Courtesy of Anfisa Chekhova
Anfisa Chekhova, who hosts a late-night television program about sex, says there's fierce competition among women for Moscow's eligible wealthy men.
Anfisa Chekhova, who hosts a late-night television program about sex, says there's fierce competition among women for Moscow's eligible wealthy men. Courtesy of Anfisa Chekhova
Yulia Gaidakova says her marriage last year fulfilled the most important goal in her life.
Yulia Gaidakova says her marriage last year fulfilled the most important goal in her life. Gregory Feifer/NPR
An iconic television commercial for Wendy's restaurants in the 1980s presented the Western view of Soviet life — a grim fashion show where every outfit was the same shapeless gray dress.
The crushing drabness of the Brezhnev years may have been known as "the stagnation," but not between the sheets. Difficulty obtaining restaurant reservations and tickets to the Bolshoi Theater encouraged widespread promiscuity among Soviets who looked elsewhere for free entertainment — even if sex was a taboo subject for public conversation.
That changed with the fall of communism. Suddenly mafia gangsters and their molls had the run of Moscow's new nightlife. Sex and nudity were everywhere.
But despite the wild swings in stereotypes about sex — from the supposedly puritanical days of the Soviet era to the apparent abandon of today, when oil-rich oligarchs lavish huge sums on designer-clad mistresses and wild parties — Russians' opinions about sex and marriage remain surprisingly traditional.
Not that you could tell from watching television. Today, a late-night show about sex airs graphic scenes just this side of soft-core pornography. It's called Sex with Anfisa Chekhova, a starlet who's posed nude in Russian Playboy.
Sipping a glass of white wine in a central Moscow cafe, Chekhova says the 1990s may have raised the curtain on sex, but not in a good way.
"There was sex, but no sex education," Chekhova says. "Rapes skyrocketed because men believed women had no right to refuse their demands. And girls believed prostitution was something to aspire to."
Advertisements for secretaries in newspapers' help-wanted sections often asked for women's measurements and photographs.
But a decade of oil wealth and authoritarianism have changed Russian society. Chekhova says that today, men are increasingly seeking respectability by marrying and settling down, and now it is women who are on the prowl.
"Women dress every day as if they're going to a ball," she says. "There are beauty salons everywhere. There's fierce competition to attract eligible men throwing around large sums of cash."
For all the new, skimpy designer outfits on Moscow's streets, Russian attitudes remain deeply conventional. Chekhova says women's liberation is having a strong man to take care of you. Independence is the freedom to become a model or open a hair salon.
That seems to be a common view on one pedestrian shopping street in Moscow. Yulia Gaidakova, 21, says getting married last year fulfilled the most important goal in her life.
"Women want a good husband who's responsible and loyal," Gaidakova says. "Everything else is secondary."
Most men, including bartender Vladimir Shatilov, deny there's anything sexist in Russia's gender stereotypes.
"Everyone should have his role in life," Shatilov says. "If a man goes out and works, a woman has to take care of the home."
But not everyone's so happy about social norms in Russia. When prompted, many women complain about deep-rooted misogyny.
Inside a fashionable restaurant, 23-year-old Maria Kutsova, who works for an international law firm, says although Moscow cafe society may appear Westernized, independent women like her are virtual outcasts.
"If they have career, if they are smart and have good education," Kutsova says, "they cannot find a partner who would be at their level. Russian men cannot compete with Russian successful women — they are not used to it."
Kutsova says dating is a challenge for other reasons. She says almost none of the men she meets care about safe sex, in a country where abortions are a common form of birth control and AIDS is spreading like wildfire.
Kutsova says she finds attitudes in Russia so oppressive, she is leaving to start a new life in Canada.