This story was supposed to be all about #MeToo, the American music industry, and my remarkably uneventful and ordinary experience of briefly dating R Kelly—after having survived domestic abuse earlier in life—but the narrative refused to follow the predefined trajectory. After rewriting it a million times, I realized that the story starts in my birth country of Russia. It is about my culture, about Russian women and our cross-generational strengths, weaknesses, courage, and servitude.
I became an American citizen a long time ago and yet, I have been navigating my life in America as a Russian woman on the run from our mandatory martyrdom—and that it my story. My experience with Rob is a peculiar but insignificant part of it.
Growing up in Moscow, I didn’t know any relaxed, happy women. For years, that fact didn’t even register in my mind that as an anomaly. It just proved to me—at the time—that adults were hopelessly broken. For some strange reason, adults seemed to be fatalistically accepting of their brokenness and the general dim character of their lives. It seemed like they were choosing to be defeated, almost as if the society viewed honest, uninhibited happiness as a pathological condition, if not a punishable act of arrogance. Wanting to be happy, struggling to be happy was fine—just not actually getting there. As long as you were caught up in a struggle, you were legit. But if you were walking around like a crazy ray of sunshine, naturally impenetrable to shaming, you were an oddity, and you deserved more shaming for not carrying your share of the burden. Even those who loved you and wanted you to thrive, expected you to obey the rules that by the laws of emotional physics, would not permit anyone to relax and actually thrive as their own free self.
The bulldozer of “behavioral modification by the village” seemed to be hitting both men and women, but with different outcomes. A lot of adult men—not all but many—rebelled by “checking out.” They just withdrew from any worries of survival or any commercial accomplishment. For matters related to comfortable existence, they relied on moms, wives, and chance. They found solace in tinkering with tools, in television, in bragging about male superiority, or in drinking. They shied away from emotional complexity and practical ambition. They invested their energy in abstract pursuits or in passive television watching. But women—although they participated in intellectual and professional activities on a par with men—as bright and accomplished equals—turned into heroic, smart, fierce, asexual working machines that were busy at all times making sure that all irresponsible members of the family were kept clean, tidy and well-fed. Yelled at, constantly corrected—yes—but safe, tidy and well-fed.
It seemed as though the men weren’t strong enough to deal with the cross-generational pressure denying human beings their right to joy, while the women managed to maneuver the oppressive condition as active participants, while leaving behind their sexuality and transforming into joyless, tireless, overworked mid-level family managers. The dysfunctional emotional symbiosis was palpable. Women would work, buy food on the way home, cook, clean, wipe the needy noses, nag, sleep a little, and then repeat. Their husbands would insist on their right to watching the TV in peace (dammit). No one was happy but the wheels kept turning. Post-honeymoon married couples seemed to be in a constant dance of survival, getting through the day, getting by, filling their time together with petty arguments and mutual dissatisfaction that created the plot of their lives. At the same time, popular literature promoted female strength, the woman’s intrinsic role of a “support beam,” and stories of women being almost inevitably let down by weaker, more capricious and less responsible men.
Perhaps the imbalance was owed, at least in part, to the legacy of World War Two. It took a heavy toll on the generation of my grandparents. It stole away millions of lives, widowed countless women, and forced many of them to toughen up—out of cruel necessity. The women of the WWII generation have survived hardship, hunger, and extreme poverty. Many raised children by themselves. Many lost husbands very young and never remarried, committing themselves to sexless lives filled with austerity, caring for the family, and hard work. The women of the WWII generation became fiercely resourceful and tough, but the intrinsic joy of being alive didn’t survive the grinder, and their children grew up in an atmosphere of self-sacrifice and strict limitations.
Or perhaps the feeling of perpetual hopelessness went deeper, tracing back to the time eleven centuries ago when my people’s original indigenous culture was obliterated for political gains of a powerful “centralized state,” with the help of then just formed Russian Orthodox church and its man-made war on joy and nature—the war that by the time I was around, had long been rebranded and repackaged by the Soviet authorities for their own political purposes.
In any case, struggle was the default way of looking at life—as it has been for centuries—and inner freedom was not viewed as anything good.
And then capitalism stormed in, blowing the wind (smoke?) of change, and suddenly, everything flipped. New movies featured underground music, total brokenness of everything, and women craving lacy lingerie, abundant supermarkets, and a rich foreign husband. The traditional, honest, low maintenance Soviet man—his television, his worn-out sweatpants, his lazy retorts—have all been condemned. The successful entrepreneur was obviously harder to please and more likely to leave—but it didn’t matter, he was the new media darling prince, the new pie in the sky (in a white Mercedes, perhaps). For a rich man, a woman was to dress up, to diet, and to tell him that she had forgotten to wear panties. In order catch him, she was to be pretty, easy-going, and a little smart—but not too smart or opinionated. She had to know when to talk. Know how to talk. Know when to shut up. In other words, be a good reflection of what the capricious and emotionally unavailable successful man wants, according to popular mythology and soap operas.
Given my opinionated personality and my love of philosophy, I was like, but why?! The newly minted Russian entrepreneurs I knew personally were obsessed with money, intellectually primitive, and physically unattractive. The ones I randomly ran into were plain scary. My tutor, an adamant adopter of Western capitalism and a proud business owner, yelled at his wife so loudly in front of me and their kids that even I felt uncomfortable. A friend of mine, a poetic soul hosting artsy parties downtown Moscow, got involved in a high-end pyramid scheme and at some point literally tortured another poetic friend by tying him to a hot radiator, to extort money. An obscenely wealthy married mobster, a friend of a friend who offered me translating work, kept calling me with romantic propositions, and I jumped in my chair in pangs of anxiety every time the phone rang. My BFF’s extremely successful American boyfriend was the most charming and cultured of them all—but despite the love that they felt for each other and the fact that their relationship was good enough for them to get married, she seemed to always have to shut up and listen to him.
Something about it was rigged. I was not observing much of what attracted me in life. What I was observing—although years would pass before I could verbalize it— was that the character of the low energy Soviet man was replaced by the character of the high energy Western entrepreneur—but “woman” was still a supporting role, perhaps even more so than it was before. She used to be a tireless workhorse, and now she was an irresistible product.
I didn’t like either option. I didn’t want to be a workhorse in a dull world, and I didn’t want to be a sidekick of a rich man. I wanted to be me, to see the world and to do great things—and so I moved to America.