What Russian Men Talk About? Surprise! It’s Cheating on Their Wives

A couple weeks ago, Mr. B and I watched some movies that my aunt brought when she came to visit from Russia in August.  One of them was a movie that’s Russia’s favorite current bromance comedy and has stirred up a lot of press, even in English, “What Men Talk About.”

The story is basically four guys in their late-30s early-4os escaping everyday life and going together on a road trip from Moscow to Odessa, where one of their friends owns a nightclub on the beach.  During the trip, they talk about what life means to them, in sometimes lighthearted, sometimes bittersweet ways.  The team is made by a group of guys that’s made movies together, making them kind of equivalent to the actors that always appear in Judd Apatow movies, in different rotations but similar comedic scenarios.

One of the funniest part of the movie is the different imaginary scenarios they talk about, kind of like Scrubs.  In this one, they imagine that famous hottie pop star Zhanna Friske has to come on business to the same rundown Ukranian hotel they’re staying at for the night, and that a married guy, schmuckish, is staying next to her and refuses her advances.  They imagine how it would be for him to refuse Zhanna Friske, revenging all the hot women that have refused him,  and what his wife would say in response when cross-examining him: (she says he’s a moron) Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find the movie with English subtitles, but you get the idea:

Basically, it’s a good movie.  Lots of really imaginative moments (Nazis who shoot you if you don’t tell the truth about what you’re thinking), the characters are really fleshed out, and a lot of good life dilemmas are explored.  And it’s funny and has good music.

Except for one thing.

All the characters in the movie are either cheating or thinking of cheating on their wives or girlfriends, as may be the case.  And it’s not like an American type of comedy like Hall Pass, where cheating is seen as this crazy big thing that men can never do.  In fact, most American movies, and American culture, in general, to me seems to not condone cheating, even if it is done.  It’s a huge deal to cheat on your husband or wife (even if the divorce rate here is astronomical,) partly due to the Puritan backbone that this country has, and partly I think due to the fact that being married is seen as more of a choice than in Russia, where the masses see it as the only direction your life can take after a certain point.  In fact, I joke with Mr. B that everyone our age and younger in Russia has kids because there’s really nothing else to do, and I do think that people middle class and lower, especially in smaller cities in Russia really have no other choices, so that’s what they do.

Anyway, getting back to the point at hand.  In this movie, one of the main characters, Kamil first mentions he has a mistress simply by saying that she called him the other day and that it’s possible his wife could have seen.  But he didn’t say “my girlfriend” or “the woman I’m cheating with” but just mentions her by name, and mentions his wife as “his wife,” which makes the relationship seem very casual and “no big deal.”  To me as an Americanized woman, this was really shocking.  And there are many such moments in the movie that are clearly exaggreated and meant to be funny, but point, with a wink and a nod, to Russian men who are cheating and consider it a vital part of culture.

Because I’ve never really known any Russians that cheated on their spouses (within my small, limited immigrant sample size here,) I was also really shocked to hear my aunt say a phrase I hadn’t heard a couple years ago: ‘Zhena ne stena, mozhno oboiti,” or, ‘A wife is not a wall, you can step around.’  Which is crazy, right?  I mean we don’t have any sayings like that in Anglo culture, right?  I mean, a folk saying is not be-all end-all indicator of society, but still.  Also, there is the fact that the Russian woman-man ratio is still very low, what with WWII and Afghanistan and vodka, meaning that men cheat, and what’s worse, women are more accepting of it.

I really liked this part of Julia’s article:

Wandering spouses have become a common trope for the women of Moscow. “Men’s environment here pushes them towards cheating,” Tanya told me, adding that, these days, a boys’ night out in Russia often involves prostitutes. Tanya and her friends are young, educated, upper-middle-class Muscovites, but talk to any woman in Moscow, and, regardless of age, education, or income level, she’ll have a story of anything from petty infidelity to a parallel family that has existed for decades. Infidelity in Moscow has become “a way of life,” as another friend of mine put it—accepted and even expected.

For the most part, Russian women shrug off the fooling around. It’s seen as unavoidable and natural. Men are slaves to hormones. Why get worked up over that, or the weather? “My sister’s husband cheats on her,” says Tanya, of the underwear story. “She knows this for a fact, but she doesn’t cheat on him. When I ask her why she stays with him she says, ‘I’m going to split up with him over some nonsense? He’ll get it out of his system and settle down.'” “Faithfulness in marriage is seen as something that is nice but unrealistic,” says Moscow sociologist Irina Tartakovskaya. She points out that if women don’t really expect it of their husbands, they can pre-empt feelings of shock and betrayal.

