by Mike Snow
                                                                                    (fm "Moscow News" English   end '93)
                                                                                         with some current editing
         A similar story emerges from many foreign men in Moscow. They first came here in Nov 91, after the coup, left for a while, then returned. They returned to share in the raw adventure of building a new world, to make money in the yawning chasms of the post-communist vacuum, to learn the Russian language and civilization, to bask in the virtual adulation foreigners (especially Americans) were initially afforded.
    They came back for a woman.
    Russian girls are arguably the most beautiful in the world: huge clear eyes, lush lips, fine features, sculpted necks, sweet demeanor, often trained as ballet dancers or gymnasts from the age of 4. Stunning beauty is so common here that it isn't even noticed, or acknowledged by the girls themselves, who're unaware of the power they'd have elsewhere in the world. Bizarrely, this isn't common knowledge--many countries have an image of Russian women as tractor driving babushkas, or steroid-gulping macho Olympians.
    Moreover this is a patriarchy; radical feminism haven't penetrated this far. Here men are considered right unless proved otherwise, rather than the reverse.
    Because of the massive deaths of men from wars and purges (60-70 million in this century), men + women have reversed roles: here men are the desirable ones, the chased ones + so display some of the same arrogance and insufferability of beautiful women in America. (In fact in dealing with imperious, changeable, careless Soviet + Russian leaders, it was helpful to consider them spoiled beautiful women.)
     May-December (well,Sept)  romances that would be frowned on or considered perverse in the States are normal here, no small attraction for many foreigners. The spectacular income disparity made foreigners feel like Monte Carlo rich ($8 avg monthly income in Nov 91), with even McDonalds being considered a luxury restaurant. Our wealth, freedom, and exoticness made us hot property to the womenfolk. And Russian men, far from being bitterly resentful, would invariably encourage and help us in our quest.
    But things aren't all rosy. One almost never meets any girl over 21. In one of the strange cultural oddities here, girls think that if they aren't married by 21, they never will be. So any average 20 year old girl is often married with a 1 year old child, or in another cultural oddity.. a virgin, both equally unworkable. Parents usually exert enormous control over daughters--having a 20 year old be home by 10 pm makes dating, uh, problematic. Westerners would often have to settle for afternoon delights from girlfriends that would do anything but spend the night. "Russian girls have no sense of their own independence or freedom'"  complained Moscow student Matt Arledge. Married straight from childhood, girls have fanciful notions of their lives being all set as they defer all decisions to hubby. Often the husband can't measure up, and both partners settle into external relationships, something amazing common here (divorce rates are exploding). Alex, a Russian facial surgeon, explained, "It's the European way- marriage is for children, not necessarily sex." Women will often give you their phone number without mentioning they're married; "It's okay", one wife said when I reached her husband, "he doesn't mind."
    This total dependence was multiplied many-fold as the Soviet system collapsed (91-2) and people's psychological moorings were torn loose. We foreigners had to have all the answers--the secrets of money, success, freedom, happiness.. our girlfriends thought. But we were even more  pummeled by culture shock, pushed through the looking glass into a world where everything was reversed: the letters N and R, hot and cold water taps, headlights off at night, old money unsafe, fealty for abuse; where it took 6 weeks to find toilet paper, 4 trips to buy a train ticket, and 3 months to find scotch tape. Deprived of car, bike, stereo, video, Western TV or decent movies; swamped by the endless cold, dark, and melancholy of this strange land, we sometimes struggled to stay afloat. The fear of people who never had the options of making decisions about their life, suddenly being forced to, was solid and tangible, but beyond understanding to a Westerner.
    Without routine negative church indoctrination, sex was often startlingly casual- otherwise timid girls would hop into bed with amazing speed, sometimes more as an act of friendship than passion...wonderful, until you realized it wasn't exclusive to you. With the enormous Russian propensity for alcohol, one wouldn't try to get girls drunk, but prevent it, since after a couple of drinks- many Russian girsl would seduce anyone. Sex was vigorously suppressed by prudish Soviet authorities, it's wholesale emergence now is often unconnected with love, commitment, or even romance. Exclusive restaurants often have a strip-tease show. Economic exigencies meant a girl could be a sweet cultured trilingual university student, or a respected doctor.. and still be a prostitute (though rare). Foreign visitors found this fascinating, residents frightening, since AID's was almost nonexistant then, except in "professional" women who dealt with foreigners. Initially prostitution was remarkably devoid of criminal elements and startlingly innocent (though I have no, uh, direct experience). A Swedish nightclub is packed with working girls: every one a 19-25 year old stunning covergirl, who charged $100-200 an encounter: 2-3 monthly incomes. Even the lack of feminism could be maddening: when you are carrying 12 liters of sok (juice) and she refuses to carry one bottle because it's the man's  job to carry. Women deferring to men means they defer to whomever they're talking to at the moment, even on a date with somebody else. In this communal society concepts of loyalty were thinly or differently developed. At clubs with a date, bathroom breaks were done fast. And the Russian hunger for a strong domineering leader sometimes forced us to adopt behavior we'd spent years learning was chauvinistic. "I was finally comfortable with how I was supposed to act (being non-sexist), and I come here and all those rules don't mean a thing", complained an American TV producer that spent 1 1/2 years pursuing an Intourist guide.
