Russian Provincial Life: To Be Or Not To Be… Single


by Elena Strelnikova

It’s an age-old adage that things always look greener on the other side of the fence and this is particularly true of married women looking at single women’s life and vice versa.

My colleague and I have taken up sport. We go swimming and we run in the gym. My husband has even become quite envious and has asked if we could take him along with us one time. We don’t refuse, because we’re very proud of ourselves, but we’re in no hurry to get him a pass for the swimming pool. We’re young, pretty and confident…why should we saddle ourselves with an extra troublemaker when we’re off duty? For the moment I only allow my daughter to tag along at the weekend. Female solidarity.

Problems around the house

We’re on our way to the gym one morning, when my colleague (who is divorced) says, apparently quite innocently, ‘Perhaps you’d like to bring your family to visit at some point? We’ll have some brandy – a break from our healthy way of life – and a chat. Your husband might like to have a look at my bathroom, because one of the taps there has been running for nearly a week…’ Was I put out? Not at all! I was even glad of an opportunity to spend a couple of hours away from family life, to relax with a glass of brandy, and not at home. My husband didn’t mind either. He just said ‘when I have the time’, but he doesn’t have much of that.

I seem to have quite a few girl friends who are periodically on their own. Each and every one of them moves to another flat and has to dig into the reserves she has stored up for the winter: in provincial Russia you don’t buy in odd kilograms of potatoes, carrots and onions as and when you need them, but sacks of them in the autumn. My single friends also have problems with blocked drains, broken TV sets, shelves which fall off the wall and iron doors that stick etc, etc ad infinitum. In Russia these are all things that are traditionally fixed by men. My single friends are, of course, perfectly capable of dealing with these problems without the help of my family – there’s always father, a neighbour or, if it comes to that, a lover. If the worst comes to the worst, then they can rent the services of a ‘husband by the hour’, but everyone rings us and casually asks us round. It’s free and a good quality job. One week my husband got called out to my divorced friend about four times and most of the time she wasn’t even at home. But there are always the elderly neighbours, usually female, and they concluded that she clearly had no problems in the relationships department. ‘Have you seen that?  That man comes calling regularly!’  My husband now sniggers when he asks how his younger wife is getting on. So the main disadvantage of being a single woman is dealing with problems around the house.

According to the statistics 30% of Russian marriages end In divorce and 20% of families are managed by a single parent, more often woman than a man. Even though single mothers complain of isolation and social disapproval, it’s hard for them to cope when there’s no one else to rely on (photo: Actress Alisa Khazanova in Fairy Tale About Darkness film)

As for me, I shout at my children before and after work every day, trying to get them to pick up a cloth. I shout at my husband to get him to wash up his plate when he’s finished eating, even if only when I’m not at home. I don’t want to speak too soon, but recently he has started washing the saucepan too, without being asked, though I still can’t see that things are particularly tidy.

The single life

One of my friends went to the country to visit her mother. When she came home after 3 days her family practically clapped with delight: not because they’d particularly missed her, but because there was nothing to eat and all the plates were dirty. And everyone needed a change of clothes. ‘Well it’s not you doing the washing, it’s the machine,’ as my dear husband likes to joke. But of course! The dirty clothes put themselves in the washing machine, take themselves out, iron themselves and put themselves tidily away in the cupboards. I long to be on my own! ‘When I get home, there’s no one to bother me. I have time for my own beloved self and can do what I want to,’ says my friend, who has never been married.

‘Single women are right bitches! Abominations, in the good sense, because they’re unable to share their life with anyone else,’ is the opinion of my friend, who has had three ‘official’ relationships with men. Each time she was the lynchpin of the house: she had to bring up her daughter, help her elderly parents and run around like a clockwork mouse trying to earn some money. Sometimes she would come to me in tears, we’d polish off a bottle of vodka and I’d be really sorry for her. In the morning it’d all start again. Once more some man would take pleasure in hanging himself round her ‘frail’ neck like an albatross. My mother used to call her the ‘commander of the freeloaders’ brigade’. She’s not on her own at the moment, though the man in question is not round her neck yet. He’s still at the stage of sitting next to her, paying court. But something niggles at her all the time: it might be the excessive attention (from her point of view, of course) he pays his ex wife, or the fact that he hasn’t officially proposed to her (a gold ring on her finger would go some way to reconciling her to the lack of a marriage licence). She’s currently trying to work out how to get him to deposit a sum of money in her savings account. This is probably to ensure that she will have funds enough to look after him. Well, fate can do funny things…

Money (and other) problems

So for a single woman the money question is always a tough one. Once my husband and I were going to a restaurant for our wedding anniversary. I asked everyone which restaurant would be the best. ‘What about that particular dive?’ I ask. ‘Very good,’ says my friend who was married at the time, ‘the food’s excellent, so’s the music. There’s karaoke and dancing too. But as soon as you start thinking that your husband is effectively paying for everything from your purse, the joy somehow goes out of the evening…’

‘Do you by any chance know how much dancing lessons for pre-school children cost?’ “About 4,000 roubles.’ ‘I must ring up my ex to get him to focus on the artistic development of his child.’ Women usually only think of their ex when they need money. Divorce figures are high in the Orenburg Region, though during the last 6 months the situation has somewhat improved, apparently. For the first 7 months of 2011 the Orenburg Region occupied 4th place for the number of divorces in the 14 regions across the Volga Federal District: 4.2 divorces recorded for every 1000 people. Across the region, the statistics are 1.9 weddings for every 1 divorce. Not brilliant. It is, however, worth pointing out that there 150,000 more women than men in the Orenburg Region. So a single woman looking for an available man of 30-35 has a tough time.

