Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Gender Relations in Russian-Speaking Countries

Mary was beautiful, with thick dark hair, huge, slightly protruding eyes, and a touch of condescension in her smile. At the age of sixteen, she married Zinovi Stolberg, an energetic, intelligent and enterprising young man. Three years later, in 1929, she gave birth to Klara and left her husband because he annoyed her with his opinions. Not his opinions as such since she never listened to what he said anyways but, rather, with his daring to express any opinions at all. 
                                                                                                          Michael Blekhman, Reflection

When I became a college student in Canada in 1998, I was shocked to see that male students spoke out and expressed their opinions both in class and outside of it. I was used to my male classmates sitting in the back rows of the classroom and giggling. My idea of men was that they constantly needed to be told what to do by women. Who would then have the task of putting right everything that inept, helpless men would inevitably mess up. My favorite sentence in dealing with men at that time was, 'We are going to do what I say, when I say, and how I say it.' And if you believe that this attitude made my romantic life problematic, you couldn't be more wrong. Nothing is easier than abandoning responsibility for your life to somebody who is willing to assume it, so there were crowds of candidates for the role of a man who is being bossed around by a strong woman. (I've changed since then, of course, and now resist all attempts of people to assign me the role of the boss of their lives.)

We are a culture of powerful, bossy women and immature men who never speak out. They just mumble. Obviously, not everybody is this way, but this trend exists and it is very powerful. So if you think that the quote I gave above is a joke or an exaggeration, think again. I knew Mary when she was a lot older but she was exactly the way she is described here. She was my great-grandmother.


Pagan Topologist said...

In light of this, why have not most Russian leaders been female?

Clarissa said...

Because it's a fiercely patriarchal culture. Where the patriarchal values of women being less valuable than men were (and often still are) passionately defended by women.

Pagan Topologist said...

Somehow, if men never express opinions, the culture does not seem patriarchal at all.

Clarissa said...

They don't express them because they don't need to. There is always some overworked woman to do that for them, resolve everything, and work herself into the ground to make sure that the man can dedicate himself to sitting there in happy procrastination.

The reasoning goes as follows: men are rare and difficult to come by (the results of wars and genocide that destroyed the lives of many men.) So the men that have been preserved need to be fought over, coddled, and taken care of. As a result, you have a mix of subservience and contempt that women generally feel towards men. "I'm less valuable than a men," a woman might say, "because they are harder to come by. However, I condescend to them because they are so helpless without me."

In Russian, expressions "to pity someone" and "to love someone" are synonymous.

Anonymous said...


Clarissa, does the low opinion that Russian women have towards Russian men extend to all men, regardless of nationality or just towards men of their own country?


Clarissa said...

Oh yes, it definitely extends. This is why I always say that men who buy Russian-speaking mail order brides are in for a huge surprise:

Anonymous said...

Well, men who are interesting in buying women in this fashion get whatever they deserve. I'm talking about regular men. Meaning, if a Russian woman met a foreign guy who didn't possess any of the negative attributes of the stereotypical russian male, and treated her with respect, would she still view that guy with a mixture of pity/suspicion/contempt?


Clarissa said...

It would be difficult for her not to see him in terms of whether he is useful to her or not and not to boss him around, I'd say. This all is also compounded by this very wide-spread belief among my compatriots that "all foreigners are stupid."

Steve Hayes said...

Two observations:

1. I think of George MacDonald's saying, "pity has, but is not love."

2. I wonder if the attitudes you mention have anything to do with the perception that Russian males tend to be heavy drinkers and that alcoholism is a big problem among them. Why express an opinion when you can drink?

I've only ever spent two weeks in Russia which is far too short a time to grasp cultural nuances but in the circles I moved in, at least, I didn't notice very much of either bossy women or opinionless males. I noticed racist prejudice against Gypsies, but perhaps, coming from South Africa, I was more sensitised to such things.

In your opinion, do any of these things come out in the novel A short history of tractors in Ukrainian?

Clarissa said...

People in my family don't drink at all and neither do any of my parents' friends but all these tendencies are nevertheless very present. Alcoholism is more prevalent in social classes different from ours.

Racism is vicious in our countries, just vicious. Which is the main reason why I can't hang out with my compatriots.

The novel your mention is a very nasty portrayal of my people. We might be not perfect but we are not that horrible. :-)

Lindsay said...

Hilarious! I never got that impression reading Dostoevsky or Tolstoy --- those guys' male characters have no trouble expressing their opinions.

Also, re. racism in Russia/Russian-speaking countries: YES, it is a huge problem! My uncle is a professor who sometimes teaches in Moscow, and once he was there with an Afghan colleague, whose safety he was so worried about that he hired security guards for him. (I also have a close friend, of North African heritage, who grew up in Moscow, and she also experienced a lot of racist violence from young white men). So it's not just you, Pagan Topologist, being sensitive!

Clarissa said...

These tendencies came forth after the long chain of wars and genocide which took place after the time of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.