For God’s sake, Putin was not “hitting on” Peng Liyuan. Also, there’s nothing wrong with Russian chivalry

I woke up this morning to some people asking me if Vladimir Putin was “hitting on” the First Lady of China. He had been caught on camera wrapping a shawl/blanket around her shoulders at the APEC Summit. Cue hysteria!

I explained that if a woman looks cold, a Russian man will drop everything and immediately give her a blanket/his own jacket/whatever. It’s not a sex thing, it’s just seen as good manners in Russia. This doesn’t, of course, mean that this gesture can never ever be flirtatious – but honestly, if a Russian man is flirting with you, there will be other ways in which he’ll let you know.

Protecting a woman from the cold is PARTICULARLY seen as good manners in Russia because of the complex cultural ways in which Russians treat the whole idea of being cold. For example, they always assume that being cold can make you very, very sick. Most well-mannered Russian men don’t even *think* about it when they offer you their coat outside – for them, it’s an automatic gesture.

Inevitably a friend wrote in to tell me this,

But don’t you think that Russian “chivalry” is more than a little sexist? It basically assumes that women are too weak to take care of themselves.

OK. So. People are entitled to their views on chivalry. But once again, it has important cultural contexts in Russia.

For one thing, Russia is not a very friendly place. It’s a macho society, where men are forever obsessed with the question of who’s dominating whom, and aggression is seen as a necessary survival trait, even in social situations.

Russian chivalry is one of the few ways in which people who don’t know each other very well will treat each other with politeness and kindness. I think this is one of the main reasons why it’s important to preserve it.

Secondly, Russian women don’t find it degrading. If anything, it’s one of the few expressions of hypermasculinity that isn’t made at the expense of a woman. It’s never about assuming that she is helpless – helplessness in women, I would argue, is NOT prized in Russia – it’s about recognition of her femininity as deserving of special attention from a man who, in most other social situations, is expected to act a bit brutish.

Honestly, no Russian man draping a blanket over a woman’s shoulders is thinking, “Stupid bitch can’t do it herself, and I, therefore, shall prove my masculinity by doing it for her.” It’s more like, “We can share a gentle moment in what is essentially an adverse world.”

Russian life is still built on ideas of survival and Russian women are the classic survivalists. They are expected to have both careers and babies. They are expected to do all of the housework and look glamorous while at it. Russian chivalry is a slight nod of recognition to all that – and it doesn’t, I would argue, obscure the very real challenges women do indeed face.

Most Russian gender norms are all kinds of screwed up. I wouldn’t put Russian chivalry on that list, though. Russian chivalry is nice. It’s sweet. And it particularly makes for a good change of pace when you’re used to men who won’t even *think* of, say, helping you with a heavy parcel (because God forbid they make you look “helpless”).

It may not always be appropriate at a political summit, but neither is it the sleazy, “OMG HE DID NOT” moment some people are trying to make it out to be.

Of all the things to be angry about when it comes to Putin, this just isn’t it.

*shrug*

A statement on the state of things

I dreamed that a former lover took me by the hair
Wrapped my hair around his wrist
Like a chain.
He beat the people he loved with me,
Beat them bloody
So that they could never hurt him again.
And in the melee
I wondered where he ended and I began.
I called my hairdresser and said,
“Pasha, why did you make my hair golden again,
So that it attracts the attention of thieves
And other people of questionable character?”
“Sanctions, my darling, sanctions,” Pasha said.
“We all have to invest our precious metals on the sly.”
I dreamed that my mother’s television
Detached itself from the wall as gracefully as it could
And volunteered to be my headstone.
My mother shook her head and said,
“Well, I can’t say I’m surprised by the situation,
As you know, someone is trying to steal our Arctic,
Just pack it away and steal it,
In a suitcase with a false bottom,
A man in aviator sunglasses and a rudely colored Hawaiian shirt,
Is trying to do it,
Just like that.”
People were dying.
In the kitchen of a khrushchyovka
That forever has bits flaking off of it, like another callus
On the groaning, unkempt body of the city,
Cigarettes were being crushed to death
And people shook their heads
At the horrific carnage and cruelty.
I dreamed that someone kept calling my number
And telling me that I could come home now,
But when I looked over my shoulder,
All I saw was the eternal return.
And I said to it, “That’s OK, that’s really OK,
We’ve been here before, you and I,
Come at me, bro.
Come the fuck at me, bro.”
But even then thermodynamic free energy
Was packing its bags and putting them on the sidewalk,
All aggrieved
Making a big show of checking the time,
Waiting for a cab.
It was getting so much colder.
Tears were already
Freezing at the corners of my eyes,
Like tiny icicles, like daggers for a mouse,
And I was too proud to say
That they were the only weapons
I could fuck shit up with
At this time.