And I wonder if it’s true, and if so, why women put up with it. To me, staying with a cheater is like staying with someone who abuses you.  But maybe in Russia, women without men have no choice to be so.  My aunt in Russia isn’t married, and she’s doing alright, but she probably wouldn’t be if we didn’t send her money occasionally, or she didn’t receive pension and keep working at the same time.  Maybe being with a cheater is better than being alone in Russia? I don’t know.  And I do know a couple of my parents’ friends who have split up after 20 years because of cheating, but that seems similar to the U.S.  Basically, all my knowledge of this issue is second-hand and I come across as really naive.  So I’d like to know more.

Issues like this are why economics interests me.  And I’m hoping at one point I get past seeing math formulas and can dive into this stuff, the real stuff it’s all about. More discussion here and here and here.

What I do know is that I took an informal poll in our household whether Mr. B would ever cheat on me, and he said he was “too lazy” to “remember what other women’s names and birthdays were.”  So looks like I dodged a bullet there.






20 thoughts on “What Russian Men Talk About? Surprise! It’s Cheating on Their Wives

  1. I reject that idea that “men are victims of their own hormones”.  I feel like lots of women (and like you, I’m only referring to my small sample size of limited experience and conversations) fall back on that idea that “all men will cheat” simply because they’re men, or possibly because they were burned and they’ve got…what’s that called?  selection bias?  some statistics term.  Anyway, I think that’s stupid.  Mostly because I’m a man, and I’ve never even once thought of cheating. I’m actually one of those militant anti-cheaters who looks at men who cheat as weak and not properly devoted to his family. 

    But then again, perhaps I believe this because I was raised in this American puritan society, which has colored cheating with this awful connotation.  Perhaps if I grew up in a society that said, “cheating is just something that happens”, I’d think differently about it.  

    But I’d like to think that’s not the case. 

    1. I was more talking about Russian men then American men.  I’d love to have a poll or something where Russian men and American men select from a list of qualities on what it means to be a man, and I have a feeling the results would be very different.  Russian society is very much “cheating just happens” oriented, so I can see where it comes from. To me as an American woman, it is simply not acceptable and a big breach of morals, but as Karina says in her awesome comment below, life sucks and is different in a second-world country. 

  2. I think that even though culrurally it is considered somewhat more acceptable back home, the reality is that cheating happens in the western culture, too. In fact, i think it happens a lot more often than a lot of people realize. Just kept a secret a lot better than back home. :) but fortunately for us, it is not normal for spouses to boast about mistresses to their friends like men tend to back in Russia or my home country. So, at least, it is not the norm!

  3. I adore the Quartet.  I saw “What Men Talk About” on the stage in Moscow.  It’s very funny as they are.   I think their forte, however, is their political satire. “Radio Day” and “Election Day” are pee in your pants funny.

