Archive for the ‘Slate’s Double X’ Category

The Cheating Cheaters of Moscow

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

One evening in Moscow, Tanya (not her real name) found herself at a dinner table with a group of friends, most of them married couples. One of the men started to tell a story about the coda to a recent guys’ night out. He’d stumbled home the next morning to his wife and two children—a 2-year-old and an infant—to find that he’d forgotten his underwear. Everyone at the dinner table, including the man’s wife, laughed at the story: the hijinks!

Wandering spouses have become a common trope for the women of Moscow. “Men’s environment here pushes them towards cheating,” Tanya told me, adding that, these days, a boys’ night out in Russia often involves prostitutes. Tanya and her friends are young, educated, upper-middle-class Muscovites, but talk to any woman in Moscow, and, regardless of age, education, or income level, she’ll have a story of anything from petty infidelity to a parallel family that has existed for decades. Infidelity in Moscow has become “a way of life,” as another friend of mine put it—accepted and even expected.

This is quite a shift, given that 20 years ago an affair was considered a career-wrecking scandal. But by 1998, a study showed that Russian men and women led their peers in 24 other countries in their willingness to engage in and approve of extramarital affairs. Since then, these attitudes have taken hold more deeply after a prolonged consumer boom that encourages Russians to indulge their whims and desires. What does this culture of infidelity look like, and what are the costs?

Any explanation begins with a basic cultural difference. When Christianity arrived here, in the 10th century, it landed in a peasant, agrarian culture that treated sex as a natural barnyard phenomenon. Russia’s expanse was notoriously hard for the already disorganized church to govern, and so, when it came to sex, a sort of dichotomy of word and deed persisted well into the 19th century, more than in the West. Then came the Bolshevik Revolution, which rooted out the church and replaced it with a prudish, asexual model for behavior. Sex, once viewed as natural if vaguely sinful, ceased to exist altogether: “There is no sex in the Soviet Union,” the saying went. Parents stopped having the birds-and-bees talk with their children, and men could be dragged in front of their local Party Committee or labor union and made to suffer professionally for infidelity.

But this was not a deeply entrenched new morality; it was a code of behavior that did not convincingly explain itself. Communist ideology—a political and economic view of the world—was not a good stand-in either. Why was sex a taboo topic for socialist citizens? Why was cheating on your wife amoral if Communism rejected traditional bourgeois norms? The Soviets answered only with prohibitions and contradictory rhetoric. Outwardly, the prudishness held into the late Soviet era: Sex remained a shameful, tasteless topic, and it was impossible for girls to buy condoms in stores. (This was when abortion was the most common form of birth control.) At the same time, studies showed that Soviets were having sex earlier, getting married later, and doing all the other things their Western, sexually liberated counterparts were doing, but without the debate to make sense of it. It was, once again, a new set of behaviors devoid of moral explanation.

This was the perfectly explosive mix that greeted the overnight arrival of market capitalism and the oil boom of the last decade. Suddenly, there was no one to forbid anything or to admonish anyone. Everything that could be had, was; one needed only the will to acquire it. All of this has thrown Moscow into a consumer-driven hedonism that would make an American mall rat blush. Everything is available and everything is for sale. Sex is just another pleasure product, like a bottle of Moet. A recent Russian movie, What Men Talk About, featured four middle-age men on a road trip discussing the burdens of married life and the pleasures—the necessity, even—of infidelity. “Why can’t she understand that sex with my beloved, and sex with some other woman are two completely different activities,” one of the men says, comparing the latter to sneaking baloney from the fridge in the middle of the night. The film was, of course, a hit.

As the movie showed, the liberation is more for men than for women. For all its modernity, Moscow has been the seat of resurgent Russian paternalism since the arrival of Putin and his conservative nationalist agenda. Since men are the ones carving up the pie and doling out the slices, the way to show you have lots of pie is to be able to afford (wine and dine, regale with gifts) more than one woman. A 30-year-old Muscovite named Lena told me that certain social circles don’t accept her male banker friends if they don’t have mistresses. “It’s like having a Mercedes E Class,” Lena explained. “If you can’t measure up, if you can’t afford it, you aren’t welcomed. It’s easier, I guess, when you have common interests.” One middle-aged Muscovite who runs a successful business recently told me, “I don’t know, maybe I’m a complete fool for not having a mistress like everyone else.”