‘I’d like to get married, but it’s so difficult to find a man,’ says my unmarried friend, who’s nearly 40. ‘When I was little I dreamed of having a family like Lenin’s, the Ulyanovs: clever, kind parents who love each other and 6 children. 3 girls and 3 boys with not many years between them. Now I’d just like to have a healthy baby, never mind the gender. But who with?’

State benefits

Almost 44,000 families in the Orenburg Region are single-parent, on average every seventh one. Mostly women with children (94%). Single fathers are pretty rare. It’s more usual to meet children with no parents being brought up by their grandparents.  Financially, it’s easier to be a single mother, because they receive benefits from the state.  When I was trying to get my youngest daughter into a kindergarten, I was struck by how many mothers in the list of parents were on benefit. I went home and said to my husband ‘If I were a single mother with 3 children, we’d have got in with no problems, but we’re a two-parent, reasonably well-off family, so we have to go on a long waiting list.’ My husband’s reaction was ‘Divorce? In your dreams!’ We got into the kindergarten, but only by pulling strings. Half the children don’t actually turn up, though they’re on the register. Of the other half 80% are two-parent families. It’s not even unusual to see fathers at school meetings. A definite strengthening of the institution of the family.

Until her daughter was 18 years old, a woman I was at school with used regularly to go to  court to get alimony out of her ex-husband. ‘Why?  It’s so stressful,’ I said to her. ‘Especially as the law allows him to ask you for alimony to help him with his living costs when he’s old.’ ‘To stop him forgetting that he’s got a son for whom he is responsible,’ came the rejoinder. Psychological sado-masochism, if you ask me. The son practically never saw his father and was brought up by his mother, his grandmother and his uncle.

During the course of my work I often have to read press-releases from various official services. What masterpieces! Not long ago the whole of the editorial office was moved to tears by reading one of these works from the court officials. I can’t resist quoting from it:

‘After her divorce Mrs K brought up her child on her own. But her husband was cognizant of his responsibilities. He worked in one of the Orenburg universities and he regularly paid over money to the mother of his child. Not long ago Mrs K discovered that her husband had done some extra work in Bashkiria. She informed court official B of this and he had a meeting with the father to ask about his extra work. Mr K was very forthcoming and, having discussed the matter with official B, he agreed to settle it peaceably. Shortly afterwards he paid up the whole debt, a sum of 30,000 roubles. The plaintiff was not expecting the problem to be solved so easily. She expressed her gratitude to official B.’

We even felt quite sorry for the man!

Women cope, but…

Single women usually manage to get by. Among my single women friends there’s probably not one weak personality. It’s as if there’s a little hammer in their sub-conscious – I can do it, I will, I’ll do it by myself.  Especially when there’s no one else to rely on. Parents are elderly and the husband has either died or been killed in an accident. I have a neighbour at the dacha whose husband was killed in a car crash. She was out of her mind.  I was shocked by what she wrote under the photograph of her and her husband on [Friends Reunited equivalent] ‘Let’s meet up, even if it’s only in my dreams! Just let me know how you’re getting on over there…’

He’s ‘over there’, but ‘here’ she had a daughter and life had to go on. At first she spent her time and effort on the dacha which her husband had bought before he died. She built a summer house, a shed and laid out a flower bed. Then she bought an old car. A couple of years later, she exchanged it for a new car. Her career was flourishing and she was not short of admirers. But something tells me that in the evenings this strong woman sits by the window and cries.

During the first 8 months of 2011, there were 1800 accidents involving 2500 people on the Orenburg regional roads. 223 people died, most of them are men of working age.  Male deaths exceed female in the region by a factor of 3.8. Women in our region live 13.4 years longer than men. A terrible minus…

One way or another all my friends who are temporarily or permanently single rate their freedom positively. They know all the minuses of the married state, but THAT’S WHAT THEY WANT! Without all the hassle, of course.

I said to my husband ‘Whether you want it or not, you’re going to have to put up with me until we’re 90!’

‘Will you let me out to go fishing?’

I’ll even go with you.  No one but me is going to hold on to your walking stick for you!

Piece originally published at Open Democracy |Creative Commons

About the Author:

Elena Strelnikova is a journalist based in Orenburg (Southern Russia).