I was standing on a dirt path in a Russian country village, holding my boyfriend Anton’s torn, bloodstained T-shirt. All that could be heard in the darkness was my friends and I shouting his name, and the thuds and grunts of Anton wrestling with another guy. Only a few minutes ago, we’d been standing together drinking beer, when the other guy made the dubious and drunken decision to put his arm around me. What happened next was awful, confusing, and I wanted it to stop. But I’m not going to lie: Part of me was turned on.
Here was a guy protecting my honor, placing himself into bodily harm on my behalf. It was what I had dreamt of all those years when I read of dueling pistols and men of great action and few words.
After the punching finally stopped, Anton walked up to me shirtless and sweaty, caked with blood and dirt, his arms outstretched in an unmistakable gesture of victory. But what I mistook for a smile was actually a grimace. “What were you doing talking to that guy?” he asked. “Did I tell you you could talk to him?!”
Suddenly, I wished my women’s studies professor from Sarah Lawrence were there. Pistols at dawn seemed a ludicrous symbol of male egotism, and I longed for men in tailored suits, who solved arguments with Woody Allen jokes and New Yorker references. But then Anton hugged me, heat and sweat rising from his torso, his arms wrapped around me in a promise of eternal protection, inhaling me in that way men do to show they’re grateful that you’re safe. And in that strange and romantic moment I thought, “One day I’m going to put this in a story to explain my convoluted relationship with Russian men.”
I should preface this story by saying that I am Russian. I speak the language, I celebrate the holidays, and when I go back to New York after visiting relatives in the motherland and hand my Russian passport to the Russian customs official at border control, watch him quickly flip through it, and then haughtily sneer at me as he asks “Devushka, where’s your visa?” it is with the greatest relish that I slap my American passport onto the desk and yell “That’s my visa!” before launching into a Can’t Touch This dance. I was born into a crumbling communal building in St. Petersburg in 1988, moved to New York when I was five, and then moved back into a different crumbling communal building in St. Petersburg after graduating from my overpriced New York liberal arts college. All of which is to say, I am dual in every way, and my plethora of multicolored passports is a worthy symbol of the cultural mish-mash of my personality.
In 2010, I moved back to Russia to teach English. The first thing that you’ll notice when you get to Russia is that the women are astoundingly beautiful and immaculately presented. They will sashay past you with their wobbly stilettos (which are worn even over blocks of ice) and designer bags (which carry a full pharmacy complete with a mini shoe polish and handwipes) and, if you tell them you pluck your own eyebrows and only get a facial once a month, will look at you as though you have just clawed your way out of a swamp.
These insurmountable standards of beauty can largely be credited to the fact that there are more women than men. The disintegration of male hygiene and work ethic that occurs when there is (by some counts) a 3:1 female:male ratio should be noted by anthropologists worldwide. Having grown up in New York, I had taken for granted that people were always striving for something, or at least striving to be striving for something. In Russia, most of the guys I met were engaged in some sort of dubious import/export business in electronics; the rest were involved in “business” (if you ask what kind of business, and there is a marked pause followed by the word “business,” you should refrain from asking any more questions). A great many of them confessed to dreaming of moving to a beach in Bali, roasting barbecue all day, and copulating furiously with island women. This is why teaching ESL was booming there; for anyone who had any semblance of ambition, the goal was to learn English, the golden ticket to getting out.
The second thing you’ll notice is that Russian men are patriarchal alpha males, and, whatever your feminist textbook might have told you, this is initially a huge turn-on. Evolutionary theorists and Freudians alike would argue that women are subconsciously attracted to men who give off signs that they will provide for them. And when I say “provide,” I don’t even necessarily mean in a monetary sense as much as in a paternal one. This sense that they are obligated to look out for you, not because you’re weaker or feeble-minded, but because you — as the fountain from which life springs forth — are precious and valuable.
You do not meet a Russian man, you are chosen by one. You could be sitting in a banya, or at a café, and a man walks by, puts a fruit salad on your table, and gruffly says, “Enjoy.” If you eat the salad, it is a sign that you would like him to come talk to you. If you don’t eat it the salad, it doesn’t matter, because you have been chosen and he will still come talk to you since your compliance in the whole matter is largely unnecessary. In big cities, it’s not uncommon for a man to just run up to you in the street and say, “Devushka, may I make your acquaintance?” in the manner of a really pushy 19th century nobleman.
