The Good Wives

From Russia With Love, Thousands of Wives for Turkish Husbands

Huge numbers of Russian women have wed Turks over the past few decades. Now Putin is putting their marriages in jeopardy.

ISTANBUL — Non-drinking, gentle, loving, caring, hard-working and devoted to the family: qualities most Russian women have in mind when they dream of a perfect husband.

For Alisa Elyan, a pretty, blonde soloist at Moscow’s Nemirovich-Danchenko musical theatre, it was also important that her husband share her passion for culture, her hunger to explore. Her first husband did not appreciate the arts enough, she thought. A physicist, he was not ready to go outside his comfort zone. After 12 years of marriage, their feelings faded away, and the two split up.

That winter of 2004, Alisa Elyan was 32 years old, divorced and psychologically broken to the point that her voice disappeared, which was a personal as well as professional disaster for the opera singer. “I was ready to fly away, to begin a new life from scratch,” Alisa said, then added, “For that I needed a man.”

Fate smiled on her where she expected it least. She met her Turkish husband Gunay Akseli while on vacation in Istanbul.

“She just stepped off the plane and here I was, a professional guide and president of the GIS tourist company,” said Akseli. They were married before the tour ended. “She was everything I dreamed of—well, about 99 percent: a Russian beauty, a talented artist, an intelligent woman, who I have been taking care of for a decade.”

Before the current conflict with Russia, a reawakened cold war, Turkey received over 4 million Russian tourists a year. But not all of them returned to Russia. Many women stayed.

Indeed, the Russian face in Turkey is very female.

“We are talking about a unique phenomenon here,” Professor Vügar İmanbeyli, with SETA, Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, told The Daily Beast. “There are up to 300,000 Turkish-Russian married couples. Most Russian immigrants to Turkey are women. Turkish men traditionally devote themselves to families and Russian women like it, when men take responsibility for decision making,”

Russian women often are in charge of their households in their own country, where they husbands can be notoriously feckless, but many women would love to delegate responsibilities to a man.

There is a term for a henpecked man in Russian, “podkabluchnik,” or kept under a woman’s heels. But that’s not necessarily the way women want things. And some of the Russian wives in Istanbul go to the other extreme. One wrote in her social media profile, “I am a girl. I do not want to decide anything. I want a dress.”

A few years ago, Valentina Agis, was on vocation at a Turkish Mediterranean resort in Antalya and stepped into a shop where she met her future husband, a businessman from Istanbul. “My mother bossed my father around,” Valentina, a former Muscovite with a good sense of humor, told The Daily Beast. “I am very happy that Onur is the decision maker in our family.”

Valentina seems a picture of elegant contentment, her long legs sharpened by high heels, her eyes behind cool sunglasses and her hair covered with a colorful scarf. She adores her husband and Turkey, she says. Her life revolves around her little daughter’s schooling and her own photo projects, plus parties with friends.

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The current contretemps with Russia annoys her. She’s angry with Russian President Vladimir Putin for banning Russian tourism to Turkey, but doesn’t think it will affect her marriage.

“No matter what happens in politics, our personal story will remain happy,” says Valentina. “Onur is Europeanized enough to respect my career of a photographer and visage stylist. We have our weekly family gatherings, otherwise I am free and independent.”

But, inevitably, not all Russian-Turkish families enjoy harmony. Most problems occur when the husband’s parents insist that the Russian wife embraces Islamic traditions, Yelena Smirnova, a lawyer in Istanbul, told The Daily Beast.

Two years ago, Smirnova opened a law office to try to help resolve Russian-Turkish family disputes; since then the lawyer has seen over 20 divorces up close.

“Sometimes local guys take too much responsibility, too much control, over their Russian wives,” said Smirnova. “Husbands often tell Russian girls to put on a hijab [veil], and convert to Islam just for the sake of good relationships with parents, and when women disobey, it often leads to a divorce,” Smirnova told The Daily Beast. “But nothing stops Russian wives from marrying Turkish and Kurdish men and turning themselves into Turkish citizens. I advise all my clients with children to think twice about the divorce, to think of children before they break up their marriages, otherwise fathers often keep children and wives are left with nothing.”

In nearly every district of Istanbul there are colonies of mixed families celebrating new year together. “We are going to have a huge New Year party for about 60 families with animation for children and a fun program for adults,” Yulia Met told The Daily Beast on a recent afternoon.

Cultural differences? “Honestly, I love them. Whenever we go to see my husband’s parents, they let me rest, sleep as much as I want, they take care of our two children,” said Yulia, a language teacher. As a result of the current tensions with Russia, Met lost her contract with a group of MBA students who were planning to set up shop in Turkey next year. The program got cancelled.

Met now teaches Russian language to 50 students from Russian-Turkish families, as well as running psychology courses for her students’ parents. “Many Russian mothers in Turkey are upset, they fear a war between Russia and Turkey; so to stay happy, I think we should not watch television.”

In the kitchen of a new gated community, Alisa and Gunay were having their usual evening program: Alisa was singing and Gunay enjoyed listening to her beautiful soprano. “Once she was warming up to perform ‘Rosina Almaviva’ from ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ for us. Later my modest neighbors asked me if anybody had died, they took Alisa’s soprano for wailing,” Gunay said, repeating an oft-told family joke.

The couple have two children, a boy and a girl, who’ve grown up bilingual. The only shadow cast on the family’s future is the political crisis between Russia and Turkey, which means their tourist company organizing VIP trips around Turkish historical sites, largely dependent on Russian tourists, is now in trouble.

But Gunay Akseli had his hopes up. “Those Russians who are truly interested in Turkish culture and history will continue visiting,” he said. “And if any Russian women want to find a Turkish husband, they should just come over on vacation—but should take at least two weeks!”