I cringed as I read Svetlana Kolchik’s latest column, “The Russian Women Myth,” though my discomfort did not stem from being confronted with shocking material.
Kolchik’s assertions, expressed in a tone that occasionally made it seem as though she was writing for a sex tourism forum … *cough*… I mean, “international dating agency,” are not new. The idea that women are one of Russia’s most valuable “natural resources,” has been doing the rounds for decades.
What surprised me about “The Russian Women Myth” was that someone like Kolchik, a cosmopolitan and successful woman, was recycling these clichés.
Some Russian women love to pat themselves on the back for their exceptional femininity. I’m not Russian-born, but being mostly Russian ethnically means I occasionally do it too. Having spent most of my life in the United States, I have grown weary of various strains of Western feminism. I find radical feminism stifling and puritan in its approach to women’s appearance and sexuality. Mainstream, white middle-class feminism is often reduced to a bourgeois affectation. After moving to Russia, I have encountered a whole lot of genuine feminist work and discourse, even when it isn’t labeled as such (in her previous columns, Kolchik was right to suggest that the word “feminism” makes the majority of Russians shudder.)
Still, I believe that referring to oneself as a “natural resource” is demeaning. Natural resources are there to be used, usually irresponsibly, if global environmental concerns are anything to go by.
No less disturbing is Kolchik’s implicit assertion that Western men who come to Russia looking for genuine “wife-material” have something to offer in return. I regularly encounter Western men who have a fetish for Slavic women. Even if you weed out the genuinely creepy ones, you still end up with a bunch of pathetically insecure males. I’ve met men who couldn’t begin to hide their disappointment when they discovered that I had a U.S. college degree. What self-respecting woman wants to deal with that?
Similarly, a man who would like to date or marry a foreigner simply for the sake of dating or marrying a foreigner is, most of the time, merely playing a role. I laugh at Western men who write bitter screeds about being exploited by women from the former Soviet Union. All they wanted were some pretty toys to play with, and the toys wound up playing with them! Kolchik seems to turn up her nose at sex-work in her column, but sex-work is actually a much more straightforward and honest business exchange than what passes for “dating” among people who fetishize national identities.
When I met my future husband, who is Russian, I liked the fact that I didn’t intimidate him. Right away, it was a reason to get to know him more, particularly since I also happen to be one of those women who usually out-earns the man she is dating. As Kolchik puts it, “Even if a Russian woman earns 10 times more than her boyfriend, she will never let it show.” It’s actually an arrangement that must work both ways to be sustainable. If a man earns 10 times more than his girlfriend, and repeatedly rubs her nose in it, he’s not, to paraphrase Kolchik, “husband-material” – he’s just a jerk. Lording one’s salary over another human being never ends well, regardless of the gender dynamics at play. Perhaps this is something Kolchik ought to consider when encouraging her male Western friends to find wives in Russia.
I also can’t help but feel that Kolchik is being more than slightly disingenuous. The “hen-pecked husband” is yet another cliché, but one does meet a lot of Russian men who are bullied by their wives and girlfriends. The stereotype of the angelic Russian woman and the stereotype of the barbaric Russian man are both ridiculous, and eerily similar to what Gayatry Chakravorty Spivak called the phenomenon of “white men… saving brown women from brown men” in colonial India.
My husband carries my bags, opens doors for me and buys me flowers. I like these gestures, even if they seem old-fashioned to some of my American friends. But I would never exchange my humanity for a bouquet of tulips, and I wouldn’t encourage any woman, regardless of her nationality, to engage in such self-destructive behavior.
“We are set to empower men, at times perhaps tolerating too much, to ensure traditional gender roles are followed,” Kolchik writes. Perhaps the question of what “too much” means is worth exploring. Spousal abuse is considered a problem in Russia for a reason. In order to change that, we must ensure that Russian women are allowed their dignity. And dignity is not something usually ascribed to natural resources.
***Natalia Antonova is deputy editor-in-chief of The Moscow News. She contributed this comment to RIA Novosti’s English language website.