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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Summer 2004: At Home in the Whirlwind > The Grass is Greener

The Grass Is Greener

Reflections on Men and Crabgrass

by Michele A. Berdy

Gather together five women in any Moscow kitchen, and after a brief lament over the high cost of living, some gossip about co-workers, and a desultory review of some of the stranger moments in the country’s political life, the conversation inevitably turns to the Main Topic—Russian men—and doggedly stays there for the rest of the evening. Judging by these conversations, it’s clear that God—either by mistake or out of some inexplicable grudge—created Russian men as a merciless trial for Russian women. Their irresponsibility, irrationality and infantilism are legendary. How bad are they? They’re so bad that even Russian men themselves think they are irredeemable screw-ups.

During these kitchen debates someone will inevitably express that opinion that we American women are lucky: American men, judging by movies and a few acquaintances, are different. They are responsible, mature, gentle and kind; they weren’t emotionally crippled by the brutality and paternalism of the Soviet regime. They even wash their own socks! (Sock washing being the litmus test for love in Russia, much like driving a man to the airport in New York is an indisputable sign of devotion and self-sacrifice.) Every morning we American women must thank Fate that we were born in such a marvelous country with such ideal men.

This business about “ideal” would come as something of a shock to their American sisters, or to American men, for that matter, who, Lord knows, haven’t been getting that kind of feedback from their wives or lovers lately. No, I tell my friends, the ideal doesn’t exist in nature or in marriage. It’s not a matter of “better” or “worse”; it’s what you can put up with and what you can’t stand. “You might find Russian men impossible,” I begin confidently, “but some of us actually like Russian men,” (slightly less confidently, under the dark gaze of my friends), “and in fact,” I say, now in a meek little whisper, “some of us even prefer them!” Over the astonished shouts and moans of my friends, I insist that American men might seem ideal, but the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. Once you open the gate and wander about the lawn for a bit, you find the same crabgrass and weeds.

What follows are highly unscientific and subjective ruminations on some of the differences between Russian and American men. The conclusions may be tentative, but the field work was exhaustive.

He loves me, he loves me not

Imagine a huge hall. On one side a table of seven American men, on the other seven Russians, all having a rousing good time, with piles of food and batteries of bottles. Which group would I join? I’d make a bee-line for the Russians. Why? It’s my sad experience that in such situations American men often revert to the bravura of the Frat House. They continue talking as if you weren’t there, they hoot at esoteric jokes that you don’t understand (“and then he said: “Home, Jeeves! And make it fast!” followed by howls of laughter). They make it clear that whatever they were talking about was so important that they simply don’t have the time or inclination to deal with you at all.

What would the Russians do? Seven men would fly up out of their chairs, set before me a plate full of food and glasses filled to the brim with wine, water and vodka. They would tell me how glad they were that I showed up to lighten an otherwise dull evening. They would compete with each other to get my attention, each out-doing the others in flattering toasts to my beauty, intelligence, kindness. Of course, it would all be perfect nonsense. They might, in fact, rather resent my presence, since before I arrived they were busy hammering out a deal to corner the market in precious metals or discussing the latest scam to get around—with dubious legality—the tax code. But they’ve been trained to be nice to women, and besides, they really like women. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out which, from the point of view of single woman, the Fun Table is.

Relations between American men and women have become so strained in recent years that you sometimes get the impression our men don’t really like us all that much any more, or that we’ve become more trouble than we’re worth. They often claim that feminism is the culprit: “We just don’t know what women want.” Or they blame all the fuss over sexual harassment in the work place, because of which even the most innocent compliment can land you in court. I’ve always found this a rather specious argument: You don’t need the subtlety of a poet to grasp the difference between, say, “Hey, Mary, got your hair cut? Looks great!” and “If you don’t sleep with me I’ll fire you.” No, I think the problem appeared before feminism and sexual harassment suits (in fact, I think these appeared in response to the problem). The problem is the cultural image of a Real Man in America: the Marlboro man, alone in the prairie with his beloved horse and pack of beloved cigarettes, and not a woman in sight.

