Gender and Choice Among Russia’s Upper Class

Russia’s rich have the luxury of being able to choose between almost limitless options, especially in terms of lifestyles. Unless they are on the sanctions list, they can live anywhere they desire. They can send their children, almost regardless of ability, to virtually any school around the globe if they pay enough for admission or for tailored exam preparationTheir choices relating to consumption are nearly infinite. In sum, the issues people of less privileged classes face on a daily basis could not be more remote; they suffer neither the breadwinner crisis which has affected millions of men as a result of the chaotic 1990s, nor the problems women face because of a neglected social infrastructure.

Chapter in Gender and Choice after Socialism. Edited by Lynne Attwood, Elisabeth Schimpfossl and Marina Yusupova. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Russia’s rich have the luxury of being able to choose between almost limitless options, especially in terms of lifestyles. Unless they are on the sanctions list, they can live anywhere they desire. They can send their children, almost regardless of ability, to virtually any school around the globe if they pay enough for admission or for tailored exam preparation. Their choices relating to consumption are nearly infinite. In sum, the issues people of less privileged classes face on a daily basis could not be more remote from the rich who suffer neither the breadwinner crisis which has affected millions of men as a result of the chaotic 1990s nor the problems women face because of a neglected social infrastructure.

Following Bourdieu’s approach to choice, this chapter understands people’s dispositions as originating in society and social structure. Cultural settings influence choice preferences: values, goals, tastes, desires, attitudes and so on. What the first generation of wealth shares with the general Russian population is the cultural setting they were socialised into as children and young adults. When the break-up of the Soviet Union upended the country’s social structure, they all had to learn how to navigate the rapidly evolving new and different frames of choice.[1]By now, those frames have drifted apart, with rich Russians having the greatest possible number of options to choose from, thanks to their material potency. This makes them a particularly complex case from the perspective of a cultural sociology of choice.

This chapter explores how choice plays out for the rich in terms of gender. It asks, firstly, to what extent the general gender norms prevalent in Russia are experienced differently by the wealthy and by the large majority of Russians. Secondly, it examines the ways and the life situations in which their choices are restricted. Finally, whenever possible, the chapter elucidates how people choose among the many different alternatives on offer. In the first part of the chapter, Russian men are the topic of analysis. This is followed by a brief discussion of two themes: intimate relationships and gendered upbringing. A third part deals with elite femininities, while the final part looks at some of the paradoxes observed among privileged homosexual men.

Upper class is defined primarily in economic terms. Material wealth often confers status, prestige and political influence; sometimes these resources precede affluence. The material analysed in this chapter is drawn from a set of 80 biographical-narrative interviews with entrepreneurs, politicians, their spouses and children, conducted between 2008 and 2016, mainly in Moscow. These people are in business, politics and the media, and belong to the richest 0.1 per cent of Russia’s nearly 144 million-strong population.[2]Most of them live in Moscow; a handful live in other cities, such as Saint Petersburg, Novosibirsk (Siberia’s biggest city) and Siberian oil towns. Their characteristics are very typical of the post-Soviet elite, the most salient of which is that they are highly educated.[3]Three quarters of the sample are male, which reflects the male dominance in business structures.

The interviews contained questions about people’s biographies, their family history, what they considered to be important in life, what they think helped them to become successful, what values and skills they wanted to pass on to their children and what they wished for their children’s future.[4]Further questions concerned philanthropy, education and leisure time activities, how they related to the West and how they related to questions of gender. Another tranche of questions included topics such as housing, lifestyle tastes and preferences in literature and culture and in the people they choose to have around them. When people digressed to more interesting topics, I gave them free rein. This was particularly important when they chose to talk about anything related to sex or gender, which was not something I felt I could easily ask about.

Elite masculinities: overkill of choice

Historically, within Russia’s echelons of power, women have been the exception to the rule. The gender scholar Valerie Sperling has stated that masculinity is a vehicle of power,[5]having impact on all levels of business and politics. Men also dominate informal networking, which in Russia is an important gateway to power. Access to this networking is particularly impenetrable when it comes to things such as bonding over heavy drinking, hunting in remote areas in Siberia or visiting the sauna.[6]

The fact that masculinity opens doors which are closed to women was particularly crucial during perestroika and the early post-Soviet years when private business emerged and the first big money was accumulated. Andrei, 24, told me about his father, whose company is today the second biggest in its field in Russia in terms of production volume:

My father finished his engineering studies but only worked for a very short time in his field, maybe two years. Then he worked in four different jobs. He sold shashlyki[kebabs], worked as a cleaner, worked on a construction site and so on. He had to earn money to feed his young family. … Following a friend’s suggestion, he then set up his import company and later developed his own production site, a new brand and everything else.

