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“Being a man” in contemporary Russia

Rebecca Kay
7 March 2008

"It's not very popular to be a man these days!", says Boris. It is a hot day in August 2002. We are sitting at Boris's kitchen table, drinking tea and talking about his life and about my research into Russian men's experiences of and strategies for dealing with processes of social, economic, cultural and political change. And I find it hard to disagree, especially when thinking about the media images and reports which fill my filing cabinet at home, and the frequently grim comments and predictions I have heard regarding Russian men's capabilities and prospects.Rebecca Kay is professor of Russian gender studies at the University of Glasgow. Among her books are Russian Women and their Organizations: Gender, Discrimination and Grassroots Women's Organizations, 1991-96 (Palgrave, 2000), (as editor) Gender, Equality and Difference During And After State Socialism, and Men in Contemporary Russia: the Fallen Heroes of Post-Soviet Change? (Ashgate, 2006)

An image published in the Guardian remains particularly vivid in my mind: a virtually naked and unconscious drunk, his face bloated and discoloured, being carried unceremoniously by three policemen into a sobering-up station. The headline above the picture is unequivocal: "Russia Dying of Drink and Despair".

But newspaper reporting in Russia itself can seem hardly more sympathetic to men. One article in the provincial magazine Sel'skaia nov' pronounces" "Men have become shallow these days. They only live for themselves. And when problems arise they prefer to look for solutions at the bottom of a bottle."

It's true that there is plenty of evidence to be concerned about the state of Russian men. Many Russian men have indeed been struggling to cope with the social transformations of Russian society since the fall of communism - the loss of former securities in employment, growing inequalities between "rich" and "poor", and the tensions between an emphasis on ever-more conspicuous consumption and the majority experience of impoverishment and insecurity. Since the late 1990s (if not before), many official reports and academic papers as well as media stories have highlighted multiple crises in relation to men's health and mortality, alcohol abuse, violence and crime, apathy and abandonment of family.

Much of the accompanying commentary draws attention to men's apparent failure to (or at least severe difficulties in) adapting to change; some goes as far as to imply that Russian have an almost inherent propensity for excess, unreliability and fecklessness . Yet, for the most part, something vital is missing from this picture: men's own voices, the detail of their lives and experiences.

This article attempts a modest rebalancing in this direction, by bringing men's experiences and perspectives more clearly into the frame. It draws on ethnographic studies of gender in Russia which I have conducted over the past fifteen years (some results of which are discussed in my book Men in Contemporary Russia: the Fallen Heroes of Post-Soviet Change? [Ashgate, 2006]). These stories and personal insights offer a more hopeful picture of Russian men, one where difficult experiences, crises and negative responses are balanced against examples of resilience, adaptability and a determination to preserve highly valued family - and other - relationships.

The beating heart

The shifting attitudes towards gender and the demands these make on both women and men in public behaviour and "performance" have formed an important backdrop to my research. It has long been argued by feminist theorists that gender is a set of social constructs held in place by societal norms that regulate interpersonal interactions and day-to-day conduct, and which require men and women to "perform" in particular ways that observe often unspoken but widely recognised sets of expectations and rules. What is striking about contemporary Russia is that such expectations and rules have been made particularly explicit - less unspoken than overt. Sarah Ashwin and Tatyana Lytkina point out that in Russia today, "the pressures to ‘do gender' in the accepted way are enormous". These pressures are conveyed through cultural representations and media reporting but also in the things that both women and men say and do.

A great surprise for me in my study of Russian men was the frequency and strength of feeling with which men talked about a sense of responsibility for, and expressions of care and affection towards, their families. I was surprised, because during nearly ten years of research focused primarily on Russian women's experiences and perspectives, I had been continually confronted with representations of men as, at best, rather reluctant helpers and at worse indifferent, burdensome or simply absent from family life. Women alluded frequently to men's "infantile" attitudes, their disinterest in matters relating to childcare or domestic concerns, and their unreliability as fathers and husbands.

My own observations of women's family lives seemed to support these attitudes. Men frequently did little or nothing to help in the kitchen, waited to be served at meal times and constantly referred children to their mothers when parenting was required. And yet, the men whom I interviewed in 2002-05 often spoke in frankly besotted tones about their children. A man running a variety of small-scale businesses in a rural district of Kaluga region, for example, spoke movingly about his eighteen-month-old daughter: "It's something inexplicable. You just can't explain it. It's like a little wonder that's running about the place."

The interactions I observed between men and children of all ages in homes, but also in public parks, on buses or simply on the street suggested that this was more than empty rhetoric. Now that I was really looking, I repeatedly noticed men pushing prams, carrying young children or leading them by the hand, playing or talking with them in ways which suggested a close and mutually caring relationship. True, I also saw many more women engaging in such activities, and a considerable number of men whose demeanour and interactions were much closer to the stereotype of the aggressive and unreliable drunk - but already the picture was less clear-cut. Recalling the words of a woman I had interviewed six years previously ("You can educate a man as much as you like, he still won't be able to bring up a child the way a woman can"), I was struck by how expectations of gender might negate men's experiences and make invisible their caring activities just as effectively as they can marginalise women from public positions of influence and power.

Indeed, when asked directly about their roles within the family, men on the whole supported a stereotypical division of roles, asserting that first and a man's responsibility to his family was primarily that of breadwinner. "What kind of man doesn't provide for his family?" was a near-constant refrain; in some cases this was seen explicitly as a sort of contract between husband and wife.