For the most part, Russian women shrug off the fooling around. It’s seen as unavoidable and natural. Men are slaves to hormones. Why get worked up over that, or the weather? “My sister’s husband cheats on her,” says Tanya, of the underwear story. “She knows this for a fact, but she doesn’t cheat on him. When I ask her why she stays with him she says, ‘I’m going to split up with him over some nonsense? He’ll get it out of his system and settle down.'” “Faithfulness in marriage is seen as something that is nice but unrealistic,” says Moscow sociologist Irina Tartakovskaya. She points out that if women don’t really expect it of their husbands, they can pre-empt feelings of shock and betrayal.

Women also put up with infidelity because there are simply more of them. Since World War II, when the Soviets lost 27 million people, there have been real or perceived shortages of men in Russia, who have one of the lowest life expectancies in the developed and developing worlds—age 62, compared with 78 in the United States. There are nearly 10 percent fewer men than women here between the ages of 15 and 64. In the aftermath of World War II, a single man could father children with multiple women because it was the only way for many women to start families. Sixty-five years later, even perfectly sculpted Russian women talk about the fierce competition for a mate. (This is also how they explain why they are always dressed to the nines.) “Men are not afraid to lose their women here,” a 23-year-old Muscovite named Olga told me. “But for a woman, who the hell knows if you’ll ever find another one?” This recalls a Billie Holiday-esque traditional Russian women’s saying, “He may be bad, but he’s mine.”

Accepting infidelity doesn’t neutralize the harm it can do, however. Three of my Russian girlfriends, all attractive women under 30, are caught up in the attendant misery. One friend has a boyfriend who has lived with her but vacationed with his wife and kids for years. When she first found out he was married, he proposed divorcing his wife and marrying her. He didn’t do it. When she brought up the subject, he said he’d been joking. Years later, she has given up on kicking him out or fighting with him. “I don’t even know what I want anymore,” she told me. Another friend dated a man for months who said he was single. When she discovered he was married, he too said he’d get a divorce. This time, the guy meant it, but my friend soon found out that he was getting remarried in two days’ time to a different woman. She went on seeing him for months, including on his wedding night. I have my own tale: I was once propositioned by a newlywed man with a 6-month-old child. When I protested that I was not a home wrecker, he reassured me that his home wouldn’t be wrecked, whatever we did together. (I refused.)

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. Lena has taken a more subtle and typical approach. She’d asked her boyfriend at the start of their relationship if he had other women. He’d said no and ardently pursued her. Then she found out he was married and had two children. Instead of breaking up with him, though, Lena decided to “turn the tables,” as she puts it, by holding him at arm’s length but not cutting him off entirely. “There is a reason I’m having this experience, and I will obviously be able to learn from it,” Lena says. “So I have decided that I am not his lover. He is my lover.” He still talks about marrying her. When he does, she just shows him where she has changed his name in her phone to “Traitor.”

The Cheating Cheaters of Moscow [Double X]

Real Housewives of Moscow

Monday, July 26th, 2010

A strange thing happened in late June, when the big Russian Internal Ministry bosses disclosed their earnings and those of their family members, thanks to President Dmitry Medvedev’s new anti-corruption measures. The surprise didn’t come from the men: The head-honcho cops were the fat cats everyone assumed them to be, declaring incomes that strangely exceeded that of the president. And the ranks of the obscure upper-middle management fittingly declared modest incomes, usually topping at out around $50,000. A Russian-made car here, a modest apartment there.

But the wifely half of the family disclosures was far more revelatory. There was, for example, the amazing financial statement of the spouse of Viktor Smirnov, the deputy director of the Russian Internal Ministry’s Center to Ensure Operation Performance to Combat Extremism. In 2009, a year in which the Russian economy struggled to get back on its feet after the financial crisis turned it virtually inside-out, Mrs. Smirnov made $500,000. She also owns two plots of land, each about 40 acres. She has shares in two apartments as well as in a housing complex, plus a Subaru Outback, an industrial truck, and a BMW 3-Series, which can retail for over $60,000. What does Mr. Smirnov own? One-quarter of one apartment.

Others wives flourished, too, like the Chechen one who owns 10 hectares of land, two apartments, a summer cottage, a pig farm, two cattle barns, and one slaughterhouse. Her husband, the deputy head of the Chechen Internal Ministry, owns exactly one trundly Russian-made hatchback.