There is nothing traditionally masculine about having to change jobs frequently or work as a cleaner. Neither has street trade ever been masculinised. However, having an entrepreneurial friend who suggests cooperating over a start-up business sounds like something straight out of a 1990s businessman’s textbook; and we should not forget that Andrei’s mother, staying at home with a toddler, had little chance of being relieved of domestic chores, let alone getting involved into any business ventures.

As business opportunities have been much more accessible to men, the winners of the post-Soviet transformation are predominantly male. They are what are generally considered to be ‘real men.’ As the young businessman and politician Dmitrii explained to me, ‘real men’ are forceful, energetic, ambitious, innovative, flexible, decisive, hard and willing to take risks, as well as being caring, protective, reliable, emotionally and mentally stable and consistent in following their goals. The large majority of Russian men, however, struggle to claim those characteristics for themselves, especially if they lost out in the 1990s economy and never recovered. Alongside the material insecurity foisted upon them, they failed in their most important role: as breadwinners. Given the prevalence of such traditional gender expectations, less fortunate Russian men have had their identities and their self-esteem painfully shaken.[7]

Rich men obviously do not experience any feeling of failure; nor do they think their success had anything to do with things like luck or their possibly not so ethical business practices. Instead, most of them are convinced that they made the right choices at the right time, did not shy away from risk and worked extremely hard—something everybody could have done had they also chosen to invest their time, energy and strategic thinking, so they claim.

Despite their wealth and success, these men are not necessarily free from potential dissatisfaction with what they do in life. The entrepreneur and investor Vyacheslav deeply dislikes his daily business activities. In his former career he worked as a diplomat and he still dreams about returning to the foreign ministry. He told me that he felt he had no choice; the foreign ministry salary was, and still is, too paltry to provide his family with a decent lifestyle. Instead, he has sacrificed everything for their material wellbeing. Now he wants his children to make up for his lost dreams. He is adamant that they should not succumb to any external pressures but should choose what they want to do in life and fulfil themselves in their professions.

Vyacheslav’s discontent with his professional life is related to several factors. For one, like many others, he has become tired of doing business. While at first most men found it exciting to have all the freedom and opportunities that money brings, they long since became used to it and the initial enthusiasm evaporated. Among the rich I have encountered, there is a general feeling that the big chase for money alone has become devalued and people are searching for something which can bring more meaning to their lives. Some went further than Vyacheslav and expressed outright disdain for their own involvement in business.

Gennadii, a Forbes-listed entrepreneur, sounded somewhat depressed in our interview. In a rather offhand tone, this man, who has not yet turned 50, said: ‘Everybody you can think of has written about me. I don’t like this anymore; I stopped liking it long ago. I relate to all this indifferently.’ Yet the fact that I had not found out as much as I could about him before the interview irritated him: ‘You’ll actually find quite a lot about me on the Internet.’ Not only is Gennadii fed up with doing business, but he is also bored. Boredom is not a minor problem for men who have enjoyed great success; it results from an overabundance of luxury and ever-increasing possibilities. They feel they have already done everything that could possibly interest them. Hardly anybody or anything inspires them, and they feel that there is nothing left to aspire to. Some attempt to find meaning in a variety of exotic sports and hobbies. Yet these alternatives do not remove a feeling of emptiness. Gennadii would like to ‘do something that has sense, something exciting.’ He seems at a loss to decide what this could be, which makes him feel as though he is in a position of deadlock.

Whatever rich Russian men opt for to avoid boredom—be it art activities, adventurous leisure activities or luxury consumption—they are likely to have their choices (self-)constrained by the strong patriotism that has society in its grip. In terms of consumerism, their patriotic choice of products made in Russia is more freely chosen than, let’s say, the middle classes’ involuntary return to homemade cheese after the import ban on Parmesan and other foreign cheeses following the onset of Russia’s counter sanctions. After intense hype for everything Western in the 1990s, already by the mid-2000s rich Russians were turning their backs on the overkill of imported fads. Patriotism became a crucial lifestyle factor. Nikita, the 43-year-old head of a large marketing agency, described this development:

Today young businessmen strive to combine Western businesses with a Russian mentality. Some time ago, it was considered indecent to say ‘I love Russia’ among the luxury class and premium class in general [that is, among the rich and the super-rich]. In the 2000s, patriotism became fashionable and it has long been a very important lifestyle factor. One criterion is whether people have fashion brands in their wardrobe which are not from Italy, not from France, not from Japan, but made by people from their own country. … Another criterion is whether the art of a country prospers. And the galleries of Russian art started to prosper in the 2000s.

