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Russia: Scholar Challenges Stereotypes Of Russian Men
Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

July 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In her recent book, "Men In Contemporary Russia: The Fallen Heroes Of Post Soviet Change?" scholar Rebecca Kay suggests that stereotypes of Russian men as heavy-drinking layabouts who are indifferent to the needs of their families present a misleading picture. The University of Glasgow professor conducted a series of ethnographic interviews with men in central Russia and western Siberia and found plenty of hard-working men "motivated by a strong sense of their responsibilities to their family." But these men often faced an uncomfortable choice between working long hours to provide for their family or being at home but not making enough money. RFE/RL correspondent Julie A. Corwin asked Kay to explain the kind of irreconcilable expectations that Russian men face.

RFE/RL: You said you approached your research with negative expectations that were later disproved. Were these expectations formed primarily from reading Russian media accounts or were they also based what you heard from Russian women?

Rebecca Kay: Both. Very much both. I heard a very strong kind of rhetoric that, you know, there's not much point in expecting anything too much from Russian men. They're all a bit of a mess. They all like a drink. It's women who keep things together. It's women who keep the families together. And I think, obviously, there are important elements of that going on in Russia, and I wouldn't for a minute say that my research could present a picture that says there's no problem in Russia with men drinking or dying early. Obviously there is. But I don't think that's the full story.

RFE/RL: What's missing from the popular understanding?

Kay: It was just incredible really during the research how much I found myself constantly confronted with stories and with men who totally didn't fit that stereotype of the Russian man, who is irresponsible, apathetic, can't keep it together, and just lies on the divan and drinks all the time. What I have found again and again with men who -- they weren't having a brilliant time of it. They were struggling with all sorts of challenges, but they were really motivated by a strong sense of their responsibilities to the family and their duties and what they saw as their duties as a man.

RFE/RL: What do they see as are their duties?

Kay: Men saw that, as their kind of primary thing, was to provide quite well for their families. Some of them actually ran them into problems because they were trying to provide but maybe they weren't managing as well as they might. They were then taking on extra jobs or ending up working -- some of the men from the Kaluga region were working in Moscow and that meant they were away from their families and their homes for four or five days in a row or sometimes for three or four months and then coming back. And that was then causing tensions and problems within the family.

RFE/RL: Your book discusses fatherhood in detail. What is it like for single fathers in Russia?

Kay: They were finding themselves constantly confronted by this kind of bewilderment at least and sometimes outright opposition at worst from the community around them, that just were sort of saying, "A man can't do this." "What do you mean you're raising children by yourself? You just can't be capable of that." And one of the most extreme cases was a man talking about how after his wife died, neighbors were saying to him, "You should be putting your children in a children's home. What are you doing? You can't care for them." And it wasn't coming out in a kind of "wow, life must be really hard for you now, maybe we can help you somehow." It was coming out in this kind of "you're a man, you can't possibly do this."

RFE/RL: You've mentioned the negative image of Russian men in the Western press. What about in the Russian media?

Kay: I did an analysis of provincial and local media, and something that came through really strongly in there was what I ending up talking about as the "good man" story. There were lots and lots of features that would take a local man and feature him. And, they always had the same kind of themes in them it as always somebody who was really inventive, who had overcome huge obstacles in order to succeed, who had this really strong, kind of principled approach to life and who often was either holding up the entire community or certainly supporting a family in very difficult circumstances. And I began to find it really interesting because it was like you would get very generalized articles talking about men en masse in a very negative way. But then often lots of these very individualized articles describing good men.

RFE/RL: It sounds like there is this generalized societal expectation of men that is very negative. The "good man" is the exception rather than the rule. Where do you think this comes from? Does it predate the transition period?

Kay: You can go right back to pre-revolutionary literature and find the kind of weak, surplus man who you know really doesn't have that much going for him and depends a lot on a strong woman to sort him out. That is there within the culture. I also think more recently there is the whole discourse from the Brezhnev years about the feminization of men as a negative side effect of women's emancipation and the idea of men were becoming weak as a result.

RFE/RL: Do you think Russian women are to some degree complicit in the bad behavior they complain about in Russian men?

Kay: I would be very reluctant to come out with anything that sounded like me saying the problem is Russian women and the way they treat their men because I don't think it's as straightforward as that. But I think there is a two-pronged process whereby both men and women collude in holding in place fairly rigid ideas about gender that actually in the end are probably difficult for both of them.