From Perestroika to Loneliness in Russia
Illustration by John Harrison
Wherever you go in Russia these days, chances are you’ll find more women than men. The fact is that Russian women outnumber men by as much as 10 million. This huge difference starts from the age of 30, meaning the chances of creating a family drop significantly for mature people. Only one in six women age 35-44 gets married, the rest are divorced or were never married.
Tatiana Smirnova from Samara City is an example of the unmarried population. At age 40, she lives alone and supports herself by working in a small business. She has dozens of girlfriends of the same age, all independent, welleducated, good looking, yet single.
“All of us were born in small towns in the Soviet Union and we came to the big city to get education. Perestroika began in 1986 and a year later I was enrolled at an elite university preparing professionals for the high-end aero-space industry. Because of the extremely difficult technical studies there were only 10 girls for more than 100 boys at our faculty. When I look back I ask myself, “Why on earth couldn’t I find a man in such an ideal situation?”
By the time Tatiana and her friends graduated, the had USSR collapsed. Millions of students with excellent knowledge of high technology entered the market. And what happened to the market?
The aerospace industry collapsed. The only work Tatiana could find was at the local TV equipment plant working with copper, making small parts for televisions on a low income. To survive she decided to go into the trading business. She was 25.
“In the early 1990s many people had to trade to survive,” Tatiana recalls. “I took a bus, full of mostly women who were doing the same thing as I was, and went to Moscow’s Luzhniki market,” she said. “It was a 24 bus journey to Moscow. If the old vehicle did not break down, then at 5 am we were on the market with hundreds of other people in tiny stalls selling everything from toys and clocks to clothes and cosmetics. I bought soft toys, because they were in demand and weren’t too heavy to carry. After a day’s buying, for cash that we hid in underwear, because thefts were all too common, we took the same bus home. It was like being a herring in a can, we were overloaded with bales of goods. After getting home, the worst nightmare begun: selling toys everyday at the outdoor market, regardless of winter frost or exhausting summer heat.”
No men helped them. For some reason, there weren’t any around to help. Young, female graduates lived a difficult, solitary life. Maybe men did not feel comfortable with the trader lifestyle? Since then of course, many of the women have changed occupations, while some have remained with their little market stalls.
Tatiana turned to a pharmaceutical business, registered herself as a ‘solo entrepreneur’ and at age 35 received a second degree in pharmaceutics. Now she works long hours from Monday to Saturday in her drug store, and the only men in her life are truck drivers who deliver goods and chronically drunk men who come to her store for medicine to counter the effects of alcohol.
Tatiana does correspond with Italian men, since the first time she met an Italian in Samara in the late 1990s. The man worked in construction, helping with the city’s development of the local petroleum plant. Over 10 years passed, and this Italian connection could easily have ended. But in 2000 Tatiana went to Milan for one month to study at an Italian language school. She was completely fascinated by the beauty of the country, the happiness and energy of Italians and their ancient culture.
“Since I speak Italian I have always dated Italian men,” she explained. “I like them because they treat me like a woman. When my friend from Italy came to visit me, my refrigerator broke down and he just went to the nearest mall to buy another one. I knew that was just a gift, as many people would probably say, no big deal. For me the gift shows his attitude, the most important thing for me, making me feeling like a loved woman.”
Tatiana would love to move to Italy one day, but it is not easy and she has things to do in Russia, including looking after her elderly parents. “Let God decide” is her favorite phrase. Meanwhile, she continues living alone and travels as much as possible. She has a passion for pilgrimages and finds real escape in many amazing holy places in Russia and abroad. She traveled to Jordan (Petra), Israel (Jerusalem), Italy (Bari), Ukraine (Crimea) and to many other places. She hopes to meet the man of her dreams on one of her trips.