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.