……

time is a flat circle

Why it sucks to be a journalist (and why people do it anyway)

In the West, the news is a commodity, a product. And the customer is always right. If you’re not giving the customer what they want – you’re usually screwed.

In places like Russia, the news is more like a government-owned resource. And the government gets to set the agenda on how said resource will be exploited. If you’re not giving the government what it wants (or getting a little too uppity or bothersome) – you’re usually screwed.

I’ve worked for both English-language Russian state media and Western independent media. I’ve been lucky so far. Lucky for having intelligent editors who set good standards, for being able to speak my mind, for being able to walk away when facing censorship. Lucky that I’m still, at this stage in the game, able to feed my family (on a diminishing income). Lucky that I’m not an exploited freelancer in a conflict zone (for now, anyway).

Im-not-anybodys ygritte says

But the more online harassment I experience, the more threats I receive, the more insults (many of them gender-based, others aimed at my complicated cultural and ethnic heritage) I hear, the more I have to wonder if I’m tough enough.

When I was writing about the fateful 2010 winter election in Kiev, there was an incident I’ve been loath to talk about. Perhaps a couple of my friends know. It made me feel vulnerable and unprofessional at the time. I certainly didn’t want to complain and make it seem as though I was afraid of anything.

I had argued with a security guard near a polling station. He insisted I couldn’t be on the sidewalk, talking to people. He thumped me on my chest and pushed me hard. I went flying on the black ice that seemed to encrust every surface that winter, landing on my back, hitting my head in the process. After the immediate shock and pain wore off, I let a woman who had just voted help me up. The guard had scampered off. I went back to doing my job.

The incident stayed with me, because the pain stayed. I had problems with my back before, but that one bad fall caused chronic pain that lasted for over a year. After I got pregnant, I had to seek out specialists capable of helping pregnant women with severe back pain. The pain sapped my strength and bank account. It still flares up every once in a while. X-rays so far have been inconclusive, and I am convinced that a part of it starts in the mind. Chronic pain is complicated, but it has its roots. Some are abstract.

People don’t like journalists – for reasons are both abstract and concrete. People take, ah, liberties with journalists, especially in countries with brittle regimes and a high tolerance for violence. People don’t like it when journalists tell them what they don’t want to hear. People don’t like it that journalists take money from either governments or corporations or NGOs – i.e., people don’t like it that journalists have a powerful need to eat every once in a while.

I’ve been both a reporter and a pundit – a reporter takes risks in the field, only to be shouted at for bias. A pundit feels like Cassandra with tongue in place, but no one listening anyway. Everyone is down in the comments section, bitching about how you’re the wrong ethnicity to have an opinion on some matter, while others are busy e-mailing you detailed odes on how awesome it would be when you’re finally gang-raped.

“You go out there and do your job!” People shout at me on the internet, from the comfort of their homes. I’m remembering the first story I did for The Moscow News – on a neo-Nazi stabbing in southwest Moscow. I visited the scene of the crime, talked to the neighbors of the victim, talked to the crying wife on the phone outside. On my way back, I had to walk through an apple orchard at dusk. Two guys began following me. They weren’t neo-Nazis, they were thugs, enraged at seeing a reporter asking questions “without permission” on their territory. Didn’t I know I could be “punished”? There was no one else around. We were in the middle of a major city at peacetime, but in a second it was brought home to me – how unsafe I was. I let them catch up with me, joked with them, bummed a cigarette off of one of them, discussed my story. I smiled at them. They eventually began smiling back.