What’s happening here is, of course, quite clear: corruption, pure and simple—the very sort Medvedev is making a show of rooting out by requiring his employees to declare their incomes. If, in a superficial stab at transparency, you are forced to disclose your assets, how do you, as a government employee making a pittance, conceal all the “left”—or dirty—money you made by using your uniform to squeeze it out of people? Register it in the wife’s name. The wives aren’t limited in their salaries the way the men are. So technically, they can have all the goodies that come from the extortion or embezzlement of their husbands.

But while using your wife as an offshore bank account is a simple—and universal—trick to slick your way through disclosure on a loophole, there are also broader consequences for millions of Russian working women. Most of them are not the wives of crooked cops or officials who use their government positions to loot the Russian state. Most of them, in fact, are the sole bread-winners in their families, despite the country’s macho fantasies of itself. Most Russian women still work and, with male life expectancy at 62, provide much of the household income into their senior citizenship. Their struggles are nowhere reflected in the mirror held up by Mrs. Smirnov. And yet she’s the cultural icon they’re stuck with.

According to a poll conducted after the disclosures, no one is falling for the spousal Internal Ministry accounting trick. Asked “Why do you think that many wives of high-ranking civil servants have incomes that exceed their husbands’ by several factors?” a full 84 percent of Russians responded that it was because “the resources of power”—connections, access, etc.—of these civil servants “is used by members of their family to conduct private business and increase the family income.” In a country so rife with corruption that Transparency International ranked it on par with Zimbabwe, Russians are surely right not to buy the fictions of the high-rolling wives of modest civil servants.

To understand the way that corruption has undercut professional Russian women, one must understand a radical shift of the last 20 years. Many of the Internal Ministry wives grew up in the Soviet system and can remember when there were few housewives supported by their husbands’ earnings. In those days, the Soviet woman was supposed to shed the shackles of labor division based on bourgeois notions of gender, to be a “mother-comrade.” She was expected to go to college, have a career, bear and rear children, and, oh yes, also keep house. Granted, this did not stamp out the strong paternalistic strains in Russian culture, nor did all women do this with joy (many complained that it took away their femininity), but it gave the country several generations of female scientists, doctors, lawyers, and engineers. (Two of my great-grandmothers, for example, were physicians; one was a professor of chemistry. They were all superb cooks.)

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, followed immediately by the sudden onset of no-holds-barred capitalism. It came as a huge psychological shock. Money seemed to fall out of the sky—or off the carcass of the collapsed state. Making money in the lawless, gangland 1990s became a mostly male sphere. As their husbands’ wealth ballooned, many wives—even the doctors and the professors among them—decided they’d rather stay at home than work long hours for tiny Soviet-era salaries. Eventually, the goal for many women became to find a man, any man, to support you instead of working. Naturally, the old paternalism blossomed under this old-fashioned arrangement, especially since most men and most women came to agree that the man was supposed to be not only the family bread-winner, but also the uncontested family boss.

Enter Elena Baturina, a plain, tow-headed bureaucrat in the Moscow city government in the 1980s. She worked for a man named Yuri Luzhkov, a big gun on the Moscow city council. By the post-Soviet mid-1990s, Luzhkov became mayor, and he ruled the city like a latter-day Boss Tweed. Baturina, 27 years his junior, became his wife. As Luzhkov developed and oversaw the extremely corrupt process of privatizing Moscow property, most of which had belonged to the Soviet state, Baturina simultaneously amassed a fortune in Moscow real estate. Did she make this money because she had inside information and access through her husband? Was she stashing the cut Luzhkov pocketed from the buyer? It was unclear, and Luzhkov and Baturina sued anyone who tried to find out—and won every single time.

When Luzhkov finally disclosed his earnings for 2009, he revealed that Baturina brought home more than $200 million—1,100 times more than her husband the mayor made. And that was just the cash. Baturina is, by far, Russia’s richest woman—its only female billionaire—as well as its biggest farce. She is the lens through which the recent Interior Ministry disclosures were derisively viewed. She has become the embodiment of the rich, corrupt woman, whose husband’s fortune is registered under her name.

The problem for other Russian women is that with the image of the mother-comrade gone, these two images have replaced it: The corrupt businesswoman a la Baturina, or the lux dame who expresses her femininity by not working. Both are entirely reliant on their husbands’ support. Neither is a selling point for women more generally. Or a role model.

Real Housewives of Moscow [Slate’s Double X]