Male interviewees expressed their patriotic sentiments most strongly through their choice of leisure activities: hunting in remote Siberian territories, instead of going on yet another Safari in Africa, and drinking vodka rather than joining in the new trends of drinking either mineral water or whisky. At the same time, they were very critical of those fellow wealthy Russians who indulge too much in Western pastimes.

Many condescendingly looked down at Western values, in particular what they saw as hypocritical political correctness and hollow Western propriety. Traditionally in Russia, men are considered to be brutish at the core of their nature, and, as they are bound to succumb to this from time to time, they cannot really be held responsible for occasional outbursts of virility.[8]Linked to this openness towards manly brutishness is great respect for force-driven Alpha-type men who press forward with vigour and determination to crush any obstacles blocking their way.

This type of manliness is closely associated with ‘warrior’ men, as Yusupova calls the military prototype in her chapter on masculiniy and militarism. Military service was nevertheless barely touched upon in my interviews—unsurprisingly. There are a good number of countries around the world, most famously the USA, where intense patriotism and an aggressive foreign policy do not mean that the children of the elite risking their lives in military campaigns. As Yusupova further describes in her chapter, from the middle class upwards, many young Russians avoid conscription either through prolonged studies or through bribery. Most of the rich Russians of today would have had to serve in Soviet times, but even back then privileged educational paths helped them either land privileged positionsin the army or circumvent military service altogether. Those amongmy interviewees who had gone through ordinary military service, sometimesused this to emphasise their humble social background.

More prevalent among rich Russians were former KGB officers. Incontrast to bullying, impulsive Alpha males, former secret service officershave a reputation for being highly self-controlled. Deploring the temporarydemise of this type of man and the parallel rise of the thoughtless,hedonistic rich, one interviewee told me a story he witnessed in person.The episode occurred in the early 2000s. The top management of a giantcompany dealing in natural resources visited some of their productionsites in Siberia. Already for some time there had been bitter feuds betweentwo powerful men in the top management. As usual, during their businesstrips to Siberia, they stayed at the best hotel in town. As per theinformal rule when hotel guests travel in male-only groups, the hotel staffpre-booked prostitutes to entertain the men throughout their stay,including in the hotel sauna. The first group went to the sauna on dayone. Switching their attention back and forth from the girls to talkingshop, they became unguarded and animated while chatting among themselves,oblivious to the fact that the women around them might be ableto absorb the information they overheard. The next evening two menbelonging to the second group, my interviewee being one of them, visitedthe sauna. Intrigued by what they had overheard the night before, thewomen recounted the stories to the two men. A little scandal ensued,with people (especially the board members from sauna day one) wonderingwhere the leak might have sprung from. They never figured it out,this interviewee told me with a cheeky smile, followed by a deep sigh. Hereiterated that these men were most obviously not KGB trained. Hadthey been, they would never ever have acted so carelessly and made suchutterly stupid mistakes.

Self-control as a crucial trait of powerful men is paired with mastery of the spoken word during social interaction. Evgenii, a businessman and art patron, considers himself to be an expert in communication and human interaction: ‘I know how to do it, in which ways to create it, without wasting massive resources.’ Vera, a young businesswoman and daughter of a high-powered state official, is grateful that she got this skill from her father, as she put it. ‘That’s very important in business because prior to a contract there is conversation [v nachale razgovor, potom dogovor].’ Ilya, 22, deeply admires his oligarch father’s skills: ‘His ability to communicate got him far. I see how he deals with people. Today in Russia’s business world the ability to communicate is the most important thing.’

All the parental examples mentioned in the interviews were fathers, which is not surprising: men have many more opportunities to participate in the public sphere. Female public voices are, by and large, restricted to the arts, media and PR. Women who have made it into male domains, such as the head of the Russian Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, and the socialite and former TV presenter, Ksenia Sobchak, who is notorious for her sharp mind and tongue, are often feared by their male peers. These women have succeeded, in the views of my commentators, by exploiting their ‘male’ qualities. As the businesswoman Yelena explained, ‘Sobchak’s got proper male brains instead of female foibles.’