Nikolai was in his early 30s and employed in the local administration, but also active in various forms of private enterprise. He was adamant that "if a man gets married, takes a woman for his wife, has a child, he has to provide certain material conditions. If you can't provide these conditions - I don't know, I think it's not right. It's not right to blame women for wanting things. A woman has a right to expect certain conditions. If a man can't provide, she has a right to leave, that's what I think."

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Russia politics and society:

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style"
(16 November 2006)

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe" (30 April 2007)

George Schöpflin,
"Russia's reinvented empire" (2 May 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Russia's unequal struggle" (18 May 2007)

Armine Ishkanian, "Nashi: Russia's youth counter-movement"
(30 August 2007)

Ivan Krastev,
"Russia vs Europe: the sovereignty wars"
(5 September 2007)

Mary Dejevsky,
"After Putin"
(21 September 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Vladimir Putin for ever"
(2 October 2007)

Anna Sevortian,
"Russia: seeds of change"
(20 November 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "The future is ours: Russia's youth activists in dialogue"
(19 January 2008)

George Schöpflin,
"The new Russia: a model state"
(26 February 2008)

Nicolai N Petro,
"The Medvedev moment"
(28 February 2008)

Andrew Wilson, "Russia's post-election balance"
(3 March 2008)Yet, this overwhelming emphasis on breadwinning as men's key contribution to family life - particularly in the uncertain economic conditions and labour-market insecurities of today's Russia - may be a high-risk strategy for men. A number of the men involved in my study spoke about how the emphasis on providing could marginalise men (literally and/or figuratively) from a close involvement in the more intimate aspects of family life associated with caring for children and the day-to-day running of a household. Dmitry, a single father and works driver in his mid-30s, told me: "Of course, today it is possible that fathers are excluding themselves from the family. Because with us, what is it that is expected of a man - wages! You are supposed to support your family. So some men hardly ever see their families because they don't have any time."

The source of pride

This tension between being a "good provider" and sharing the responsibility of care is further exacerbated by men's experiences of employment in contemporary Russia. In circumstances where the certainties as well as the restrictions of the Soviet labour market have gone, men described to me both new opportunities to develop their skills and increase their earnings and new constraints and pressures relating to employment and their responsibilities as providers.

Genady, a boiler-house operator and father of two, was working double-shifts through the winter and spent most of his weekends and any other spare time through the summer engaging in subsistence farming. He described his employment record since the collapse of state socialism in a phrase: "You can't afford to be picky, you just have to go where the money is." This sentiment was echoed by most of my interviewees, many of whom had taken on a variety of skilled and unskilled work since the early 1990s. Yet alongside this pragmatism, most men also subscribed to the view that work had (or at least should have) an intrinsic value. "A man should be a true professional", said Maxim, a university- educated livestock specialist who had done a number of unskilled and manual jobs since the mid-1990s. Behind the sentiment was a sense that a man should be able to take pride in his work, to experience it as a form of self-expression and a source of satisfaction in his knowledge and skill.

Yet professionalism and high earnings, or even a living wage, were not always easily matched in men's experiences of the post-Soviet labour market. Alexei, a physicist specialising in space research, in many ways epitomised the negative stereotype of a Russian man. After losing his job at a space-research institute, he fell into a state of depression; since the mid-1990s he had been unemployed and claiming disability benefits. Alexei saw little if any prospect of finding new work, and had retreated into a housebound existence reliant almost entirely on his wife's energy and initiative for survival. His son was a talented academic who in order to support his young family had chosen a different path - of which Alexei was less than approving: "He studied soil science at university in Moscow ... But again everything collapsed. He got married when he was still a student and he had a child to feed so he gave it all up and started to spend his time on rubbish - trading!"

This dilemma between retaining a sense of professional integrity and prioritising the need to support a family has been highlighted in a number of studies as part of the root of male inflexibility and failure in the face of post-Soviet change. Many studies have drawn a contrast between men's attachment to work-based identities and women's absolute commitment to ensuring the well-being of their children, in an approach that emphasises women's adaptibility and endurance.

Yet amongst the men I interviewed, Alexei's story was the exception. The vast majority of the men I spoke with had demonstrated enormous flexibility and stoicism in their determination to continue to work and to fulfil their responsibilities as providers for their families. Alexander, for example, had been a mining engineer in his home town of Donetsk, and now lived in a small town in a largely rural district from where he travelled regularly to Moscow to work as a mechanic. With no car his journey took over two hours in each direction and he frequently stayed in Moscow for several days during the week; if he did choose to return in midweek, he had to leave at the crack of dawn and return exhausted late at night. Once again, the problem is that "providing" in this way can make men vulnerable to other sorts of disconnection from family life.

Men on the margins

The openDemocracy Russia section edited by Hugh Barnes; its articles include:
Lesley Chamberlain, "From Russia: the art of engagement"
(30 January 2008Russian men and Russian women alike struggle with the constraints placed upon them by the social constructs of gender and the division of roles and responsibilities which they imply. Public and private roles cannot be neatly divided into "male" and "female" spheres, because in the realities of both sexes' lives these spheres are interdependent and an overemphasis on one can come at the price of vulnerability and marginalisation in the other.

In a society where material well-being is precarious for large sections of the population, and often depends on access to social networks and interpersonal networks of support, the advantages of gender do not necessarily always accrue to men. Women's more central position in the family and their universally acknowledged engagement in caring activities may in fact protect them from some of the risks to which men are exposed by emphasis on public-sphere activities, ideals of self-reliance and potential marginalisation in the family. Perhaps the last word should go to Evgeny, a construction worker in his early 40s living in the Siberian city of Barnaul, who summarised the outlook of many Russian men when he told me: "You just have to work. I work as hard as I can and I try to find more".

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