“I really like this guy, but I couldn't possibly vote for him because he's a single at his age, it's just so suspicious!”
That was my masseuse talking out loud about Mikhail Prokhorov, the 46-year-old business tycoon-turned presidential candidate, as she was working my upper back a few days ago. (In the prelude to the upcoming elections in Russia, political talk of sorts has pervaded even the Moscow beauty parlors.)
“Russia's too traditional a country to vote in a 46 -year-old bachelor as president, don't you think?” my masseuse mused.
I, too, wondered about this, but then I thought, why not? For the first time in recent history we've got a candidate who's relatively young, good-looking and impressively successful in business…and single. Curiously, he’s also making little fuss about his status despite numerous rumors and speculation that range from health issues to dubious moral values to being gay.
What seems more suspicious to me is the prevalence of these old-fashioned, if not purely hypocritical attitudes here. Russia tops the Western hemisphere's divorce and infidelity rates. Studies show that more than 50% of marriages break up here and cases of cheating among married Russian men reach to as much as 75%! Even so, an astounding number of Russians harbor very conservative ideas on what one's private life should be like in order to be considered “normal” and socially acceptable. (I also wonder if all those "traditionalists" honestly believe in what they preach or if they're just pretending?)
Back in the Soviet times, a man who was divorced, or worse, still single at a certain age was labeled “morally unstable.” He could have problems joining the Communist party, would be unlikely to get promoted at work and wasn't allowed to leave the country. In the past, the “moral instability” margin fell to a rather young age, at around 25. Now, the deadline has been delayed to a middle age. Yet, the idea that “if a guy isn't married by 35 or 40, there's something wrong with him,” remains quite popular in Russia among various social groups.
While in Marie Claire/Russia we tend to stay away from political issues, my colleagues have also been quite keen lately on probing the private lives of those who're in power or aspiring to get access to it. I asked my colleagues if the presidential candidates' marital status indeed mattered to them.
For some, it turns out, it does.
“A bachelor or someone with an unclear family situation shouldn't even run (for president),” said George Kesoyan, senior editor who's long married with two kids. “Family's everything, it shows your values and priorities, and it's totally indicative of what kind of a president that person would be.”
Whereas most of my other colleagues didn't have issues with Mr. Prokhorov's bachelorship, some wondered what could possibly be wrong with him not having fathered any offspring yet. Apparently, in Russia, having kids out of wedlock or from different women or supporting several families is regarded not only “normal” but quite a “manly” thing to do.
“What bothers me is not that this guy has never been married but the fact that he doesn't have kids,” said Chief Editor Olga Zaretskaya. “It's just a bit weird. What if there's something wrong with his health? Or is he so egotistic or irresponsible that he chooses not to care about anyone?”
I believe these attitudes reflect the place Russia is at right now, at the crossroads between emancipation and tradition, rudimental double standards and evolved, more progressive views, longing for change but fearing the new and unconventional. For me, one's marital status would be an issue only if I were to date that person and give him my heart and everything else. When it to comes to giving my vote, I'd go for someone who's honest and transparent about his pursuits, let him or her be married, single or divorced. When the French president Sarkozy divorced his longtime wife and tied the knot with ex-model Carla Bruni, his ratings surged. Being a bachelor is better than having an illusion of a family, and no first lady is better than the one whose presence is merely a formality.
One of Russia's key problems is that we don't trust those in power. The higher the politicians' position, the more aloof they seem from the people they're supposed to represent. They often lack integrity or so it seems when secrecy and inaccessibility defines the ruling style. Being open and straightforward about fundamental issues makes one appear more human. We live in an era when an increasing number of people postpone starting a family or choose a career over starting one at all. Mr. Prokhorov stresses he has been doing just that so far. In a documentary about him recently aired on national television he also joked that at the moment he was up to “marry the entire country,” as he has all the time in the world to dedicate to state affairs.
And it seems that the openly unattached status could add quite a few female votes. “A single president who's still young, how sexy is that?” said Marie Claire Fashion Editor Ekaterina Dorokhova. “Not that I necessarily dream of becoming the first lady, but just thinking that every girl still has a chance to take the spot is quite a turn on.”
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.