Boys and girls: intimate relationships and gendered upbringing

The 1990s introduced a liberation from Soviet morals and a climate of relative uncertainty regarding the conventions of propriety. When their husbands climbed up the social ladder, many first wives were discarded and replaced by younger model-type women. With the life chances of many women becoming unapologetically linked to their sexual attractiveness, physical markers materialised into ‘good deals.’[9]

Now that the attraction of pure moneymaking was diminishing and the ‘bling’ of the 1990s was receding, rich Russian men began to search for less ostentatious tastes, including in their choice of spouses and mistresses. In the 2000s it became increasingly important to find marriage partners with a high educational level and from an affluent socio-economic background to reinforce the upper class’s social exclusivity.[10]Family values experienced a revival in the official rhetoric of the new millennium. Having a long and stable marriage became in the eyes of many a sign of distinction.

The area of intimate relationship and life planning took on another new feature. Many of the young men I interviewed entertain friendships with people from very different cultures. However, they enter into moresustainable relationships only with Russian women. Nikolai, 23, was anexample of this: ‘All my girlfriends have been Russian, without exception.I’ve gone out with foreign girls but I’ve had relationships only withRussians.’ This was also the case with the otherwise very cosmopolitan Andrei: ‘I only once went out with a German girl but it didn’t work out.’

At only 24, Andrei has a young woman waiting for him in Moscow while he is studying in the UK. He is convinced that she should be his future wife. He already has clear ideas about what their daily life will look like. Despite his father’s riches, these do not include domestic personnel.

My wife will be working, but only as long as there are no children. I don’t want a nanny. Once there are children, she has to leave her work for a minimum of three years. When the children are four, one can start thinking about sending them to the kindergarten. But she is obliged to be at home for at least the first three years.

Others express more liberal views, but that does not necessarily translate into deeds. Ilya, 21, does allow his wife to outsource most of the domestic labour. As for the rest, he is certain that he and his wife ‘share all remaining household chores.’ Nevertheless, he never enters the kitchen: ‘It’s Masha’s domain.’ He too has wants her to stay at home for the first three years—the period of official maternity leave—once they have children. Afterwards, ‘we can see whether she wants to do part-time.’

Fortunately for the future wives of Andrei and Ilya, their prospective husbands’ archaic ideas are unlikely to be realised. Instead, it is more likely that they will soon be joining in dinner party conversations about how difficult it is to find good domestic personnel. Nikita, 43, described the problem in a rather dramatic way:

How to choose a nanny? This is the trickiest thing in Moscow. House staff in general. If you go to a house party, after literally an hour the conversation switches to how best to find a cleaning lady or a nanny. It’s incredibly difficult. Cleaning ladies and nannies are passed on from hand to hand, by succession, and even through bribery. It’s really difficult; it’s indeed the number one problem.

The irony here is, of course, that in a successful transfer of domestic personnel through bribery, the most desirable (hence, presumably, trustworthy) nannies and cleaners imply their corruptibility right from the start. However, their employers seem so desperate that they do not mind; they are convinced that there is no choice at all in Moscow concerning good and reliable domestic staff.

Andrei’s and Ilya’s ideas about how involved wives have to be in the process of child-rearing minimises the young women’s choices. A multiplicity of choices can invoke feelings of insecurity and anxiety, while traditional settings can provide people with a feeling of certainty.[11]A reduction in multiplicity, in turn, can be confusing. I had a moment of confusion in my conversation with Vitalii, a good-natured property investor with the stature of a teddy bear. He told me about the Pioneer camps (similar to the scouts) which he and his friends organise for their children. The scouts in Austria (where I grew up) are run on the basis that there is neither a gender division in their activities nor a gender division of labour in their summer camps, so I naively believed that this would be the case everywhere. I must have looked startled when Vitalii commented on what the boys and girls do in Russian camps. ‘No, no, there is no special division of labour,’ he insisted. ‘The boys put up the tents and dig out holes. The girls do the cooking. That’s all completely natural. I mean, of course, the girls do the cooking rather than any male work.’

Culture moulds choice not only by shaping repertoires of alternatives but also, as Schwarz points out, by shaping culturally specific ways of choosing.[12]In the case of Russia’s rich, these ways of choosing are, furthermore, depending on social class. The ways in which people make their choices are determined, among other things, by their own interactions.

In the 1990s, many affluent Russians sent their children to Western schools and universities, not least to ensure their children’s physical security. Personal experience of Western education systems has led to their demystification, however. Some parents who sent their children abroad now consider it to have been a mistake. I witnessed long conversations over dinner parties about how bad it is to separate a family when the children are young; they grow into cultural strangers, they do not learn fluent Russian, and, most crucially for boys, they might develop homosexual feelings in British boarding schools. Decision-making based on social interaction (rather than expert knowledge or readily availableschool and university rankings) explains the popularity among this groupof otherwise little-known institutions, such as Regent’s University inLondon.