Female journalists are lectured on “using our looks” and following “the principles of feminism.” We’re still seen as women first and journalists second – hello, “mother of three” headline! – but we must pretend as though this isn’t really so in our work.

In the company of bad men, however, there are no illusions. You appeal directly to their strength. A strong man wouldn’t need to prove his strength by hurting a girl-reporter, would he? Except sometimes, he would.

Our readers hate us. We hate each other. When I joke about dick-measuring contests on Twitter, I’m not really joking. Professional solidarity usually only appears when someone gets their head cut off – to be quickly forgotten.

Everyone knows that you don’t get ahead by being the best. You get ahead by proving that the others are worthless.

If you’re a young woman, prepare for the possibility of getting harassed, raped, or simply used by colleagues you look up to. And then, of course, they’ll tell their friends that you only got that one gig because [insert body part, outfit, etc]. Hoity toity male journalists will punish you for admiring them as surely as they will punish you for not admiring them.

girls see more blood ygritte says

(And if you’re ever, say, attacked while doing your job – men will write hit-pieces about it, minimizing your suffering while making your entire job about your looks. And when you start getting older, people will begin getting mad at you about it – and asking why the hell are you still on TV, you fat cow)

In times of conflict and tension, you will be seen as a tool first and a person second – by everyone from the security services to Jim-Bob who’s never frozen his ass off at a demo that swiftly erupts into violence when the boys with the batons move in, but will still write your bosses and demand you be fired for your “pro-[insert whatever it is that Jim-Bob doesn't like at that moment] coverage.”

In a conflict zone, you will be accused of propaganda if any particular side appears to trust you – though trust is how you get people talking, how you get them to let you in, and how you get them to not kill you.

The late Andrei Stenin got the pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine to trust him – so now I’m constantly being told that he deserved his death. Meanwhile a friend has reported extensively on the right-wing Azov battalion on the Ukraine side – only to be accused of being a “Nazi sympathizer” in the process.

When you acknowledge the pressure you are under, you’re weak and hysterical. When you don’t acknowledge it, it begins to do your head in.

I was in a bar in Kiev with a cousin last month, when your typical Douchebag Expat Stereotype who’d only been in the country for a couple of weeks but had oodles of opinions he was dying to share sidled up to us. In the course of trying not to talk to him, I found out that he follows the work of a friend of mine who has been reporting on the armed conflict in the Donbass. “He’s just so biased! And so cocky!” Douchebag Expat Stereotype ranted.

“So why don’t you go out there and show him how it’s done,” I replied – then instantly regretted my words.

The last thing you want to do is give a self-assured blowhard the idea that he can do this kind of job.

Meanwhile, one of the defining characteristics of the human race is our need to tell stories, to bear witness – and to pass the information on. I think that people tend to get into journalism because they’re human. And a little crazy. It’s a calling – in the sense that a pied piper is playing a tune somewhere. You stumble off the safer path and follow the song. You live to regret it and you live to love it – sometimes in equal measure.

but first well live ygritte says

I just read gay Strelkov porn so you wouldn’t have to

Note: After I wrote this post, I made the decision to insert a bunch of gifs with hot men in them. It’s not for you – it’s for me. To preserve my soul.

When Heather McRobie alerted me to the fact that erotic gay fan fiction featuring Igor Strelkov (Girkin), former (?) separatist leader in eastern Ukraine (and he’s actually from Russia, btw), was for sale on Amazon, I knew I had to take one for the team. Kind of like Batman – if Batman sat at home in a bathrobe and wrote about porn.

bale is amused

So here are some essential facts about “Sucking Strelkov”:

- Great title!

- It’s all downhill from the moment you read that great title!

- And it’s almost as if this story, which is 5,7k words long, was written specifically for a journalist to discover it and start shrieking about it on the internet. Immediately, from the way it is written, you start to suspect that it was written by a journalist as well. Or, at the very least, someone who has done a lot of traveling in Ukraine in recent months. HMMMMMM.

daario winks

- The narrator is a lady. It makes me think the author is a lady.

