An early 19th-century British (male) visitor to St. Petersburg was outraged: Russians were disgustingly immodest. Giving his most damning example, he reported that not only did they bathe in the nude in the Neva River, right in the center of the capital city, but did so in mixed company. He had even seen—oh the horror!—a rotund, salty older woman grab a young man by his beard and a certain appendage and toss him into the water with a laugh.
There’s no denying this other side of Russian history, or its relevance to today’s debates with their self-righteous, stultifying Puritanism (though the Puritans acknowledged the beauty and importance of sensual love within marriage). Russian commentator Andrei Movchan recently spelled out the issue of morals under the new Putin Puritanism in no uncertain terms, first through a relentless comparison of statistics from Russia and “The West” on everything from abortion to charitable giving, then by proposing that the true ideology driving Russia’s leadership is prison camp culture (which has sexual resonances: It is virulently homophobic, and obsessed with hierarchy and the play of power). Movchan’s arguments are interesting, but there’s one element I’d like to add. Or rather, one question I’d like to ask: When in the world did Russians ever live by “traditional Russian values” in matters amative?
Putin’s rhetorical tactics parallel those of the “family values” campaigns that brought Republicans to power and shifted the conversation in the U.S. so dramatically to the right. Putin imagines some golden era, when demure damsels gazed wistfully out of their terems, perhaps (the old Russian women’s section of a house), or looked up from their fluttering fans at a dapper young man in a spotless uniform, only to walk breathlessly into a church and to have their families and a priest bless their sexually restrained, holy union.
This is a reversal of the historical relationship between Russia and the West. In the 19th century, it was Russians who seemed wildly liberal, compared to the prim non-entities of, say, English upper-class womanhood.
Many visitors from Western Europe wondered at the great practicality and general insouciance of Russians when it came to sex, gender relations, and the naked body. There were codes of behavior, of course. Men and women both tipped their hats and bonnets to them—in particular in the literature of the era, inspired in part by the sentimental models and ideals of writers like Stern, Voltaire, and Anne Radcliffe. However, in Russia (as in many other parts of the world), rules may loom large, yet play only a surface role in guiding individual’s hearts and actions.
These codes, similar to those governing behavior in the rest of Europe, were especially strict for unwed women who aspired to respectable marriage. But once married, women found they had far more freedom. Anna Kern, whose love life was documented by several of her lovers, including Alexander Pushkin, married a far older general, then struck out on her own. She took lovers, as the diary of Alexei Vulf makes absolutely clear. Lady-in-waiting, lively raconteuse, and close friend of poet Vasily Zhukovsky, Alexandra Smirnova-Rosset, gives copious examples of women falling in love after marriage. She herself fell in love with a man she met while very pregnant with one of her many children.
Men could circumvent these codes easily even before marriage, which comes as no surprise. Tales of seduction and mad passions blossomed under the influence of Romanticism and Lord Byron, and writers like Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky lived their tales, reputedly crawling, knife in his teeth, into young women’s boudoirs. In less dramatic fashion, other men followed their desires and dealt with varying degrees of morality with the consequences. Western observers were astounded at the number of prostitutes who married men of reasonably good social standing. Scratch a wealthy Russian aristocrat and find a family out of wedlock; it was not an admirable thing, but it was accepted that a man might take a lover (serf or free) and have numerous children with her.
The fruits of these extramarital unions were not always bitter. Though the laws governing the fate of illegitimate children, for example, were draconian, children born out of wedlock were everywhere, and many of them made important contributions to Russian art, letters, and civil society: education theorist and reformer Ivan Petrovich Pnin, literary provocateur Sergei Sobolevksy, gifted portrait painter Orest Kiprensky, to name just a few of the writers, civil servants, architects, and performers who were born out of wedlock.
And of course, there is the other, overwhelming majority of Russia’s population. The vast numbers of men and women considered chattel, to be pawned, lost at cards, sold, bought, abused and raped at their aristocratic masters’ whims. Tolstoy, for example, had a passionate relationship with one of his slaves, and portrays such outings very romantically in Anna Karenina. Women of the lower free and serf classes were often not even considered women by the men who sleep with them. Not that love and desire played no role in non-aristocratic lives: Russia’s traditional poetry and songs speak to affection, lust, and downright naughtiness, often in amusing, life-affirming terms.
Where does an American chic get off ruminating on this? I came to Russia’s history as a sympathetic, fascinated outsider from a culture with similar complexities—a history of slavery, a bizarre mix of prudishness and sensual abandon, an empire spanning a continent—and have tried to understand what many other Westerners simply dubbed an insolvable riddle. But I am not about to tell Russians how to behave.
I will say one thing, however. Russians have a unique history of intimacies and sensuality. It is more important than the tired, formal visions of feminine purity or masculine honor and bravado, more vibrant than the dull platitudes most politicians mistake for actual moral character or religious feeling. This is all part of the “traditional” picture—like it or not.