“The Rich Also Cry” was the name of a nightmarishly convoluted Mexican soap opera that became popular around these parts shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. There was something oddly fitting about its apologetic title. “See?” The show’s creators seemed to say. “You guys shouldn’t be too freaked out by widespread poverty and income inequality! Because rich people have problems too!”
I am reminded of the show’s title every time I read a Russian tabloid story about spousal abuse among celebrities. Say what you want about Russian celebrity culture - it’s a tad more honest about the real-life problems families face. And since singer Valeriya went public about being beaten black-and-blue by her former husband nearly a decade ago, certain attitudes have been changing in Russia.
In particular, the myth that a rich husband will solve a woman’s problems has experienced some serious push-back. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that class tensions are once again heightening in Russia, or else something to do with the fact that society has become even more open, or maybe the women who landed rich husbands in the 1990’s and weathered everything from economic crises to shakedowns by the tax police and have discovered that, hey, on a certain level, the “they lived happily ever after” line is a bit of a ruse, particularly if the man you marry thinks he has “purchased” you as a kind of domestic serf.
“[Domestic violence] is still typified as a ‘low class’ phenomenon, and one that requires an image of helplessness from survivors,” an American feminist blogger I admire said recently in an online conversation.
She may be correct in her assessment as it applies to the United States, but I believe that the situation in Russia is different. Domestic violence has emerged as a grim aspect of the lives of many women, regardless of class background. And even as younger women from the provinces are encouraged to flock to urban centers and land themselves “sponsors” (a “sponsor” being a more palatable term than “papik,” a.k.a. “sugar daddy”), they are also encouraged to be practical and prosaic about their dreams.
“Finding a husband with a car and a Moscow registration [legal permission to live and work in the city] used to be difficult,” a poster advertising the Iz Ruk v Ruki site, which is analogous to Craigslist, proclaimed recently. “Not anymore!” The poster itself featured the drawing of a pretty girl with flowing locks tepidly embracing a hideous, grim-looking older man. It was funny, and sad - and it traded on a realistic approach to how severely unequal relationships actually work.
Trading up remains a viable option for any woman in a society where she is economically disadvantaged simply by virtue of her gender. And trading up usually involves a kind of exchange - a willingness to overlook affairs, for example, in exchange for a plush new apartment and a yearly pilgrimage to the Maldives - hence the word “trade.”
The thing about violence, however, is that it cannot be prevented via obedience and compromise. Violence is an instrument of terror, and as any person who has ever been terrorized knows, it is random. No amount of work an abused party puts into a relationship that’s broken from the start is going to prevent violence.
“An Unequal Marriage” is a famous painting that hangs in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Painted by Vasily Pukirev in 1862, it depicts a hunched-over priest presiding over the wedding ceremony of an older man and a girl who looks like she is a teenager. People are shown gossipping in the background, as people are wont to do at such occasions. The older man somehow manages to appear both defensive and horny as he gazes downward at his bride. A younger, good-looking fellow directly behind the bride has crossed his arms on his chest and stares at the groom with disapproval. The fellow could be a stand-in for the painter himself - or, perhaps, he is the one guy the bride actually loves.
The bride herself appears stricken. Her beautiful wedding dress only serves to underscore the severe pallor of her face and the disgust stamped on her features. Pukirev has really pulled off something masterful with her - she’s shown as a woman who could be beautiful, if she didn’t look so unhappy.
Whether or not the heroine of Pukirev’s painting goes on to be abused is obviously a mystery. But within the moment he has depicted, she is practically shown as someone doing abuse to herself.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.