One of the most common questions I’ve received since being here (after “You left London? For Samara? Why?!”) is: “Where’s your boyfriend?”. It seems to be a standard conversation-opener in all sorts of situations: at work; in my host family; with new friends; pretty much everywhere.
I knew that Russians had different attitudes towards relationships from us – people tend to get married at around 21 or 22, for instance, and if a person (read: woman) isn’t married by the time they’re in their late twenties, then they’re considered old. Nonetheless, I wasn’t prepared for quite how often the question would be raised in seemingly unrelated conversations.
Today, for example, I taught an English conversation class at one of Samara’s many universities, whilst the teacher sat and observed, occasionally interjecting. And so, this conversation occurred:
Me: Well, you see, the English education system differs vastly from the Russian one in that…
Teacher: But where’s your boyfriend?
Me: I’m sorry…what?
Teacher: Where’s your boyfriend?
Me: I don’t have one.
Teacher: No, no. I mean…where’s your boyfriend?
Me: But I don’t have one.
Teacher: But your boyfriend, where is he? Is he also a volunteer in Samara?
Me: No, I don’t have a boyfriend.
Teacher: What, not at all?
Me: Not at all.
Teacher: How old are you?
Teacher: Shame on you! Here, you can go out with Dima (one of the students in the class who had the misfortune to arrive late at that moment)
People are genuinely surprised, sometimes even shocked, to learn that the average marriage age in the UK is 30 for women, and they don’t understand why I’m not actively looking for a husband. I’ve met many beautiful, intelligent women in their late twenties and early thirties who have told me that their families put them under enourmous pressure, even sometimes make them feel like failures, because they are not yet married. For me this is completely alien – how can these women, who have learnt foreign languages, travelled, studied, forged successful careers for themselves, be seen as failures purely because they have orbited the sun thirty times and not signed a piece of paper binding them to another person? It seems especially ironic since Russia has, allegedly, the highest divorce rates in the world (in terms of crude numbers, although not as a marriage:divorce ratio). Tellingly, those I spoke to found nothing shocking in men waiting until 30 or older to marry; only women.
Still, I am very aware that I cannot come to Russia and simply impose my British ideals on the country, and I do recognise lots of advantages in relationships “po russkii”.
For one thing, children have the luxury of young, active parents and even young, active grandparents who are alive well into their children and grandchildrens’ adulthoods.
There is also a sense of mutual respect between men and women that I really like: relationships tend to be serious, long-term commitments. While this might frighten a young, flighty, Guardian-reading British graduate like me, I have to admit that there is a great deal to be said for making a commitment to another person and sticking with it through thick and thin.
I’ve wondered many times who’s got it right, the Russians or the Brits, and I still don’t know the answer. That said, I don’t see myself rushing to the altar any time soon…Dima from the English lesson, don’t hold your breath!