- I’m not the main target audience for hot dude-on-dude action, but I can still recognize something hot when I see it (or read it). “Sucking Strelkov” is NOT hot. It’s not because the writing is bad, mind you. The author knows her subject matter. She knows, for example, that gay sex is a touchy (sorry) subject in Russia right now. She knows the Russian obsession with bureaucracy. She knows a whole lot, in fact.

jon snow knows

- Strelkov is tired, emotionless, and has a small dick. That, combined with the fact that Strelkov rapes a dude in this story, makes me think that a bunch of Novorossiya fans – who are generally all about manliness and glory, among other things – would get VERY pissed off if they read this. And maybe that’s the point?

- The Russian cult of heterosexual masculinity has been getting a lot of pushback in Europe in recent months. Everyone’s tired of Russians being all MANLIER THAN THOU all the time. This story appears to tap into that – whether consciously or unconsciously.

- This story is really all about rape, but the word “rape” is never mentioned. That also makes it realistic. Rape is often a tool of war – and in war zones, it frequently takes on an almost casual quality.

- The author doesn’t like Strelkov, but her brief descriptions of him make me believe that she has watched a fair bit of footage of him, at the very least. She taps into the ambivalence of his public persona really well.

- Did I mention that this is really, honestly, completely not hot?

- Paying nearly two dollars for this is a rip-off – but it also makes me think as though the whole “east Ukraine separatists” thing could be its own genre. If PTERODACTYL PORN exists, why not?

- I feel icky now.

loki is all like um

Oh my God, Becky – look at Pornhub’s statistics on Russia and anal sex videos

Someone who reads this blog has suggested that I write an overwrought essay about the latest Pornhub study, which has found that anal sex porn is “more popular in Russia than any other country.”

Naturally, I am very offended by the suggestion that my writing is overwrought, and I am stomping my foot as I let the eye-watering Moscow sunset bathe my form in amber-esque light, or whatever.

I also looked at the study and realized that there is quite a bit that needs to be said about anal sex and Russia, especially in light of recent events.

Some disclaimers:

By itself, the Pornhub study doesn’t provide concrete facts about Russia itself – no matter how many punchlines we can get out of citing it.

I really wish the Pornhub study came with dates attached. Are they tracking user data for the whole history of the site?

Finally, the plural of anecdote is not data, and so this isn’t going to be one of those posts where I use a porn site’s statistics to talk about Russian men and what they’re like in bed.

Moving on:

References to anal sex occupy an interesting niche in Russian culture. Because plenty of noise has already been made about Russia’s seeming anal sex obsession in light of its controversial law against homosexual propaganda to minors/general issues of homophobia, it’s worth pointing out some context.

For example, as political expert Pavel Svyatenkov brilliantly argued last year, a lot of Russia’s issues surrounding gay rights actually stem from the fact that anal sex is associated with humiliation in Gulag culture.

As Svyatenkov wrote:

“The philosophy of Soviet-developed homosexuality penetrated [translator note: pun not mine] even those social classes which, by definition, should not have harbored it. What does a manager mean when he says that his ‘bosses fucked [him] in the ass?’ He obviously means that he received a ‘severe reprimand from management.’ To put it in other words, the relationship between the powerful and the subordinate is interpreted via a homosexual sex act.”

Svyatenkov is specifically talking about attitudes surrounding homosexuality, of course. And his comments make even more sense in light of the Pornhub study. A taboo wouldn’t be a taboo if it didn’t have cultural roots/causes.

The Pornhub study, meanwhile, suggests that more people in general search for straight anal sex – though not by that much.

Prominent Russian sexologist Yevgeny Kulgavchyuk recently gave an interview to The Village, where he talked about how, in his view, very few women actually enjoy anal sex.

Quote:

 “I’m tired already of saving poor women from [anal sex]. Men who have watched too much porn are trying to conquer all of their women via the backyard. If the gentleman’s size is small, a woman’s erogenous zones are positioned a certain way, then some couples do get pleasure out of it. But for the majority of women, anal sex only creates painful sensations and anal fissures. And we’ve already talked about how sexual relations shouldn’t harm our health.”

Now, if you’re reading this in the West and you’re pretty liberal, there is a good chance that you are kind of surprised right now.

Obviously, our medical establishment does talk about the risks of anal – but then again, our prominent sexologists often focus on the fact that it doesn’t HAVE to be all that risky (or, for that matter, painful).