Also important in decision-making are trusted service providers, usually recommended by friends. The owner of a London-based agency that places Russian children in UK schools and universities relies above all on this word-to-mouth advertising. According to him, many rich parents take gender-specific decisions in relation to their children’s education. Boys are expected to become their families’ breadwinners, for which role they need to get the best education and make pragmatic choices. They should study business or economics or possibly law or sciences. Young women are generally given much more freedom about what to study.

Elite femininities

The choices available to bourgeois women are less defined than those for men. In many Western cultures, the main duty of upper-class women is to engage in work which reinforces their family’s class position. For example, women concern themselves with the social suitability of their children’s friends and future partners, and they take over representative tasks, for example, when hosting guests or performing image work, such as doing charity work.[13]After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the wives of wealthy Russians immersed themselves in conspicuous consumption; if they got involved in business, it typically took the form of setting up beauty salons or fashion boutiques which were paid for by their husbands.[14]Although upper-class women remain within the limiting choice parameters of Russian femininity in general (being a mother, being subordinate to men and taking care of the family), this has clearly changed and many upperclass women have advanced into more respected professions, including male domains, such as computer technologies and construction.

Taking over the coordination of a family’s cultural life, however, remains an important way for upper-class women to bolster their standing both within the family and in society. The wealthy businessman Vladimir is refreshingly honest about the gender division in his marriage:

I’m someone, fortunately or unfortunately, who relies completely on his wife in terms of cultural education. She drags me to cultural events and tells me what is going on. Funnily enough, this sometimes ends up with me picking up something and memorising it.

Vladimir then reveals a cheeky streak: ‘Then I might recall it when I’m among people, and everybody thinks that I’m really culturally versed,’ he giggles. ‘Actually, I only know the tip of the iceberg and I don’t know the artist or writer at all.’

The most distinguished way for upper-class women to boost their status is to engage themselves in cultural projects, the art sphere or philanthropy. This can be done on a modest level, as in the case of Konstantin’s highly educated wife who does charity work in the field of psychoanalysis:

My wife is studying. It’s her third degree. She’s already been awarded two Red Diplomas and she’s worked in both fields. Now she does what she’s most interested in. She is in the third year of her psychology and psychoanalysis degree. She publishes academic articles. She just called a few minutes ago from the oncology centre where she volunteers. She helps the parents of children who suffer from cancer. She provides them with free psychological support.

The range of choice available to upper-class women is partly set by men. Konstantin considers it to be important that his wife finds fulfillment through some professional activity to gain esteem in society. Yet while men encourage their wives to do something outside of the home, many of them do not necessarily consider this to be real work. Some of them openly dismiss their wives’ activities as nothing more than frivolity. Vladimir’s wife is a trained sociologist who later did a jewellery course at Moscow State University and opened her own shop selling jewellery. (‘My wife is not working.’) The Forbes-listed businessman Viktor does not consider his wife’s activities to be work either. (‘My wife doesn’t work. … She’s actually never worked. … Now she’s building some flats or something.’) Viktor empathises with his wife’s needs: ‘I think she’s suffered from time to time from not having a career, but not enough to actually change something.’ But he does not think that his wife—or women in general—has the perseverance to stick to one thing and see it through.

My female interviewees held equally essentialist ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’ strengths and weaknesses, but some of these qualities were gender-reversed. The businesswoman Natal’ya hires almost only women for senior management positions because she thinks they work harder and have a much stronger sense of responsibility. Her business is flourishing, but that hardly alters how Natal’ya is perceived by many people who do not fully recognise her role as a businesswoman: ‘Among those who don’t know my project well and who don’t know how it has developed, no doubt there are many who think that I am a protégé wife [that she was helped and supported by her husband]. This opinion is widespread in society.’

The number of businesswomen in my sample is small, as is the numberof women in business among the upper class in general. Yelena, Nina,Anastasiya and Natal’ya, all of whom are aged between 50 and around 65,have set up their own businesses without the backing of wealthy husbands.They all bear the characteristics usually ascribed to male entrepreneurs,such as being innovative, tough, communicative, risk loving, perseverant,rigid, firm, vigorous, stubborn and, like many of their male counterparts,[15]Alpha types—at the same time as preserving everything a ‘real woman’ issupposed to be (beautiful, emotional, mysterious, gentle, practical andvery good at providing a solid foundation for their families).