  4. Hiii :)
    Here’s my perspective on it.  I totally agree with what you said about cheating being considered something so horrible because of us living in a Puritanical society, and I also agree with what you said about you considering staying with a cheater to be like staying with someone who abuses you.
    But we’re looking at this from our own very spoiled, privileged perspective.  If Mr. B were to cheat on you (God forbid), and you got divorced (tfu tfu tfu), you could still live a fairly decent life.  You have a university education, you have a good job, and even though money would definitely be tighter, and you wouldn’t be able to do things like go out for sushi or see concerts as often, you’d still manage and live with a standard of life that is acceptable.  If you had a child, you’d likely get child support from Mr. B, and you would probably be able to get some sort of child credit or help from the government with childcare expenses (you would be able to in Canada for sure, not sure how it works in the States).
    Now let’s look at the flip side.  Living conditions in Russia/former USSR are horrible on one income, unless you are in minority and have some crazy business or are an oligarch.  My great-grandfather was killed in Stalingrad, which means that my grandma and her sister grew up with a single mother from the ages of 5 and 7.  She never remarried, which means that they were raised with one income.  My great-grandmother was an engineer (typical), and living on one income was BRUTAL.  There was never enough food or money for clothes, and their standard of life was horrible.  Keep in mind that they lived in Minsk, and not some tiny derevnya where I don’t even want to imagine the conditions.  Now, if you’re thinking that things are better post-perestroika, think again.
    My co-worker, who’s in her late 20s, is from a small resort town in Ukraine.  It’s not considered to be a “poor” town by any standard- tourists bring in lots of money, which means that there are jobs and decent amenities.  She and her younger sister moved to Toronto about 7 years ago.  Their best friend from their hometown is a girl in her mid-20s, who’s married and has a 4 year-old child.  She stays at home with their child (no one to babysit) while her husband works at a decent job.  My co-worker and her sister always send her care packages, and ask her what she’d like in it.  Imagine my shock when my co-worker told me that this girl begged them to send her UNDERWEAR?!
    Apparently, in Ukrainian markets in their town (rinki), it’s impossible to buy underwear.  It’s prohibitively expensive, and even the cheapest pair of underwear eats up about 2/3 of an average monthly salary.  This poor girl washes out her lone pair of underwear every night because she can’t afford to go to the rinok and buy a new pair.  The cost of even a small stuffed toy is also insanely expensive.  Even the cost of kolbasa (the kind shaped like a tube, i.e. sosiski) means that it’s a once-a-year treat. Basically, my co-worker sends her packages full of the necessities of life (underwear, toothpaste, soap, a few toys for the child, pyjama pants/nightclothes).  This doesn’t even go into the cost of anything even a little bit luxurious.  I was horrified.
    My boyfriend’s good friend, who lives in Moscow, was lucky enough to be schooled in England.  She found a job with a foreign company in Moscow, and she gets paid fairly well.  However, in return for a salary that’s not even extravagant (just barely keeps up with the skyrocketing costs of life in Moscow, and affords her a few luxuries here and there), she commutes 2 hours each way, and works 14-16 hours every day, 6 days a week.  Anyone who works like that here is making CRAZY money (consultants, lawyers, very successful business owners).  She’s not married, but if she gets married and stays home with the child for even a year or two, imagine how her standard of life will go down (unless she marries someone who was schooled like her and has a similar job, and even then her life won’t be “fancy”).
    Finally, about your aunt: she’s alright, but that’s because she’s able to work while receiving her pension.  What if, God forbid, she couldn’t work while getting her pension? Or what if she got sick before her pension kicked in, or could only work part-time until then? What if no one sent her money? What if she had a child or two to support (you mentioned that she’s not married, so I’m assuming she doesn’t have children)?
    The point I’m trying to make in this reeeeeaaally long comment is that, in the West, if a woman has even a college (not university) education, and is single, she can still live.  She can support a child.  There are government subsidies and supports in place so that you won’t starve to death.  In Russia or the ex-USSR, it’s REALLY hard to get social assistance or tax credits or anything like that, not to mention that it’s damn near impossible to chase down someone who owes you child support.  Capitalism and government infrastructure has only really been around for 20 years.  It’s still the Wild West over there.  It’s really hard to live on one income.
    We’re so spoiled here that we can think, “Oh, I don’t want to get married. I’m going to be really picky.  He has to have blue eyes. I’ll just have a child from a sperm donor and support it myself.  I don’t want to be tied to one man.” In Russia, getting married (in general) isn’t as much of a choice as a necessity.  Sure, there are those few who are successful businessmen or businesswomen and don’t need a financial incentive to tie the knot, but that’s a small proportion of the general population.  It’s also in big cities.  Try not getting married if you’re from a small city/town where the best job you can have is to work in a grocery store.  It’s just not feasible, which is why so many women put up with cheating.  It’s a way to survive. :(
    If you go to Moscow, you’ll witness Darwin’s principle at play: gorgeous, slim women tottering around on 6-inch heels with full makeup at 7 in the morning.  Not because they want to, necessarily, but because they know that if THEY don’t look like that, other women will make the effort and get the husband everyone covets and needs.
    :( :( :( (Most depressing comment ever)

    1. I don’t think that’s necessarily true.
      My aunt, who lives in a small town in Belarus is in her early forties, never married. She is the chief accountant for a meat processing plant and she is able to make enough money to lead a very, very good life by Belarusian standards.  
      Majority of married Russian couples continue to live with their parents, unless they come from a more affluent background and can afford to buy/rent their own apartment. Plus, most couples start having children right away, so living with family means having a built in babysitter. Now, if one never marries they can just go on living with their parents. I don’t think it is just an economic issue, at least not for the post-soviet generation. 
      I think that Russian society just has a more realistic attitude about long-term relationships. Fidelity is just not the most important thing . I also don’t necessarily believe that women cheat less than men. It just less acceptable for a woman to admit that she is cheating. 

