Hell yeah. World Cup.
I read Julia Ioffe’s piece on infidelity in Russia with great interest, particular because it was for Slate’s DoubleX, and I never really know what the hell I am supposed to make of that particular outfit. A part of me despises it, a part of me is continually intrigued.
Not surprisingly, I guess, I would up having mixed feelings about Julia’s piece as well. I thought it was spot-on about the habits of married men, particularly upper-class married men – but I was disappointed that there was so little mention of women cheating. It’s true that a woman telling a potential lover “hey, I’m married” won’t stop him, and Julia was right to point that out – but once again, women were presented as passive, pursued by dudes with no morals.
This isn’t the view I have of life in Russia at all, and while the plural of anecdote is not data (neither when it comes to Julia’s piece, not when it comes to what the rest of us encounter), it seems to me that a whole lot of married Russian women cheat. Most of my mother’s middle-aged friends admit to past and/or ongoing affairs. And even when it comes to the wives of the sought-after wealthy men profiled in Julia’s piece – those wives do get bored. I don’t know a whole lot of rich Russian dudes, but all of the ones I’ve been in regular contact with have the same story to share, and it’s a variant of “we got married, and then I was away on business a lot, and suddenly, she was sleeping with someone else.”
One guy I know had to confront his wife over a pregnancy that obviously had nothing to do with him, the husband. She wound up raising the baby with someone else – a self-help guru. And that’s just how some people roll.
The main difference is – the wives of wealthy Russian men don’t tend to brag about their escapades. If you’re in it because you have a sugar-daddy, you don’t want to spoil the entire thing by blabbing about your “extracurricular activities.” The man who has the financial power, on the other hand, feels more comfortable with asserting his ability to do whatever the hell he wants, because he’s just that fly!… Or so he thinks, anyway. Also, the risk of a male spouse getting violent over revelations of cheating is greater than the other way around. And let’s face it, there’s also the fact that because we live in a patriarchy, male egos are inevitably constructed as more fragile. Women, who mostly have an inferior social status, learn to sublimate their own egos while buttering up the men’s. As one of my young married friends put it, “I don’t want him to find out that I cheat, because it will freak him out and humiliate him way more than such a scenario could possibly freak out or humiliate me.”
All of this makes female infidelity less visible, but no less real.
Meanwhile, this part of Julia’s article struck me as plain odd:
Tanya, for her part, couldn’t take the knowledge that her husband was cheating on her. She divorced him even though she is 30 and has a child, which makes a woman essentially unmarriageable in Russia.
Do I live in some parallel version of Russia? Off the top of my head, I can think of something like dozens of examples among friends, relatives and casual acquaintances that prove this statement to be an extreme exaggeration.
Most of my older friends, both male and female, are partnered up. However, the majority of them are on their second or third marriage already. Most of them also tend to have kids from previous relationships. Many felt pressured to marry young and have kids – and then realized that “oh crap, this isn’t going to work out.” It’s a common phenomenon in Russia and elsewhere.
And kids come first, too. Particularly if you’re a woman. When I went through a huge break-up last year, I once lamented to a friend about how I may never fall in love again. “But you can still have a kid,” he replied. “Kid’ll love you, and you’ll love the kid – and that’s the most important thing, no?” “But I don’t want to do it alone!” I wailed. “Well, nobody wants to do it alone, but for you it’s better to be a single parent than single and childless!” He retorted. “You’ll have plenty of love in your life, that way.”
Now that I am, indeed, pregnant, none of my Russian friends or relatives even bother to ask me if I’m getting married. To them, that’s not the important thing. Their reaction is – “Hell yes! Natalia’s finally decided to procreate! Let’s drink in her honour while she eyes our beers jealously!”
Many people don’t get married again after having kids and then getting divorced – but a lot of them also don’t want to. An older woman in particular may not necessarily want to adopt a traditionally feminine role anymore. After three kids and two divorces, my aunt is amused by the propositions her boyfriends make: “He wants me to move in with him! Is he out of his mind?!” She’s middle-aged, and not conventionally attractive, but she still gets enough play – a good example of how life extend far beyond the stereotypes of “subservient, attractive young Russian woman” and “scary, sexless Soviet baba with a mustache on her upper lip.”
For a lot of Russian men, a single woman with children signifies a kind of normalcy that, I would argue, many American men do not see. I think that for a lot of Americans, particularly those of us who hail from more conservative parts of the country, a single mom signifies that SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAS HAPPENED IN THIS WOMAN’S LIFE!!! I feel that a lot of Russians, in urban areas in particular, have a more casual approach. “Oh,” they’ll say, “Guess her previous relationship didn’t work out.”
If anything, I feel that it’s single and childless women in Russia who really get the short end of the stick. There’s not a whole lot wrong with you if your marriage didn’t work out. But you’re ZOMG A VICTIM if you don’t have kids. Or better yet, you’re ZOMG A SELFISH MONSTER. In an odd way, it’s certain Orthodox scholars who have attempted to change this attitude, some of them writing pamphlets such as “Female solitude: why does everyone treat it like it’s horrible?” Of course, in their view, a single, childless woman should be in a convent, or at least way, way devoted to religion – but their refusal to plainly demonize such women is already a step in the right direction.
I think that Julia’s observation that Russian hedonism was first preempted by Russian consumerism is a good one – but I also feel that it applies to a certain segment of the population, as opposed to Russia on the whole. Even under the Soviet regime, the Russian artistic community, for example, was fairly freewheeling when it comes to relationships (when a famous playwright died in Moscow recently, I wound up in a room full of people who were all eagerly reminiscing about his mistresses and his wife’s lovers). And for your average middle-class Russian, the ability to stock up on colourful pairs of Uggs for the winter (I have discovered, way behind everyone else, that Uggs are perfect for Russia) does not translate into applying the same mentality to lovers.
Overall, I feel that the reality of relationships in Russia is much more mundane than it is portrayed in Julia’s piece. I see a lot of truth in what she says – I mean, since coming to Russia, I myself have been the Other Woman. Twice. And it’s not as if I haven’t been cheated on as well. But I also feel that tales of Russian hedonism are so popular among Western publications precisely of how outlandish they ultimately are. I feel that there is a certain level of projection there. “Those Russians! So barbaric! And kind of badass! In a barbaric way! When they’re not cheating on their wives, they’re busy putting out horrible Belomorkanal cigarettes on tiny baby kittens!” I mean, back in the States, you see a whole lot of cheating and divorce as well – to the point that no one’s really surprised by it. Maybe the real difference is that Russian society deals with failed relationships in a more offhand way. I don’t know if this necessarily proves Julia’s point – that infidelity is accepted in Russia. I think a whole lot of people just view it as the devil they know.