In their private lives these strong, powerful women have partly overturned traditional gender roles. While Yelena joined the jet-set celebrity world, her husband, a mathematician, maintained his privacy and stayed remote from his wife’s glamorous world. Nina’s husband is very shy, if not reclusive. He has retreated to a bunker-like house far away from Moscow where he broods over conspiracy theories. He sees his mission as keeping his family safe from a natural disaster which was meant to strike years ago. The businesswoman Anastasiya has always worked in male-dominated business fields and has always been the primary breadwinner for her family, with husbands coming and going. Now aged 50, she has married her fitness trainer who is 14 years her junior.

Yelena and Anastasiya are very feminine in appearance. Their style borrows elements typical to aggressive machismo, but they simultaneously endorse traditional femininity. Powerful women in patriarchal societyoften combine contradictory traits.[16] Their self-sexualisation is reinforcedby constant sexualisation from the outside world. The politicianDmitrii divides powerful women into two main stereotypical categories.Firstly, there is the bulky, manly bulldozer type who is tough, authoritarianand scary. Atypical gendering in women (that is, being ‘too’ masculine)is feared rather than ridiculed. Dmitrii explained to me thatmainstream society believes these women to be sexually deprived, andthis is the reason for their aggression and energy which enables them toremove the obstacle they face in business and politics. The second type ofwomen is highly attractive, sharp and smart. Their career, in turn, is aresult of their sexual appeal and femininity. Being usually underestimatedenables such women to gain power.

However, female smiles and sexy, feminine looks only work to a certain extent. In order to survive in Russia’s new capitalist world, women have to consciously acquire ‘masculine’ characteristics (that is, to be equally ruthless as their male peers) and juggle these with the ‘femininity’ which they must not lose. At the time of the interview, Vera was reading a biography about Margaret Thatcher. She was fascinated, yet she aimed to be much softer than her idol, even though this 29-year-old businesswoman had herself gone through a conscious self-steeling process a decade earlier:

I changed a lot at some point. I used to be very home-centred and never went out. When I was 21, I decided to change myself completely. I wanted to become harder and more confident, maybe out of a feeling of responsibility. That had to be done because a little, delicate flower is not going to survive in Moscow. You have to be a proper tree to survive. This was necessary and I’m very glad that I did it. I consciously worked on myself. It was a bit crazy, but I managed. I went out into the world, changed my circles of friends, tried my first glass of champagne, learned to smoke. I changed completely.

Things worked out for Vera in almost every area of life, just not on the family front: ‘I’d like to have three children. I want to give birth to all my children in the next ten years. The only thing missing in my life now is a family. I don’t need a yacht.’ The young women I have spoken to unanimously put children first when I ask them about their ideal lives in ten years’ time. As Attwood and Iusupova explain in the chapter on attitudestowards childbirth and motherhood, the image of motherhood hasexperienced yet another boost since the new millennium and especiallysince Putin launched a pronatalist campaign.[17]

At almost 30 years of age, Vera is considered to be quite an old future mother. Women in Russia are perceived, and perceive themselves, as old at the age of 40. Ageing is seen as choice-constraining in many cultures and throughout social classes, but this seems to be particularly pronounced in Russia. In addition to that, given the strong accentuation of physical attributes in Russian society, women are at a distinct disadvantage when they grow older. Accordingly, for women over a certain age, staying youthful is an important issue.

Ageing can also severely restrict women’s choices in relation to professional activities. Natal’ya (who looks around 40, even though she is a decade older) spoke about a period in her life when she discovered, during a stay in the USA, that perceiving herself as old was a Russian cultural norm which did not exist in the USA:

It was wonderful to discover all the new opportunities. While in Russia you assume that at 40 life is finishing, there at 40 you are a young girl. That revitalises you really a lot. In my course at university I was no exception at all. Some were over 50. Everything from 20 to over 50. … At 40 at the latest, all you can hope for in Russia is to attend a crochet-knitting course. It is assumed that your brain is already worn out. Well, that doesn’t concern women who have already succeeded, but to start something new at 40 is extremely difficult.

Choice through privilege: untroubled gays

Putin’s Russia is notorious for widespread homophobia. All the same, homoeroticism has made its way into high society. I was told by an insider (who was surprised at my ignorance) that at least a third of the State Duma consists of gay or bisexual men. Nobody would ‘ever bat an eyelid at this,’ he explained.[18]

According to Gleb, the former head of a large advertising agency, being gay in Moscow has become fashionable: ‘The best hairdressers, the best stylists, the best designers are all from the gay community. They’ve got amonopoly everywhere. In all the key positions, there are gays.’ Gleb is inhis mid-40s and has strong links with Moscow’s show business. He tellsme that gay-dominated businesses cater both to the cosmopolitan, modernelites who do not wish to be seen as homophobic, and to homophobicelites who simply do not care as long as the style and quality are right.A hip urban service and consumer industry which celebrates a stylish,cosmopolitan gay culture can be found in metropoles all over the globe.In Russia, it means that an otherwise repressed minority is setting thetone for what is fashionable and is considered to constitute a good tastein urban consumer culture.

