Infidelity, Russian-style

Hell yeah. World Cup.

But anyway…

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.

12 thoughts on “Infidelity, Russian-style

  1. The knowledge that British society officially has a worse attitude to single mothers than Russian both fascinates and disturbs me in equal amounts.

    You’re going to be an awesome Mother, I know it 😉

  2. Honestly, I think that Russian people are just more matter of fact about infidelity. I feel that in the North American society, relationships are…idealized. North Americans expect to find a “happily ever after” while the Russians are a lot more cynical. There is just a huge difference in values. There is also a huge difference in perception of women, you know the whole Madonna vs. whore thing. The woman you want to start a family with is not necessarily the woman you want to do the sexy times with on a daily basis.
    I love this topic. I have a discussion about Russian infidelity with my cousin at least once a week.

  3. It’s only my opinion, and you know what they say about opinions, but I find Julia Ioffe despises Russia in just about any context or frame you care to introduce. Everything about the country is explored with a kind of lascivious loathing, and viewed from its most degraded perspective. I doubt she actually sees it that way, but it comes through in her writing.

    I think Ana is correct that Russians in general are more pragmatic, and less inclined to foolish drama. That said, I deeply admire the courage of Russian single mothers, especially outside major urban hubs where the wages are generally higher and the opportunities greater. It’s tough, and although my experience is limited, Russian women make the best mothers. Sometimes it’s irritating – I frequently ask my wife if she thinks she’s training our 3-year-old daughter for the Olympics or something, the way she staggers and puts her hand to her brow if I give her a couple of potato chips.

    The notion that an older woman might not want to adopt a “traditionally feminine role” again never occurred to me, but it’s a very interesting thought, like most things that never occurred to you before.

    I find Russian women generally less inhibited about everything than their western counterparts; you typically don’t have to go through a lot of psychobabble to find out what they’re thinking – they’re often very direct. Just one of the qualities that makes me a fan!

  4. I also find that Americans in particular idealize relationships. Hell, I idealize them, to a certain extent – which probably has a lot to do with my mixed upbringing.

    I don’t know if Julia despises Russia – I think she writes things with a certain slant, and that slant is consistent. Maybe I don’t read her writing right, but it seems to me that for her, coming to Russia is more of a quaint adventure than anything else, and that’s the spirit she will write in. It’s a point of view that has every right to exist, but personally, as another writer, I can’t relate to it at all, for a host of reasons. I write about the shitty aspects of my life in Moscow – but then I also want to write about the way Novokuznetskaya looks and feels in winter, what it’s like to sit inside some controversial basement theater, how Moscow is the place I fell in love in and conceived a child (with a Russian man! ZOMG! Grab the smelling salts!), etc. I would get exhausted if the *only* perspective my writing had on this city, and on this country, was similar to Julia’s. Even though I often feel as though my head is about to explode here as well.

    I think “lascivious loathing” is a good way of characterizing this particular piece. Especially the line about how women at 30 and with a kid are “essentially unmarriageable” – because it’s essentially a stereotype.

  5. lol, so much jealous for Julia Yoffe here. I guess it doesn’t feel very nice, when she’s writing for Foreign Policy and you’re stuck “deputy-editing” a Putin mouthpiece like the Mocscow News. What is the actual point of this blog piece? That you don’t want to face the fact that Russia is deep in shit and the social fabric is completely rotten?? The only thing an Ivy League reject like you has going for herself is the fact that you’re slightly hotter than Yoffe. You can milk that for all it’s worth while enjoying your “career” I guess.

  6. Yes! I am “so much jealous” of Julia “Yoffe” – all the while suffering the added indignity of having Vladimir Putin look over my shoulder sternly while I write and edit articles for “the Mocscow News.”

    At least I’m allegedly “slightly hotter”- I don’t know what I’d do with myself otherwise.

  7. Actually, I would have said Julia Ioffe’s appearance and generally excellent vocabulary in English while being fluently bilingual were the two biggest things she had going for her. And Julia’s writing could hardly be deemed credible if she weren’t occasionally critical of Russia. However, her writing is so consistently critical, so gratuitously smarmy, that it’s hard to draw any other conclusion than that she hates the place. If so, there are plenty of planes leaving Moscow every day. Be on one.

    I never got any sense of her being on an adventure in Moscow, except for the short bio that accompanied her photo when she was still working for True/Slant. But even then, all she did was bitch, bitch, bitch about the government, the roads, Nashi, skinheads, the government some more, the weather. The sole exception, at least in my experience, was the “Peredays” posting introducing the hilarious characterization of Artur Pirozhkov, by the natural comic Alex Revva. It seemed to have been posted for no reason other than to share a laugh, and was extremely enjoyable.

    Russia might appear deep in shit from the viewpoint of someone who (a) would like it to be true, (b) doesn’t live there, and (c) doesn’t care to find out anything about it. If you meant the country’s wealth has yet to translate to a high living standard for its citizens, you’re right. If you meant economically, you’re wrong. Russia has the third-largest cash reserves in the world, is 8th in terms of purchasing power parity, and 5th in the world for current account balance. That means how well you paid your bills, and how reliable you appear to be able to continue doing so. The USA was 181st only because the list didn’t go down any further.

    Things aren’t always what they seem.

  8. I certainly think that Julia has way more going for her than her looks and vocabulary – though she is indeed a pretty woman, and one can hope that this well never be used against her (because we all know how some people talk about smart, pretty women – “Oh, she only landed that gig because she’s cute,” etc.).

    But if she thinks that “Cheating Cheaters who Cheat” applies to most of Moscow somehow, I can conclude that “Trolling Trolls who Troll” probably applies to her. It seems to me that very often, her writing is provocative simply for the sake of being provocative – at the very least, that’s how the article about cheaters struck me.

  9. Yes, I saw your comment on her site, and agree completely. In any case, as far as her writing provocatively for the sake of being provocative, it’d hardly be an unusual trait in one who writes for a living. Generating loads of comment is often interpreted positively by people who pay writers, even if those writers anger much more than they inform.

    Once again, my main discontent with Julia is her unrelenting negativity, and her selection of Russia as whipping boy. None of it seems designed to alleviate the conditions she decries by drawing attention to it that might result in change – it’s all the kind of lip-curling contempt that results in a stiffening of resolve and a hatred of outsiders who spit in your outstretched palm (figuratively speaking, of course; she doesn’t look like a spitter).

    I don’t for a moment doubt she got the jobs she has gotten based on pure ability, but they’re paying for a largely unsubstantiated hatchet job. Their hiring of someone who feels such contempt for the country that she’d probably do it for free was just luck, I guess.

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