Anna Shpakova is a beautiful Russian blonde. A professional dancer and the art director of Moscow’s new Leica Academy, she favors a wardrobe of black designer threads that hang gracefully on her trim frame. She is a fixture of Russia’s avant-garde art circles, and can often be found hosting hip gallery openings, welcoming visitors to photography exhibits at the Russian Academy of Arts, or teaching art students at the Rodchenko Photo School. She lives in a cozy, artwork-filled abode on the pedestrian Old Arbat street, famous for housing the most expensive boutiques in town. She is independent and ambitious—at 17, she left home from a provincial city in Belarus to study psychology at Moscow State University. Now in her mid-30s, her life seems to be perfect.
And yet, like so many Russian women, Shpakova has lost hope of finding a suitable mate among her fellow countrymen. (She has “not met a single gentleman among Russian men,” she says.) The litany of complaints that Russian ladies have against their male counterparts is long: They smoke too much and drink too much. They cheat shamelessly and curse freely. They expect their girlfriends and wives to clean for them, cook for them, and to look like models. More seriously, they are often violent and feel threatened by independent, high-earning women.
The dating prospects are so grim, in fact, that Shpakova and many other Russian women of her generation are consciously deciding to stay single. Moscow alone boasts more than 3 million single women between the ages of 25 and 50, out of a population of 11.1 million (that’s three times the number of single Muscovite men). In Russia as a whole, there are 11 million more women than men, due in part to a century of bloody revolutions, gulags, and wars that drained the country’s male population. Add to that the fact that male life expectancy is particularly grim in Russia—on average, 59 years, as opposed to a woman’s 73 years, the largest gap of any country in the world—and you’ve got a serious demographic imbalance.
Still, the numbers of single men and women in Russia are roughly equal: 17.6 million single ladies to 17.2 million single lads. “That means that Russian women simply have no interest in marrying Russian men,” says Irina Zhuravleva, the head of Russia’s census department at the Federal Statistics Service. A single woman herself, Zhuravleva says she “never had any interest in marrying a drunk, to later suffer the pain of divorce and splitting [of] real estate.”
Her stance reflects the fact that Russian culture has yet to catch up with women’s lib—a point that frustrates the country’s younger women in particular. Despite the overwhelming surplus of women in Russia, only 3 percent of the country’s senior executives are female and a scant 6 percent of politicians are women. While Russian women have long been celebrated for their strength—they “would hold up a galloping horse,” wrote the poet Nikolay Nekrasov in praise—they are still expected to be subservient to men in the workplace, where business is often conducted afterhours in the male-only steam baths.
Just recently, Russian women have begun to circumvent this traditional system by forming female networking events. At StartUp Women, a recent conference held in Moscow, hundreds of glamorous female entrepreneurs discussed how to take over consumer markets through online social networks. Most of these women admitted to being disillusioned by the way their career paths were blocked by male colleagues. In another part of the city, a group called Straight ‘A’ Students—a movement of politically active, mostly divorced mothers—brainstormed what a Russian brand of feminism might look like. “I spoke to Putin about our female movement,” founder Olga Kryshtanovskaya said. “He disliked the idea.”
Russia’s male leadership was publicly accused of chauvinism last week by Valentina Matviyenko, Russia’s most senior female politician, who predicted a woman would sit in the presidential chair in as little as 15 years. “Be prepared for matriarchy,” she declared. “It is approaching.” One young woman who hopes she might make it up the political ladder is Alyona Popova, a petite 29-year-old with a distinctive blonde braid, who describes herself as “unstoppable.” The single Yekaterinburg native, who is independently wealthy, has already founded two midsize IT companies in Moscow and adopted four foster children. Last fall, she ran for Parliament on an opposition ticket. When she lost, she then joined the opposition rallies in Moscow. During one protest, Popova says, police broke her arm. Despite her commitment to the cause, Popova says that many male protesters told her to sit at home and make borscht instead of turning out to organize rallies.
It’s an attitude—expressed in the traditional Russian adage that “an accomplished woman is a married woman”—that exasperates Popova. “I am sick of men always treating me as if I were somebody’s dumb secretary, unable to make my own decisions!” Popova exclaimed emotionally during a coffee break at the Russian Socialist Left Alliance last week. “I am not concerned about staying a single woman,” she declared, and said she is planning to “raise hell from the bottom up” in Russian politics—particularly in the provinces, where she said she has found grassroots help from local women who are eager to monitor the court systems and potential corruption.
While Popova is a single woman working to change the system from within, other young women remain distrustful of Russia’s political and legal systems, which are run by and for men. “It is unsafe to grow to close with them,” says Shpakova, the art director, who describes her run-ins with her male colleagues as a “constant battle with light sabers.” Shpakova saw the full misogyny of Russia’s legal system close up when she tried to stop her last Russian ex-boyfriend from sending her threatening, abusive texts after they broke up. When Shpakova consulted a lawyer, she was told that “there is no law defending a person’s dignity, no state guarantee of personal security,” she said. Despite the prevalence of domestic violence in Russia, the country has no law on the books outlawing physical abuse of a spouse.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Russia is home to the world’s second-highest divorce rate—after Belarus—with 65 percent of marriages ending in a split. And while many Russian women still hold out hopes of finding a Prince Charming, they are also coming to terms with the weight of the demographic and cultural factors working against them. Some women, like Shpakova, have decided to date only non-Russian men. Others have resigned themselves to a life of singledom, rather than wrestle their boyfriends into the role of a modern, supportive partner. “Most [Russian men] have no clue how to communicate,” says 40-year-old Maria Shubina, a leading researcher at the Boris Yeltsin Foundation in Moscow. “Their parents had no tradition of sitting down and talking things over, either.” After watching several relationships with Russian boyfriends fall apart, Shubina realized that she needed to redefine her idea of happily ever after. “As a teen, I always thought I would be married by my early 20s” she says. “With age 40 approaching, I am ready to give up looking for the love of my life.”