For the past 10 years, I have been living a few months each year in Russia. During that time I have seen vast changes in the county and have come to know it as few Americans ever will.
The important thing about this book is what I didn’t do and what I am not. I didn’t go to Russia as a journalist or diplomat didn’t live in fancy apartment, and I am not a tourist. My wife is a Russian and I had other friends who had married Russian women. I have lived in big places like Moscow and Tver, but spend most of my time out in a village in the south of Russia, a thousand miles from Moscow, a hundred miles from civilization, and about as far away from America as you can get without riding a camel.
It is important to know that there are several Russias. You are probably most familiar with the Moscow version of Russia. It’s home to more billionaires than any other city in the world, and about the second most expensive city in the world to live in. It is the “Land of Mink and Mercedes”. Most of my letters were written from the other Russia, the “Land of the Cotton Dress and The Lada.”
When you see a news broadcast showing families running from the terrorist attacks by piling their belongings on the family tractor and hitting the road, or when you see pictures of old women in faded cotton dresses and head scarves sitting in front of decrepit rural houses judging the world, you are looking at my Russia.
That real Russia has a much in common with Moscow as Rwanda has in common with New York City. Not that I haven’t written about Moscow. Like most people, I went there first – and Russians are about the same everywhere.
Before we start, I should introduce you to the cast of characters that you’ll be meeting.
I’m Rodger Olsen. When I started these letters, I was in my late fifties, and had just achieved the middle aged man’s mid life crisis dream. I had married a beautiful, intelligent Russian woman who was over twenty years younger than me. Now, any psychologist worth his degree can tell you that this is a dream that normally turns into frightening nightmare, and having been a psychologist before I turned honest, I was very aware of that.
However, I had been divorced twice and had given up on dating American women. I met enough on them on the internet, but while the women’s ads varied in wording, the typical ad from an American woman really read “Be Zorro. Carry me away on your white horse, or the back of your Harley. Make every day exciting for me. Be responsible for my every mood. Spend every night walking in the moonlight. Be my best girl friend. Oh, and make me laugh! And, remember that I’m not ‘that’ type of girl.”
That was a problem for me. While I look like Rodney Dangerfeld, I really wasn’t looking for full time job as a comedian, and I liked “that” type of girl. During the last date I had with an American woman, she spent the entire evening explaining how all of the evil in the world was because of men being too “manly” and not appreciating “real values”. When she invited me in at the end of the evening, I declined. I told her it wasn’t right for her to sleep with the enemy.
The last one before that spent a big part of the evening explaining what kind of man she wanted. She wanted someone to share his feelings, be her best friend, share her love of antiquing, and, of course, make her laugh. At the end of the evening I told her, ‘Sandy, we’re both looking for the same thing, a good woman. I you find one you don’t need, send her my way.” and I quit dating.
Then I discovered Russian women. It was my first experience with Russian culture that wasn’t scripted by Warner Brothers, and it was an eye opener. Where American women demanded “make me laugh”, Russian women asked “Where would we live?” Where American women demanded that I make their life endlessly exciting, Russian women asked if I could support a wife. American woman asked about vacations, fine dining, adventure and walking hand in hand on the beach. Russian women asked about children.
They weren’t less romantic, but they seemed to live in the real world. I liked that.
There are two differences that were most important. None of the women that I corresponded with hated men or were ashamed of being women. They were proud of their cooking skills and expected the men to fish, work, repair the car, and protect them. Antiquing was never mentioned.
They second thing was the absence of the “desperate man” game. American women constantly label any man dumb enough to say that we wants to get married or settle down as “a weak, desperate loser” and they’ll have nothing to do with them. Then they complain to their girl friends that their boy friends are players who won’t propose.
Russian women were dating for a purpose and were not at all shy about saying they wanted wifehood, motherhood, and a home. I liked that too.
Nothing worked out for a while because Moscow is a long way to go for a first date, but then I got a letter from Larisa, who became the second major character in this book. The letter pretty much said, ‘I am a beautiful young Russian doctor in the US doing research and you remind me of someone I used to have a crush on. Wanna get married?” (Larisa will kill me when she reads that, but that’s the way I remember it.)
At first I took it for a joke. I’ve had male friends who dated much younger women. They are the ones who come in to the office Monday morning complaining that their crazy date threw up on their couch, wrecked their car, and spent the evening whining about their old boy friends. It’s always a disaster.
But, Larisa was cute, seemed to be intelligent, and courtesy required that I at least see her once – just to be courteous of course. Surprisingly, we sorta clicked. She convinced me that she had always planned to marry an older man (not this much older) because all of the young men she knew in Russia were drunk, abusive, and poor providers. The only really happy marriages that she saw, she said, were her girl friends who married older men who had settled down.
Of course, anything said by a woman beautiful enough to be in Playboy is obviously true. Larisa and her friends are typical Russian women. Of course, there is always a lot of variation between individuals, but typical Russian women treat a man with respect, at least in public. They are proud of looking like woman, and don’t cut their hair off, lose their makeup kits, and suddenly discover the comfort of wearing sneakers and jeans 365 days a year the day that they get married. They even cook and most are proud of being mothers, not embarrassed about it.
I should, however, take a moment to defuse all those great fantasies that you men are having out there. Russian women are not just cute little sex kittens. Russian women have been faced with generations of Russian men who are mostly too drunk to get much done, so, despite being respectful to their spouses, they have had to learn to get most things done on their own and to make many more independent decisions than American women. The saying is Russia is “The man is the Head of the house, but the woman is the Neck and she points the head at what she wants it to see.”
Getting a Russian woman to do what you want requires that you speak in a clear, authoritative tone, and then when that fails, a baseball bat and choke chain are recommended. These are stubborn women.
I married mine in November 2001. It has been a normal marriage with the normal problems. We have fought, made up, split up, and gotten back together. The age difference did cause problems, particularly when we were unable to have a child. However, we have now been married ten years. We have a beautiful three year old daughter, live part time in Russia, and I have been introduced to a fascinating county.
The last leading character is Elvira. She is Larisa’s mother. I refer to her as “Elvira”, “Mama”, “Baba” or “Your crazy mother”, depending on the context and my mood. She is only about two years older than me and must have been very upset when her daughter married me. She is very typical of her generation. She is peasant through and through. If her grandmother didn’t do it, eat it, or own, it, it must be evil. When I met her she hated food preservatives, junk food, modern appliances, all lazy people poorer than herself, all greedy people richer than her, and most men. Aside from her microwave, she still feels the same way.
I have, however, gotten a lot of respect for her good features. She is a survivor who has lived through poverty, political turmoil, and the loss of a couple of husbands. She retired from a job as a kindergarten teacher and has worked as an ice cream vendor, home care worker, and bootlegger to support Larisa. She is a very typical pig headed Russian peasant and I have been happy to have her for a mother in law.
In 2003, Larisa and I made my first trip to Russia. Larisa only had two weeks of vacation available so we decided to go only as far as Moscow. Her home town was over a thousand miles south, but we didn’t have time for a train ride there and back and neither of us wanted to fly south. It was less than ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union and due to inebriated pilots and poor maintenance Russian planes were falling from the sky with depressing regularity.
Larisa’s mother had an aunt in Moscow that she could stay with until we could meet her there, so we arranged to meet and stay in Moscow.