      1. Ana-
        But your aunt lives a very good life for 2 of the reasons I mentioned above: 1) she is the chief accountant for a meat processing plant (a very good position, and not one that most people will be able to get) and 2) she doesn’t have children to support.  If she had children and a more “average” job, her life wouldn’t be nearly as good.
        Moreover, I don’t consider having to live in a two-bedroom apartment with your parents (3 bedrooms at best, but also rare) and children to be a good quality of life.  If you have to be “affluent” to even be able to rent an apartment, that speaks volumes.  In the West, you can work at McDonald’s, and if you’re careful with your money, you can rent a basement and have enough food, clothing, a cell phone, etc., and not have to live with 3 generations in one apartment.
        People in Russia/ex-USSR have accepted that cheating isn’t the most horrible thing ever because there’s not too much of a choice, especially if you’re used to two incomes.  Unless you have a very good job, you can’t just tell your husband to stick a certain part of his body in an electrical socket if you find him cheating on you with the neighbour.  Or, you can, but you reaaaaaaaally don’t want to put yourself in that position.

        1. So, do husbands also find themselves dependent on wives’ incomes? Why isn’t there more cheating among married women? Or is it just that this side isn’t talked about?

          1. The standard stuff. Women cheating is unacceptable, men cheating is macho. So it’s underreported in society. Men make more than women, and there are less men than women, so men are more desirable. 

  5. Excellent post.

    I just came back from a business trip to Russia a few weeks ago and the biggest economic complaint that I heard from the folks I was working with was that mortgage rates are sky high. They said that the rates START at 18% and go higher from there. As a result, when you buy an apartment, the next few years are hell because you scrimp and save every possible penny to pay off that mortgage that is eating you alive every month. The second biggest complaint was gasoline prices, which is cheap by European standards, but the complaint is basically “we have so much oil, gasoline should be less than half of what it is today”.

    Additionally, the younger guys told me that Russian girls are much more promiscuous than American girls are. I don’t know exactly how they came to that conclusion, but it was nearly unanimous.

    Oh, and anywhere outside of Moscow, the roads suck :-) 

  6. Oh, and Vicki, you were definitely right (IMO) when you said that, in America, it’s not necessarily true that men cheat less- it’s just that they talk about it less due to the shame factor. Russians just understand that it’s unfortunately a part of many people’s lives, and don’t fantasize about perfect marriages. We fantasize about EVERYTHING here: weddings, rings, proposals, fairyland marriages.

    From what I understand, the standard is still often, “ne pyot, ne byot….eto uzhe horosho” :) It really sucks when you think about it, but once in awhile I wonder if their attitude and non-sugar-coating approach to life is better than our naive expectations.

  7. Cheating is bad ( for West ). In Arab world they call it polygamy and it is legal. There is one positive thing to  my opinion. Women take care of how they look. You won’t see lady going shopping or to work  in shapeless t-shorts and pants or shorts and  not a touch of make-up in Russia. …

  8. I wonder what family law is like in Russia.  In the US, if a man is proven to be the father of a baby, he will pay child support.  I somehow doubt Russian women have anything like that, otherwise mistresses would be turning the tables on their men and getting pregnant.
    American movies are not a reflection on American morals.  If anything we are cereal monogamists, but even that is not entirely true.  We are given a large stretch of time in our youth during which to sow our wild oats.  If divorce rate is high, it’s because serial “divorcers” are driving it up.  The chances of first marriage end up in a divorce are low.
    Polygamy was brought up here, but if you look closely at what’s going on in polygamous societies, it doesn’t seem like a good idea either. Women with high school diplomas from traditional Muslim societies, like Turkey and Iran will have no children.  That’s high school we are talking about, not post graduate school in Physics.
    …I disagree with the idea that people have kids because they have nothing better to do.  In urban societies kids are an economic burden, particularly for those who work.  There is also plenty of distractions, like shoe shopping, say.  But being a parent is the single most important and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

    1. “But being a parent is the single most important and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.” – Amen to that. Although I did not realized that when I became parent 25 years ago but it is so crystal clear to me now – yes, it is the single most important thing!!!!

  9. Thank God I live in the States and have a degree -I’d rather drop someone like a sack of potatoes and be prosperous and happy alone than put up with years and years of disrespect. It’s ironic, though, because I like Russian men!

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