In general, I’ve found that Western sex columnists/therapists/whatever take the following view:

People should do what they want to do as long as they are being responsible and respectful of each other.

And that’s different from Russian sexologist Kulgavchyuk’s approach: He doesn’t trust his clients to figure out, and uses his position of authority to “save” a woman from unwanted anal sex.

And it’s not as if Kulgavchyuk is ZOMG in the wrong. He’s operating within a different matrix, where a) doctors are vested with more authority than their Western counterparts (look at the history of Soviet medicine to understand why) and b) women in heterosexual relationships are traditionally understood to be more vulnerable parties.

(For example, when I was pregnant, my doctor went out of her way to offer to sit down for a “chat” with my husband and explain to him that he shouldn’t be too demanding as far as sex goes. I hadn’t at all indicated to her that his attention was unwanted. But within the context of relationships in Russia, where people are much more frank about power differentials and abuse is sometimes understood as practically a given, it made perfect sense for my doctor to offer to “save” me.)

**So does all of that have to do with that Pornhub study?**

Well, we can infer that in this environment, one where mutual exploration/communication isn’t necessarily understood as the default, anal sex is considered way more of a taboo. If both men and women are being denied a middle ground where anal sex is something they can work on and even enjoy – even as they live in a culture that is relatively permissive and where porn is readily accessible – it becomes that much more of a forbidden fruit.

I also want to bring your attention back to Gulag culture. It would be a mistake to assume that it hasn’t found its way into heterosexual relationships as well. If anal sex is understood as the ultimate expression of dominance over a passive “victim,” as Gulag culture dictates, it’s going to be a phenomenon that will continue to generate both anxiety and fascination (it is my contention that Gulag culture hasn’t been done away with – it’s been sublimated). And why shouldn’t people search for that which fascinates them online?

Kulgavchyuk thinks that his patients want to screw their wives “in the backdoor” because they’ve watched too much porn. He might be right, but it’s a chicken-or-the-egg type question, actually.

Russia still lacks comprehensive sex education. In this environment, porn isn’t used merely for pleasure and entertainment – it’s also a way to satisfy curiosity and try to make up your own mind about certain kinds of practies.

you will get pregnant and die

You’re waiting for me to mention politics, and I will. Well, kind of.

Back in the spring, Mark Galeotti criticized Washington’s “aggressively cerebral” approach to the Kremlin.

I’m not nearly as thoughtful as Mark, so in the unlikely event that Obama asked me for my opinion, I would say something like:

“LOOK. RUSSIANS KNOW THAT POWER IS POWER. THEY HAVE FIGURED OUT A TERRITORY WITHIN WHICH THEY CAN BEND YOU GUYS OVER. THEY ARE BENDING YOU GUYS OVER. JUST PLEASE UNDERSTAND THIS CRUCIAL FACT. THIS IS HOW THEY THINK. THIS IS HOW THEY THINK!”

Once again, I refer to Pavel Svyatenkov’s assertion that power and subordination in Russia are often illustrated via the metaphor of anal sex.

Also, it is useful to remember that power occupies a different place in Russia than it does, say, in the States. In the U.S. we have a set-up that roughly translates to:

State –> Social/Political Institutions –> Individual

In Russia, it’s more like:

State –> Individual

There is no buffer.

And that lack of a buffer is expressed in Russia’s street culture (or kitchen culture, or, generally speaking, the private sphere), as the state bending you over and giving it to you.

I’ve said this is before and I’ll say it again: the best pop culture metaphor for Russian domestic policy is probably “Blurred Lines.”

“Well, that’s gloomy,” you’re probably saying. It can be. Russians are also quite funny about it.

And in that context, the Russian fascination with anal sex, as exposed by Pornhub, is also pretty damn funny.

Finally, and it really sucks that I have to point this out, but I will: desire is also just desire.

Maybe nothing that I’ve said here has ANY real, statistical bearing on Pornhub’s Russian fans.

It’s all just conjecture.

I haven’t heard of a single comprehensive study on the subject in Russia (Levada Center, I’m looking at you).

All I did was take some statistics and try to paint a picture that will fit them.

I am working backwards here.

;)