Which brings me to one of the best and worst things about dating a Russian man: his inherent sense of commitment. Here in the West, we may think we have it made with our “egalitarian system,” but when I look around at our hyper-individualized relationships, at our “you’re not obligated to anyone in any way” mentality, it seems brutal and barbaric. In New York, whenever I console a friend who’s in hysterics over yet another guy who wants to keep having sex but “just wants to be friends,” I can’t help but get enraged and want to call up one of my Russian friends for moral support. Russian doesn’t have a word for girlfriend, only wife and bride, so men approximate by saying “my girl,” “my bride,” or the English transliteration of girlfriend.
But there isn’t any close approximation of “friends-with-benefits”– a term I often struggled to deconstruct to groups of confused Russian males. It is telling, in this context, that the Russian translation of Hollywood movies “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached” are “Sex Without Obligations” and “Just Because He Promises to Marry You Doesn’t Mean He Will.” How can you be friends with a girl you’re sleeping with? If you’re having sex, she’s your girlfriend, simply because your decision to sleep with her makes you in large part responsible for her physical and emotional well-being. And when I’m trying to cheer up some of my casual sex victims who can’t even telephonically reach their super-autonomous beaus, I can’t help but feel like there’s a certain honor in the Russian man’s understanding that with great sex comes great responsibility, an ethical code that we in the West have almost totally lost.
I used to do an audio comprehension exercise with my Advanced English class in which the students listen to a couple arguing about whether or not to move in together after a year. The class always failed the accompanying questions, not for linguistic reasons so much as cultural ones. Why, they asked, didn’t the man want to move in together? In Russia, it’s still customary for people to be married (or even divorced) by the time they’re 20. When I asked my Advanced English class how long a couple should date before moving in together, they stared blankly back at me, as though time had never come into consideration for this decision, until one student shrugged his shoulders and said, “If you like her — one day,” to hearty nods of approval. To judge this decision in terms of time seems excessively rational to Russians, when it’s obviously a case of emotional intensity. When I recount this story to my Western guy friends, they look like they are about to have a heart attack, but why? Rent is expensive (especially in New York), and if you’re not religious and you’re spending virtually every night together, it seems economically unreasonable to live apart purely to uphold some abstract socially mandated principle.
And yet, the rush to commit comes with a catch. As in most chauvinistic societies, monogamy is more of a lofty ideal than a requirement, and there is a double standard to it. I can’t recall the number of times I was sitting in a café in Russia when a girl came in to see her friend and said, “Sorry I’m late. My boyfriend cheated on me,” to which her friend rolled her eyes and said, “Again? When is he going to kick that habit?” as though they were talking about him failing to put down the toilet seat. I posed a question once to my Western and Russian friends: Is it more disrespectful to have casual sex with a girl and not call her your girlfriend, or call her your girlfriend and cheat? The Westerners said the latter, as though it were obvious, the Russian ones said the former, as if that were obvious. Having experienced both, I really don’t know anymore, although I respect the way one of my Russian friends explained it, in a sort of Sartrian epistemology: “Listen, human nature is fucked up. It’s more honest, and more humane, to just lie.”
In the end, it’s not the wandering penis that makes me incapable of making it work with a Russian guy. It’s the precise patriarchal style that I find so attractive in the first place. It’s them never respecting that I have my own schedule and that I can’t exist exclusively around their time frame. It’s them calling me every hour to check up on where I am and what I ate, like a needy parole officer. It’s them taking a cup of coffee out of my hands as I’m about to sip it, chucking it into the trash, and saying, “That’s enough. You’ve had too much caffeine today.” I may have been born in Russia, and I may have two passports, but I grew up in New York, and no one gets between me and my coffee.
And still, sometimes, when I’m in my egalitarian relationship with an American guy, and I’m freezing my ass off in a mini-skirt outside while being eyeballed by some pervert and my boyfriend is giving me the “You’re an independent woman and you can handle this yourself” look, I can’t help but long for the protective paws of a Russian man, can’t help but feel torn between what I learned at my feminist university and what I grew up with in my patriarchal community, can’t help but feel an internal battle between my rational beliefs and my emotional desires, and I think what every person thinks when they are frustrated with their love life: Man, my parents really fucked me up.