If these billboards now dot Russian fields, they certainly don’t reflect the indigenous images of men. If Casablanca were made in Russia, Humphrey Bogartovich would not go off in the night to start a beautiful friendship with Claude Rainoff. In Russian films and myths, men do trudge off into the steppes, usually in chains, but in the next scene, there’s a Sonya or a Katya trudging after them. Cut to: exile on knees, kissing the hand of Sonya, weeping, “Thank God you’ve come! I couldn’t have survived without you!” Russian men need women, and the cultural myths allow them both to need them and admit it. But just imagine a film that has the Marlboro man on his knees, weeping over the hand of his woman, come to save him. We’re more likely to see him nuzzling his horse, the poor guy. American cultural myths just don’t let our men admit their needs or weaknesses. Hence all the pigtail pulling and Frat House bravura—it’s about the only way the culture lets them get our attention.

Little Russian boys might have pulled the pigtails of little Russian girls, but they grew out of that pretty quickly. They need affection, they crave feminine comfort and support. Of course, true to the traditions of Russian extremism, they go over the top. Operating on the theory that “more is better,” if one woman is good, then, logically, five women would be even better. So it’s perfectly fine to juggle a handful of affairs simultaneously. Or, if a supportive women is good, then how much the better if she takes over the role of bread-winner, mother, wife and lover, forgiving him all his faults and frailties. So it’s perfectly fine to abandon all pretense of maturity and let your woman treat you like a charming but hopelessly ineffectual little boy. Yes, sometimes you’d like to see a bit of that American independence in them. You’d wish they’d be ashamed to reveal some of their weaknesses. You’d like them to pull up their socks (and wash them, too, from time to time). But give me a man who’s not afraid to admit he needs me!

Will You Still Respect Me in the Morning?

I’m not the first to recognize that American men have problems talking about—admitting, recognizing, naming, revealing, discussing or even acknowledging—their feelings, or, God forbid, their needs. They don’t do it much among themselves. (Instead they play sports, which allow them to work through stress, anger, confusion, fear and other taboo emotions on the playing field. Or anyway I think that’s what they’re doing out there, rolling around on muddy football fields on Sunday afternoons.) They themselves have recognized the problem and even started clubs that allow them to “bond” and get out some of those bottled-up emotions.

Oh, what they could learn from their Russian brethren! Russian men do not suffer from bottled-up emotions. In fact, they are one of the least emotionally bottled-up populations on the face of the earth. With the help of the bottle—say, four or five liters of 80 proof vodka—they sit with their friends (three being the magical number of drinking buddies), pour down the liquor, and let it all out: all their fears, all their sins, all their doubts and worries and needs. About 3:00 a.m. one usually asks the others, “Do you respect me?” and the others reply, with the solemnity of a military oath, “Of course, old man, of course.”

I have to admit that I didn’t get the point of this for many years; it seemed like one of those quaint but opaque mysteries of the Russian soul that we foreigners can never quite penetrate. But now I do: it’s the confessional, it’s the shrink’s couch, it’s a way of getting all those taboo emotions off their chests: Absolut absolution.

Of course, it would be lovely if they could free their souls without a three-day binge, squandered paychecks and fights about same with their wives and lovers. It would be lovely if they had just a bit of their American brothers’ shame and guilt over irresponsible behavior. But when the system works, Russian men get rid of their “stuff” and don’t come home wound up like time bombs (scheduled to go off during the first mid-life crisis).

Let’s talk

If there is one issue that has Russian and American men at opposite poles, it’s the issue of Clarity. American men like clarity. They seem to have a very clear picture of what they want, and they are perfectly happy to Talk About Our Relationship. Or, even if they don’t want to commit, they are very clear about their lack of commitment. This can be very good indeed: it’s good to know where you stand, it’s good to hear his plans and intentions. Only sometimes you feel that he’s got the whole thing planned out just a tad too rigidly. He knows the kind of woman he’s looking for (age, size, type of figure and hair, profession, social and economic background, education, political preferences); he knows when he’d like to fall in love and get married, when to have children and how many to have. If you don’t fit into the plan, you get crossed off the list. It’s Love by Filofax—there’s no room for any fun anymore; the playfulness is gone. Everyone seems to have forgotten that sometimes the deepest love can appear with the most unlikely person.

