainly from other parts of Russia and the neighbouring former Soviet states who often have to resort to prostitution to put food on the table," Bocharov said, adding that the core of the trouble is unimpeded soliciting on the streets.
"Apart from anything else, this problem is not a fitting public face for any capital city."
In the past there have been sporadic attempts by authorities in Moscow to at least sweep the problem from view, but with no real long-term solution in mind.
In 1980, in Soviet times, the "working girls" were rounded up and sent to a former military camp outside the city for the duration of the Olympic Games.
More recently, as Moscow prepared for its 850th anniversary celebrations in 1997, then Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov ordered police to relocate them to quieter stretches of the Moscow riverbank.
The minister said that during a drive through the city one evening he counted hundreds of working girls aggressively soliciting passers- by, and complained that some "nearly dragged me from my car".
But the clean-up lasted a few weeks before the groups drifted back to prime sites in the centre. Now they hold their ground, with one or two girls usually posted by the roadside to direct kerb-crawlers into sidestreets where more wait.
Occasionally they move on if enough complaints by residents force the police to act. Mostly though, the Militia patrol cars just cruise past and officers exchange a wave with regulars on a spot.
"The authorities want to raise taxes from this, of course, but it won't happen and they won't sweep the business away, ever," said Sveta from Ukraine one recent sunny evening, as she waited for clients by the roadside near the Gorbachev Institute.
"We pay off the cops and they ignore us, and that's the end of the matter."
So far city police chiefs have contributed little to the discussion, saying they merely execute the will of the city government.
"That prostitution exists in the capital is a fact that you can't close your eyes to," Alexander Bochkov, the head of Moscow's vice squad, told Russian media.
Charges for sexual services range from as little as the rouble equivalent of a couple of dollars at the city's notoriously seedy railway stations, to more than 500 dollars a night for so-called VIP girls working through the city's casinos and luxury hotels.
With so much money at stake, the police quickly look to turf wars between rival criminal groups to explain the violent incidents that surround the trade.
This was a main reason detectives cited for an attack last September when a man in a car threw a handgrenade into a group of girls in the centre one night. Fifteen women and one man were injured in the blast.
Just how the city authorities would go about regulating prostitution is not clear, said Moscow MP Bocharov.
Any move in this direction would first entail close study of other countries where the state to some extent controls the industry, like the Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic, he said.