While all men like a challenge, the average American man tends to stop pursuit once you indicate that you are repulsed by his presence. Russians, on the other hand, aren’t going to let a little thing like your disinterest keep them from being your boyfriend. I’ve had male suitors who kept calling for years after I stopped picking up the phone. I’ve heard of guys crawling through windows and appearing naked in bedrooms. I had female friends who had no idea they were apparently someone’s girlfriend. The American teachers at my language school had a phrase to describe dating Russian men. It was “No Means Yes, and Yes Means Anal.”
Not surprisingly, the attitude toward rape in Russia is still depressingly medieval. “It happens. That’s life,” my mother would say with a shrug as she heard about a recent rape victim on the news. However — and here’s where we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that the popularity of bodice-ripper romances and all the statistics about rape fantasies are not for nothing — with the right guy, a sensually brutish approach can be astoundingly hot.
When I met one of my Russian boyfriends, he had (as is customary) come by the house several times to take me on long walks and brought cake for me and my parents, never once making anything remotely resembling an advance. One night, I was lying in my room fantasizing about him (he was sleeping downstairs), when I heard my bedroom door creak. Moving through the darkness, he sat on the edge of my bed and stared at me for a few moments. Then he gently fingered the strap of my silk nightgown and said, “This is a beautiful slip.” And then, with a sad sigh, “It’s going to be a shame to tear.” He said it the way you would look at your watch and say, “I’m not going to make it to my appointment,” like he knew what was going to happen, and there was nothing either one of us could do to stop it.
While I am all for slow, sensual, Barry White lovemaking, there comes a point with a sweet and simple Westerner when all the “Do you need a pillow?” “Does that hurt” “Would you like a glass of water?” questioning makes me wants to scream This isn’t a dinner party. You’re not writing an essay. Just let go. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman wants a man who’s a gentleman at dinner and an animal in bed. You want to completely transcend the cognitive prison and corporeal self in which we are always encased, becoming nothing but senses. This the Russian man understands. He leaves behind any semblance of propriety, responding only to primal urges, losing himself in you entirely. Of course, the major downside of this caveman treatment is that Russian men still follow the egotistical “sex is a favor that women do for men” mentality (i.e., it’s still not customary for Russian men to perform oral sex, although they will expect it), treating female sexuality like it’s something that only afflicts nymphomaniacs.
Love in a Russian man is expressed in a type of tender savagery. When I was a kid, my mother and her friends used to say, in one part dark humor and two parts wistful sigh, “If he hits you, that means he loves you,” referring to the fact that there’s a brutality to love, that the emotion is so totalitarian and overwhelming that it can’t be physically restrained. So Russian men crush your body, not because they want to hurt you, but out of an excess of feeling. They squeeze you tightly because they want to possess you fully, and to possess always means, to some extent, to first destroy. They bite your neck and bruise your arms for the same reason that tigers claw on the trees to mark their spot: to show other beasts of the jungle that you are taken, that there is a man to whom you belong.
It’s important to emphasize that this brand of chauvinism isn’t the abhorrent “shut up and make me a sandwich” kind but more along the lines of old-fashioned chivalry, which is why Russian men are quintessential gentlemen on first dates. Russians like to make occasions out of everyday rites, so men will make gestures to convey that going on a date with you is a special event in their lives. They bring flowers and little gifts (I have an entire hideous gold animal menagerie from a previous Russian admirer). They open the door for you and pull out your chair. They ask if you’re getting enough water and vigilantly top off your wine (as a woman, you never ever pour wine). They tie your shoes for you if they see your laces are loose. They always, always pay, proudly frisbeeing their credit cards at the bill, idly chatting and signing the check without even looking at it. In Russia, having a man pay for you obligates you to absolutely nothing, just as having him walk you home means absolutely nothing (Note: the latter is not the case in England). It’s just him doing what he needs to do, as a man, to take care of you, a woman. And before you start crying out sexism, what’s worse? To pay for a woman because women are less economically advantaged, or to pay for a woman’s meal and believe it entitles you to sex, as so many men do in the West?
More enticing than any of these old-fashioned gestures, however, is a Russian man’s body language. I get offended when I go on a “date” with an American guy, and after nothing but sterile conversation and hanging out for a few hours, he lunges at my face like a pre-pubescent. Russian men act like your boyfriend from the very beginning. They put their hand on the nape of your back as they gently lead you to the table. They stroke your arm as they carefully lay their coat on your shoulders even though you told them you’re not cold. They hold you, caressing your hair and kissing you on the forehead, putting their arms around you in a way that lets every other man in the universe know that you are his girl. Not only does this build up the tension to the first kiss and establish a strong sense of intimacy before it happens, these gestures reinforce the sense that affection and sex go hand in hand, that this unique bond that you’ve embarked on obligates you to one another in some way.