Russian men are at the other end of the universe. They hate clarity. As far as I have been able to determine, they only feel psychologically comfortable in a atmosphere of total uncertainty. It’s not that they don’t want to commit, they’re not even ready to commit to a conversation about commitment: they want to keep all their options open. Sometimes you can’t even wangle the most elementary information out of them—like their last names or their marital status—leave alone get some sense of where the relationship is heading. “I don’t know!” he’ll protest, with sigh worthy of Job. “How can I know what will happen to us when I don’t even know what kind of government we’ll have tomorrow!” It turns out that “let’s talk” are the most terrifying two words in the Russian language. Men who have faced down tanks, lived through prison camps, heroically stood up to a brutal regime, will turn tail faster than a jack rabbit at the sound of the first word, “let’s.” The front door slams, the elevator descends, and before you’ve even uttered “. . . talk,” he’s already in Tver.

On the other hand, Russian men are nothing if not playful. They’ll give anything a try. They might have their tastes and preferences, and in the end they might marry a comfortable sort of woman next door, but it doesn’t matter if you’re 10 years older or 20 years younger, if you’re a brain surgeon and he’s a cop, or even, I suspect, if you’re from another planet—if it feels right, they’ll give it a go. They haven’t read “Ten Steps to a Happy Marriage,” or reports on similarity of background as a precondition for a long and happy union. They still believe in love.

The Russia Factor

My American women friends in Moscow say that something odd comes over their boyfriends when they move to Russia. Take a nice, sensitive, responsible average American male, who has learned to share the housework without complaining (much) and take pride in his girlfriend’s professional achievements, drop him in Moscow, and in three weeks he turns into a sexist pig. His apartment is a sty, knee deep in dirty socks and take-out pizza boxes. He starts smoking unfiltered Camels and drinking vodka straight. He drops his accomplished American girlfriend and starts a series of affairs with 22-year old Russian beauties with legs that don’t quit. American women moan in despair. What happened to their men? What does Russia do to them?

What Russia does to them is let them misbehave. It’s the reason that law-abiding, constitution-thumping American businessmen turn into tax-evading, law-breaking, document-fudgers in Russia: because you can get away with it. Who wouldn’t behave like an 19-year-old jerk if he could do so with impunity?

But it gets stranger. Say our average American male gets married to one of his Russian beauties. Within a day of his wedding, he immediately reverts to being a sensitive, responsible man who always brings home his paycheck, never goes on a binge with the boys (well, almost never), and willingly, uncomplainingly shares the housework. Except he’s suddenly more “romantic” than he ever was with his American girlfriends, prone to impulse purchases of imported hot-house flowers and gold trinkets fashioned by the descendants of pre-Revolutionary jewelers. You see, he’s grateful. He can’t believe his good luck: His wife doesn’t expect him to manfully bear the burdens of the world on his shoulders, she’ll listen to him in moments of drunken doubt and forgive all his weaknesses. In old Russian, the word for “pity” also meant “love,” and Russian women know how to love sympathetically better than anyone on earth (perhaps much better than American women...?). He thinks he’s died and gone to heaven. His wife is happy, too: Her husband doesn’t disappear for three days to drink away his paycheck, he’s willing to wash his own socks, and doesn’t jump on the next plane when she says, “Let’s talk.” True, he’s a bit uptight. True, it’s hard to get an indication of his emotional state out of him. But, hey, you can live with that.

Odder still is what happens when Russian men fall in love with American women. At least at first, or at least in some things, they don’t misbehave with us the way they do with the women “next door.” They feel the tug of shame when they drink away their paychecks, they feel the burden of guilt if they start a second (or a fourth) affair (well, most of the time). I’m not quite sure why this happens. I suspect it’s a correlate of the reason why American men misbehave in Russia: because Russian men know they can’t get away with it. Somehow they know that we just won’t put up with the kind of blatant, unrepentant irresponsibility that Russian women silently endure (although perhaps they shouldn’t. . .?). So they just don’t try it. And they find, sometimes, that behaving like a grown-up has unexpected rewards—like self-respect, like not having all that much to confess to their drinking buddies at 3:00 a.m. We’re happy with men who admit their needs without threat of divorce or firing squad. We’re delighted with men who have blissfully uncomplicated feelings for us. True, they won’t wash their socks. And true, they break out in hives when we say, “Let’s talk.” But, hey, you can live with that.

Perhaps in the end it isn’t a matter of habit or taste, better or worse. Perhaps we might learn a bit from each other in the love and romance department. Or perhaps when the grass is sweet on the other side of the fence, it’s easy to overlook the weeds.

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