Gleb is thoroughly relaxed when talking about the topic, referring to a ‘new tolerance’ among Russia’s upper class, which includes a supposedly deproblematised homosexuality. Forty- to fifty-year-olds were exposed to European attitudes and therefore are particularly inclined to be tolerant, he explained, but younger people have also acquired such tolerance: ‘Nobody in the world of serious big business is at all interested in whether I, the head of the most important company in my business world in Russia and Eastern Europe, is gay or not.’

Although this does not mean that one cannot find pronounced homophobia among upper-class Russians, Gleb might be right in his assumption that change has taken place among the more privileged younger generations, especially those who were schooled in the West and/or lived there for a number of years. Some of them might even perceive themselves as conduits of enlightenment, given their access to distant, expensive knowledge. Consequently, many of the young people Gleb refers to are ‘rich kids,’ such as Andrei. The 24-year-old acquired cosmopolitan views during his time at school in Switzerland and at university in England. Attitudes in Russia shock him:

In Switzerland and England I’ve absorbed cosmopolitan views. My attitudes towards many things are different now. I’ve now lived five years in a society in which gays are considered as normal. If a gay walks down the road, I don’t pay attention anymore. I’ve got used to it. But in Moscow many people still make fun of them or dislike them, especially if someone is dressed in a certain way.

Andrei’s ability to draw more liberal conclusions stems from his foreign schooling, which multiplies his choice in regards of what news he can consume:

Already during my first year in Switzerland I opened up to all kinds of views and opinions. When something happens in the world, I look at it from all kinds of perspectives. I’ve got access to many different media. I can read in four languages. I can watch all kinds of news. That’s why I’m able to draw much more balanced conclusions than people in Russia.

Gleb’s talk of a new tolerance and the broadening of Andrei’s views indicate to what an extent the upper class has established its own, socially and culturally segregated social milieu. Once in this bubble, it is very easy to forget about what life is like outside these privileged circles. Even from his London perspective, the owner of the London Evening Standard, Yevgeny Lebedev, said in an interview for The Guardian newspaper that if he were gay and lived in Russia, he would happily come out. Russia was not actually a homophobic country; he declared. ‘The problem in Russia is that homophobes are allowed to be part of the mainstream.’[19]

Things are similar with Anton Kraskovsky. As there is hardly any taboo in Russian media greater than Putin,[20]the renowned journalist (who was sacked from his pro-Kremlin news channel, Kontr TV, after revealing his homosexuality on air during a discussion about new anti-gay propaganda laws) might have been right thinking that his ‘coming out’ as such was not his biggest sin; it was more that he had declared that he was as much a human being as Putin.[21]Whatever the reason, what his remarks point us to is the level to which those moving among Moscow’s beau monde enjoy lifestyle choices people outside this bubble can only dream of. An average gay person elsewhere in Russia faces a very different reality and incomparably tougher restrictions. To be able to lead an unfettered and relaxed gay life in Russia, one needs to, first, move in the right, privileged circles; second, knowledge about one’s homosexuality must remain within their circles as anti-gay attacks are frequently used as a weapon against them.[22]

While Gleb sees young people’s acquaintanceship with Western gay culture as the catalyst that has brought about a change in attitudes among privileged young Russians, he rejects almost everything about this culture. He presents himself as someone who is not interested in making a political statement about gay activism or gay emancipation. Even though his own coming out was well publicised (something which Gleb knew how to achieve), he did not want to become a role model for others. The symbolism of gay activism is not to his liking. In his view, ‘real players in industry and business have a clear view. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Don’t demonstrate your peculiarities. What you believe in or who you have sex with is your private business.’

Gleb’s reluctance to identify with a collective gay culture is deeply anchored in Russian culture and history,[23]among homophobes and homosexuals alike. Paraphrasing Renata Salecl, his supposedly individual choices are hardly individual at all but are in fact highly influenced by the society in which he lives.[24]As such, gay Russians reproduce many of the attitudes of the homophobic mainstream. Generally, there is a perception of the LBGT movement being something truly Western, and attempts to establish such a movement in Russia have been regarded as invasive imports from the Western world.