    Even when the ability to communicate wasn't a problem, the tendency not to often was. Steeped in years of secrecy from a prying Party, Government, and family; women often thought that they had to hide what they wanted in order to get it, instead resorting to intricate schemes of manipulation. Penetrating to the truth through the misty multiple shrouds of mystery often proved impossible or pointless, and marriage to someone of such opaqueness was daunting.More than one girlfriend would resist my entreaties for a month till I thought it was over, then come over for a night of passion, then repeat the pattern . One never knew what, if anything, one had.
     Things have changed in the last 2 years as some Russians have become rich: the women are definitely cooler and more reserved towards foreigners; they now realize that wealth and freedom to leave aren't exclusively foreign phenomena. "Before Russian women were excited by the Western was considered a dream; now this country has possibilities too," claimed Marina Kondrina, a trader for Shell Oil. Vlada Gapolsky, a (female) casino inspector still thinks Western men are more sensitive: "There is more respect between people, and for women... Russian men think a woman is something you can buy." In truth, Russian men often treat women terribly; sexual harassment is so common as to be considered normal (a beautiful girl will often receive several financial proposals a day), and sexual extortion for jobs and promotions raises no eyebrows here, even among women. Russians are used to acceding to pressure After returning I asked a girlfriend who'd become assistant to a museum director if she had to sleep with him: "Oh, yes, Michael." Whereas in America, women's attraction to power in their men is universal, but usually  denied, Russians are more honest and relaxed about it. A friend starting work teaching English at the Russian Foreign Language Institute had a woman administrator tell him, "Oh, our girls will take VERY good care of you," with a broad smile (students were about 90% girls-the best and brightest of the nation). Since girls liked  (+ loved) us because we were kind and respectful compared to Russian men, relationships were often dazzlingly sweet, wonderful, and innocent; though Russian women, who mostly ran the infrastructure of the Soviet Union, could be tough as nails.
    "It's all about money," says New York photographer Brian Gonye flatly about womens' attraction to foreigners, a view shared by some men who find it a self-fulfilling prophecy. 2 years ago, when they cost $5, no  women had leather coats; now when they cost $200, very many women do; sartorial elegance has increased 100 fold from the days of shapeless Soviet plasticware. Because of the isolated economic system, Russian women often have no sense of financial scale. "They don't understand why you can't take her to a $25 admission nightclub every week, since all foreigners have  to be rich," groaned an American student."
     More than anything, our romances illuminated the awesome span of the Soviet Empire, and the pain involved in its breakup (and formation). Born in Kemerovo (Siberia) by Estonian parents, raised in Siberia, Kokhla-Yarve (Est.), and Leningrad, and having to choose between citizenship in 2 different worlds that are becoming mutually exclusive;  or born in Kyrgistan, raised in the Caucuses, worked in Vorkuta (Arctic), and attending school in Moscow;  or Moscovite, secure in remaining at the center of power and civilization, but buffeted by rampaging inflation, soaring crime, and institutional collapse. Being here has often felt like a James Michener novel "Empire".
    Russian (Soviet?) women seem to have an extra X chromosome, excessively female in their beauty, warmth, eroticism, arbitrariness, and toughness. But often cultural differences, historical psychological trauma, and communications problems seemed insurmountable. It sometimes appeared rather hopeless, but as Woody Allen said in Annie Hall, "We need the eggs."....   Of course, look what happened to him.

Mike Snow has written political commentary for Columbia Journalism Review, Seattle Times, Providence Journal and the Moscow News, Tribune, and Guardian.

POSTSCRIPT:     Many things have changed since then- most notably prices, and the level of girl's independence; still most of my observations still hold. But with the Mafia exporting thousands of poor girls into white slavery in foreign bordellos, rampant AID's and VD, and amazing levels of corruption; Russia isn't quite the romantic paradise I described. Yet it still might be the best place on earth.