MOSCOW (WOMENSENEWS)–“Wouldn’t you want to dream with me?” a stranger asks me as I am walking along the Red Square in Moscow. The Kremlin is moonlit, but it’s not that late, and there are a good number of people around, mostly couples and tourists.
The man, whom I don’t know, and who does not know me, insists: “Look, you are lonely, and here I am . . .” He is not aggressive; very considerate, in fact. He says he is lonely, too, and that his friend, who watches us from a few yards away with a shy, almost apologetic smile, has a girlfriend they are about to meet. He will be really lonely then, left by himself, because “it’s no fun dreaming on your own.”
He recites a Russian proverb, “One set of brains is good, but two are better.”
I tell him he should try using his one set of brains for a change–it feels good. I also tell him I want to enjoy this evening and I want to enjoy it on my own. In solitude. I walk away.
My problem, however, is that the Russian language does not distinguish between “solitude” and “loneliness.” It’s all one word–odinochestvo–and there is no escape from it in Moscow.
Groups and Couples
Moscovites tend to go around in groups. You see five and six of them, drinking beer in parks, snacking next to vending kiosks and singing along to a guitarist in the underground passageways and crosswalks. Other than groups, there are couples.
A young woman who is alone and enjoying an easy stroll along the streets of Moscow is a figure of dejection, trapped in the universal predicament of solitude that affects women the world over. She must be consoled, entertained, kept company. Russian men are very good at that. Of course, that should’ve had nothing to do with me, since I’m a foreigner, and these rules don’t typically apply to foreigners. But I originally come from this part of the world and look like any other Russian woman, which makes me a perfect target. Stripped of my identity as “the other,” I also lose my right to be on my own.
“When men see a woman alone on the street, they think she needs protection,” says Svetlana Vedrashko, an editor at a publishing house. “Yes, they feel pity, in a good way. They think she is vulnerable and they’d like to be there for her.”
Svetlana remembers being at a restaurant with her boyfriend and both of them noticing a woman sitting alone. “She just ordered wine, that’s it. We sat at a table next to her and we both took notice. My boyfriend thought that she was there to get attention. But if she wanted to get attention, I think she would’ve ordered tea and something sweet, like a piece of cake. Definitely not wine.”
Svetlana, of course, considers ordering wine as too independent of a move. A cake is “softer” and fits a stereotype that girls like sweets.
At home, Svetlana enjoys watching “Sex and the City,” which airs on Russian television three times a week. At 25, she is attracted by the idea of independence from men, even as she watches the show with her boyfriend. “These women, they live their lives as they please, they build it with their own hands. And they have fun, they enjoy it, which is great.”
Lost in Translation
A male acquaintance of mine, a news anchor at one of the top media organizations, learns I am American and immediately goes on attack. “If I ask about your marital status, you won’t consider it sexual harassment, would you?” he says.
There is a mischievous spark in his eyes. I know he is playing a game, testing the boundaries of political correctness that is widely mocked outside of the United States. I play along, telling him to relax.
For me, the problem is finding the right vocabulary–as well as the right attitude–to respond without sounding like a spinster. But all the Russian words I can think of, even the most obvious–ne zamuzhem (“not married”)–suggest that I am, once again, “lonely.” And I am not.
“Single,” I finally say. In English.
“It used to be improper for a woman to be seen alone, and it’s kind of the same now, despite the so-called emancipation,” says Anna Salamatina, a 24-year-old executive assistant at a Moscow nonprofit. “A woman herself wouldn’t feel comfortable alone; it would be as if she is telling others that she doesn’t have a man.”
Of course, many things have changed for Russian women in the past 15 years or so. Model-like looks, high heels and designer clothes have helped to demolish the old stereotype of a tractor-driving Soviet female. Russian women earn more, marry later and divorce with greater ease.
Sex and the City, Russia-Style
Local television reflects this by the clone version of “Sex and the City” titled “The Balzac Age” that aired for two seasons in 2004-2005.
In the series four female friends in their mid-30s try to make it on their own. There are differences, of course, which reflect a different reality particular to Russia. For one, Carrie would never say, as Vera, her Russian counterpart, does, “A woman should dress well even if she doesn’t have a husband. Actually, I didn’t mean that. Especially if she doesn’t have a husband.” Vera is divorced, having originally gotten married to get away from her controlling mother. Now she has a 16-year-old daughter and is back living with the same controlling mother. And she’s on a constant lookout for a new husband.
So is one of her girlfriends, Sonya, who prefers older, well-to-do men and had already been married, and widowed, twice. Now she’s courting yet another senior citizen.
“My character is tough and goal-oriented,” says Lada Dance, the actress playing Sonya. Remarkably, she also had this to add in the same online interview: “But I personally don’t understand feminists. I think they are just unhappy women who haven’t had the luck with men. Happiness is when you have the man you love next to you, somebody you want to have kids with.”
The extent to which a woman standing on her own remains a cultural oddity is vocalized by Kristina Orbakaite, one of the country’s most popular female pop stars.
“I am probably too arrogant,” she sings in “Without You,” a hit here. “I walk alone at the heart of the city for the first time.”
Mariya Rasner has worked as a journalist at Echo of Moscow radio station. She is now the deputy regional manager for Central Asian projects at Internews Network.
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