a big beautiful mess

Gender Roles in Russia. For real this time.

I noticed a lot of search terms bringing people to my blog are “gender roles in Russia” and I imagine people weren’t too happy to find just my snarky post about Nestle chocolate when they were probably looking for real information. So I thought I would do a real post about gender roles in Russia.

Now, this is based entirely upon my observations and interactions with individual people, so maybe I shouldn’t be generalizing. But I have come across a couple of attitudes multiple times, and I think the differences from what I grew up with are worth noting.

Marriage is only for producing children. This argument is used against gay marriage in particular, but in general, there’s an idea that it’s horrible to get married and not have any children. Perhaps this attitude appears to originate from the demographic crisis of the last twenty years and the government encouragement to make Russian babies, but I think it probably has its roots in the long and powerful religious history of Russia. It’s a stance that goes against how I’ve come to approach marriage after four years at Smith. Being confronted with this view that is, to me, radically different, has been a thought-provoking experience, and probably deserves a whole post to itself.

I would abandon my career to make a home and have kids if I fell in love with someone.” I’ve heard this so many times from students who are intelligent, driven, talented young women.

Men should pay for everything at a restaurant, even for his girlfriend’s friends. A “real man” is one who can pay for expensive gifts and make his girl feel and look like a queen.

As a corollary to the above: I recently overheard a discussion in another teacher’s English class. The question was, “Does being at the top of your group in school or university mean you’ll have success later in life?” One girl answered with a story about a classmate from school who had been “Not stupid, but just lazy” and had been at the bottom of their group. After they graduated, this girl married a rich man, and now she has everything she wants. So, her bad grades in school didn’t keep her from being successful.

On the other hand, Pomor women historically ran the household while their husbands were away at sea. This is what people tell me to point out the unique egalitarianism of the North and the Pomor region. It comes along with the proud reminder that serfdom never existed in the North.

“I’m not against homosexuals, but… they shouldn’t show themselves on the street or in public places where children might see them.” Sexuality should stay in the bedroom. Arguing that not seeing gay people throughout the last forty years didn’t prevent people from being homosexual now doesn’t make an impact.

Men sitting together on the couch side of the table in a cafe, or drinking juice from straws, or wearing purple paisley shirts, is totally normal. So propagandizing homosexuality is illegal, but the markers of gay culture are quite different, apparently.

It’s okay to be inappropriate to a young woman in a public place. Especially if she’s a foreigner. Man, if she’s a foreigner, she’s just asking for creepy old men to pester her. I’ve already had unwanted attention from two men twice as old as me here at the hotel. But in addition to that, I had a super sleazy old man on the bus last week make some totally inappropriate suggestions, after warning me not to marry a Russian man because he would only want me for my money and citizenship. When we came to his stop and he asked if he could kiss me, the girl sitting in front of us half turned around and just laughed. Fortunately, turning away and a stern, “Thank you, no,” dissuaded him, but it could have gone much worse.

Of course, not all my interactions with Russian men have been negative. I get along really well with the retired navy man who works the desk every third night, and enjoy hearing updates about his medical history. My male colleagues and the men who come to my conversation club at the library are for the most part gentlemanly and genuinely interested in hearing what I have to say. And most of my students who are boys are courteous and attentive.

This is just a sampling of my experiences with gender relations here, but I think they give the beginnings of a picture of how expectations and norms are different. And how my own assumptions are so heavily immersed in American culture and in the subculture of activist/queer/liberal arts feminism. It definitely makes for an interesting vantage point from which to read articles like this one about the political “war on women” being waged in the States right now.


  1. Interesting! It is always an eye opener to be in another culture.

  2. Marianna Marianna
    18 April 2012    

    Are you sure that those are markers of gay dude culture in Russia, or is that just a different expression of masculinity? Thanks for the post! <3

    • 18 April 2012    

      No, I definitely think it’s a different expression of masculinity. I think that if guys were drinking juice out of straws in America, there would be some assumptions of the kind that would get them beat up in Arkhangelsk. But clearly people here aren’t thinking those things about them.

  3. 19 April 2012    

    So, about marriage for producing children, it is right, but exist another reasons for marrige – strong attitudes, it is not normal if you are alone in 25 years old. Psychological fear of loneliness and fear of the future. Much peoples dont see future in her mind and it is scary.
    About another roles for the most part true, but i dont understand – why you so much say about homosexuality? I hear – when the university recruits students – a few percent of the seats reserved for homosexuals. Ok but homosexuals it is just peoples like another. For what so many times speak about it?
    Another your mind mostly right.

    • 22 April 2012    

      I haven’t heard about universities holding places for gay people. Do you mean in the U.S. or in Russia? The reason I talk about it so much is that at my university, it was very common to talk about gay people and the problems they face in society, so it’s different for me to not hear people talking about it here.

      • 25 April 2012    

        ask people who talking about it – i think most of they are not a gays

  4. 21 April 2012    

    I think the view of marriage should be set in a broader context. What really stands as an oddity, in historical and world terms, is our American and Western European view that marriage should meet the needs of the married. Companionate marriage in the U.S. first appeared as a term in the 1920s and referred to couples who self-consciously decided to have no children. This had developed out of a longer trend, with roots in romantic love and the radical idea that women should be equal in marriage. But, until the 20th century, marriage had as its purpose the formation of a family.

    So the attitudes of Russians that you note really come from a traditional view of family that is much bigger than Russia. The challenge for 21st century Russians will come with the growing desire of women for careers of their own and for equality. Those 5th year women in the class that you and I co-taught were all very impressive, highly intelligent, hard-working, and also willing to take risks. I suspect that at least some of them will find a traditional marriage and gendered limitations intolerable.

    • 21 April 2012    

      Oh, and as far as inappropriate male behavior goes, see my recent Cowbird story.

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