Which brings me to one of the best and worst things about dating a Russian man: his inherent sense of commitment. Here in the West, we may think we have it made with our “egalitarian system,” but when I look around at our hyper-individualized relationships, at our “you’re not obligated to anyone in any way” mentality, it seems brutal and barbaric. In New York, whenever I console a friend who’s in hysterics over yet another guy who wants to keep having sex but “just wants to be friends,” I can’t help but get enraged and want to call up one of my Russian friends for moral support. Russian doesn’t have a word for girlfriend, only wife and bride, so men approximate by saying “my girl,” “my bride,” or the English transliteration of girlfriend.
But there isn’t any close approximation of “friends-with-benefits”– a term I often struggled to deconstruct to groups of confused Russian males. It is telling, in this context, that the Russian translation of Hollywood movies “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached” are “Sex Without Obligations” and “Just Because He Promises to Marry You Doesn’t Mean He Will.” How can you be friends with a girl you’re sleeping with? If you’re having sex, she’s your girlfriend, simply because your decision to sleep with her makes you in large part responsible for her physical and emotional well-being. And when I’m trying to cheer up some of my casual sex victims who can’t even telephonically reach their super-autonomous beaus, I can’t help but feel like there’s a certain honor in the Russian man’s understanding that with great sex comes great responsibility, an ethical code that we in the West have almost totally lost.
I used to do an audio comprehension exercise with my Advanced English class in which the students listen to a couple arguing about whether or not to move in together after a year. The class always failed the accompanying questions, not for linguistic reasons so much as cultural ones. Why, they asked, didn’t the man want to move in together? In Russia, it’s still customary for people to be married (or even divorced) by the time they’re 20. When I asked my Advanced English class how long a couple should date before moving in together, they stared blankly back at me, as though time had never come into consideration for this decision, until one student shrugged his shoulders and said, “If you like her — one day,” to hearty nods of approval. To judge this decision in terms of time seems excessively rational to Russians, when it’s obviously a case of emotional intensity. When I recount this story to my Western guy friends, they look like they are about to have a heart attack, but why? Rent is expensive (especially in New York), and if you’re not religious and you’re spending virtually every night together, it seems economically unreasonable to live apart purely to uphold some abstract socially mandated principle.
And yet, the rush to commit comes with a catch. As in most chauvinistic societies, monogamy is more of a lofty ideal than a requirement, and there is a double standard to it. I can’t recall the number of times I was sitting in a café in Russia when a girl came in to see her friend and said, “Sorry I’m late. My boyfriend cheated on me,” to which her friend rolled her eyes and said, “Again? When is he going to kick that habit?” as though they were talking about him failing to put down the toilet seat. I posed a question once to my Western and Russian friends: Is it more disrespectful to have casual sex with a girl and not call her your girlfriend, or call her your girlfriend and cheat? The Westerners said the latter, as though it were obvious, the Russian ones said the former, as if that were obvious. Having experienced both, I really don’t know anymore, although I respect the way one of my Russian friends explained it, in a sort of Sartrian epistemology: “Listen, human nature is fucked up. It’s more honest, and more humane, to just lie.”
In the end, it’s not the wandering penis that makes me incapable of making it work with a Russian guy. It’s the precise patriarchal style that I find so attractive in the first place. It’s them never respecting that I have my own schedule and that I can’t exist exclusively around their time frame. It’s them calling me every hour to check up on where I am and what I ate, like a needy parole officer. It’s them taking a cup of coffee out of my hands as I’m about to sip it, chucking it into the trash, and saying, “That’s enough. You’ve had too much caffeine today.” I may have been born in Russia, and I may have two passports, but I grew up in New York, and no one gets between me and my coffee.
And still, sometimes, when I’m in my egalitarian relationship with an American guy, and I’m freezing my ass off in a mini-skirt outside while being eyeballed by some pervert and my boyfriend is giving me the “You’re an independent woman and you can handle this yourself” look, I can’t help but long for the protective paws of a Russian man, can’t help but feel torn between what I learned at my feminist university and what I grew up with in my patriarchal community, can’t help but feel an internal battle between my rational beliefs and my emotional desires, and I think what every person thinks when they are frustrated with their love life: Man, my parents really fucked me up.