In Russia, a lack of men forces women to settle for less

The hardliving Russian lifestyle is thinning the male herd. What does it mean for love?

Deidre Dare By Deidre Dare

Some of the lucky ones. A scene from the “Parade of Brides” that takes place in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. (Reuters//Ilya Naymushin)

When Russia and China vote together on UN Resolutions (such as their recent veto of the UN Resolution on Syria), I always think to myself that in the two countries’ collective unconscious they realize that they are going to have to, literally, marry each other someday soon.

And here’s why. China has many more men than women. Russia has the opposite problem. Marriage of convenience anyone?

It’s easy to understand why China’s population has more men than women. Many years of the one-child-per-family law and an overwhelming preference for sons made abortion and infanticide of baby girls almost de rigueur.

It’s harder to grasp why Russia has more women than men. For a long time the reason was that World War II had wiped out the male population. Russia lost over 29,000,000 during that conflict, most of them men. These days, the reasons are less dramatic and probably have more to do with lifestyle choices than anything else.

Most Western men who spend any time in Russia quickly find out that they can have their pick of beautiful Russian girls. It’s assumed that this is because the Russians are aching to move away. But really it’s because men are such a rare commodity in Russia.

I recently did a radio interview the subject of which was “Are Russian men ugly?” and the point I made was that it doesn’t really matter if they are or not, because the pool of men is so limited that women will flock to them anyway.

This fact profoundly affects relationships in Russia. Men have a monopoly on power that they wield with impunity. From my own experience dating a Russian man, I found out for myself just how much.

That relationship gave me a lot of divergent “firsts”: first time a boyfriend painted my portrait vs. first time I was ever cheated on, first time I was ever serenaded vs. first time I was ever stood up, first time I was ever carried over an icy puddle vs. first time I was ever hit.

My experience is not rare. Russian women find that the scarcity of men affects relationships in all sorts of ways, both blatant and subtle.

Elena Krivovyaz, an editor in Moscow for the Daily Telegraph, says that Russian men have become more confident, and women more insecure. “When something or somebody is rare, then it’s of higher value,” she says. “This circumstance provides men in our society much freedom and power to dictate the rules, which are more convenient for them. I’ve noticed that being a man in our society is way more prestigious and even safe.”

Simply put, women in Russia must tolerate whatever men can dish out. For instance, domestic violence is not only rampant there, but accepted.

According to the Duma’s Committee on Social Defense, two-thirds of all murders in 2009 were of women who died in domestic disputes. Frederica Behr of Amnesty International in Moscow has reported that there are three times as many Russian women murdered at home as in any other European country, and that one woman dies by unnatural causes per hour in Russia compared with one per week in the U.K.

Marina Pisklakova-Parker, the founder of Russia’s first hotline and crisis center for women, was quoted in Newsweek saying that “the number of Russian women killed will keep increasing, as there is no law that would punish domestic crime. Both the state and society treat this issue as something everybody is used to. It is commonplace that men beat women in Russia. And it is commonplace in Russia, too, that women forgive their men for the beatings.”

Less dangerous, but equally demoralizing for women, is the rampant infidelity practiced by men in Russia. The Russian I was seeing was married at the time of our relationship. This fact seemed to neither surprise nor particularly bother any of the Russian parties involved. He recently told me that after our relationship ended, he picked up with someone else. “I am in another affair,” he wrote. “I am not an easy type.” You can almost hear the shrug.

In her book Lust in Translation: Which Country Has the Highest Rates of Infidelity?, Pamela Druckerman writes that “in Moscow, women in their forties told me that, by necessity, they only date married men. That’s because…the life expectancy for Russian men has fallen so sharply (to 59) that by age 65 there are just 46 men left for every 100 women.”

Tessa thinks this is true for younger women as well. As she told me, “More women in Russia nowadays are okay with being in a serious relationship with a married guy.”

Astonishingly, Druckerman goes on to remark that “it was clear that Russian men flaunted [their] demographic advantage. With the exception of a pastor (who was sitting with his wife at the time), I didn’t meet a single married man in Russia who admitted to being monogamous.”

Compare that to the United States, where statistics on adultery are notoriously unreliable due to the fact that people won’t admit to being unfaithful. According to what I could ascertain, about 60% of men in the US will have an affair, but only 22% will reveal that to a researcher and only a small percentage of them will also reveal it to their wives.

During my time in Moscow, I discovered that this culture of infidelity has a crushing impact on women’s relationships with each other as well. Imagine if all your friends considered your spouse or partner fair game for a serious relationship: what would that do to your interactions with them? That’s why there is a distinctive lack of a “gal pal” culture in Russia.

Reminiscent of a bygone era, the press in Russia is forbidden by law to write about President Vladimir Putin’s own dalliances, but that doesn’t prevent them from being commonly known. It’s pretty much accepted in Russia that Putin, who has been married since 1983, has had a long-term affair with Alina Kabaeva, a former Olympic gymnast, and even that he is the father of her child, born in 2009. Besides being good fun to talk about, no one in Russia really cares. Yet a brief incident with Monica Lewinsky almost cost Bill Clinton his job.

Despite the risk of death and/or heartbreak, women in Russia still believe that finding a man is of paramount importance. Ms. Krivovyaz told me that many women will enroll in math or engineering schools in the hope that they will find men there “Women are dependent on men, she says. “[Men] become a target to gain various goals in society and are a clear indicator of your social status as a woman.”

But the disproportionate amount of men in Russia is not all bad news. The men there are still very comfortable being men, in the old sense of the word. After all, there’s still my positive “firsts” to consider, each one an example of a certain chivalry difficult to come by anywhere else.

I think Tessa summed it up best when she told me “Russian men are more manly, less whiny than American men.”

Russia: where the men are men. And too many women are nervous wrecks.

  • Jashbryant

    This story is the real deal. Having lived in Russia for two summers and having had a couple if Russian boyfriends as well, this story hits the nail right on the head in terms of the social dynamic. I would say, however, that there is quite a bit of friendship between Russian women. In fact, they often serve as an important support network for each other when their men let them down/are unfaithful/are abusive.

    I will say also that while you seem to contrast Russia & the US somewhat on this issue, the “man situation” in the two countries is actually quite similar in my opinion, especially in minority communities in which the male population is ravaged by imprisonment, drug abuse and other socioeconomic factors. Being black myself, I have seen how women are forced (or feel forced) to tske in the dregs of society because there is literally no choice. So this is not an issue as foreign as we may think.

    • Deidre_clark

      Alas – you are probably right. It’s the situation wherever men are empowered (falsely) and women are disempowered – It doesn’t matter in what cultural context that occurs. I’ve never believed in countries – it seems absurd to me and this is not a “Russian” problem, it’s a human one.
      The author, Deidre Dare

  • Expatstayathomedad

    I’m a SAHD in Moscow and I can tell you its tough in a society with very odd ideas of domestic expectations and roles within marriage and relationships.

    • Deidre_clark

      A SAHD probably blows their minds mate. You are very brave.