Apart from his views on gay activism, Gleb also shares the widespread essentialist ideas on gender. For example, he believes that young children need their mothers more than anyone else, because women have a biologically hard-wired motherly instinct and because there are parenting skills that cannot be learned.[25]If Gleb had children, he told me, his nanny would without any question be female: ‘Only a Slavic woman. Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian or possibly also a woman from a small ethnic group, such as Komi or Mari; that’s also okay. Nobody knows more about a little child’s problems than a Slavic nanny.’ When the children grow older, ‘one can think about a nanny who speaks a foreign language.’ He did not specify what kind of father he would be, but it sounded as though he would be largely absent from the child-rearing chores.

In fact, despite Gleb’s traditional ideas about child rearing, in reality children are not on his agenda. Even for someone elitist, liberated and confident as Gleb, there are constraints imposed on his life choices:

I’d love to have children. Absolutely. But I must confess that many things are holding me back. Would my sexual orientation influence the choices of the child? Would I influence the child? Would I instil in him or her my view of the world? Would I destroy his or her life when he or she goes to school? I would be most worried about how hard and complicated the child’s life would be when he or she went to school because the father would not be like the absolute majority.

Despite the aggressively homophobic environment, there are some extremely confident upper-class gay men in Russia. The gay men among my interviewees have the confidence, power and leeway to organise their lifestyles as they wish. This is not the same for gay women. Lesbians have traditionally suffered less in Russian society, so long as they have not overtly expressed their sexuality and people could assume that their closeness was nothing more than tight female friendship. Dar’ya, 28, and Aleksandra, 24, both have female partners. For Aleksandra’s mother, her daughter’s intimate choices were incomprehensive and not at all welcome. She came to the conclusion that Aleksandra’s lesbianism was partly a result of her almost unlimited access to money. She could always invite other girls to lesbian clubs and pay for them. Both Dar’ya and Aleksandra keep their sexuality, which they do not define either as straight, bisexual or gay, very low key.[26]Both young women leave their options open. They say they may return to heterosexual relationships at some point. Both have strong desires to become mothers soon but not without having a proper father figure involved.


Choice as a cultural phenomenon is in a state of flux, along with cultural norms. These have been changing particularly rapidly in post-Soviet Russia, bringing together the most varied cultural influences. Increasingly segregated and with vast material opportunities, Russia’s rich form a very distinctive group. Their views are, as for Russian society as a whole, historically and culturally anchored and yet shaped very differently from those of the non-privileged social classes from whom they have consciously dissociated themselves.

Wide access to choice is most obvious in relation to gay identities. Presented as deproblematised and individualised, they are a statement ofclass and power. Money and status provide upper-class gays with the confidence and space to lead their lifestyles as they wish. Gleb does not encounter many of the problems which face the average gay person in Russia. Here, social class appears to override sexual identity, meaning that Gleb’s choices concerning how to live his sexuality are far less restricted than those of less privileged non-heterosexual men and women.

Among the more cosmopolitan children of the rich, choices are governed by additional influences, among them Western liberal ones, and, therefore, are in a state of flux. It remains to be seen whether, and if so, how quickly, the young generation of the rich is going to modify their ideas about homosexuality and, by doing so, allow for more alternative choices concerning gay lifestyles. Western education is likely to make them question some patriarchal norms—as in the case of Andrei with his taken-for-granted tolerance towards sexual and ethnic minorities, which clashes with the newly revived homophobia in Russia.

The fact that choice options are restricted by conservative, traditionalist paradigms reduces what would otherwise be a pronounced individualism in people of the upper class. This is particularly the case when it comes to questions of gendered upbringing; it was here where the men in my sample authoritatively expressed their strongest opinions. In many respects, upper-class Russians share their views on gender and their ideas about masculinities and femininities with Russians from other social classes. However, this does not stop choice options from being modified. Rich men’s wives have moved away from running beauty salons. To date, the most distinguished upper-class activities undertaken by privileged women are creative work or taking over tasks such as charity projects. The rise of charity has opened up a field that has been recognised as an ideal means to legitimise one’s membership of the upper class and, at the same time, retain as much femininity as possible.

In everyday social interactions, the option upper-class women take as a means of gaining power is to reverse traditional gender roles by adopting ‘male’ characteristics, often those typically ascribed to Alpha-type men. This can open up choice alternatives almost on a par with those of their male peers, both in their business activities and in their choice of sexual partners and husbands. Such moves destabilise gender expectations. Russian men tend to fear women in power positions, whether they arethe more ‘masculine’ types or the more ‘feminine.’ Thus, the registers of behavioural patterns which powerful upper-class women can choose from are in some respects more diverse than those on offer to upper-class men. One important reason for this is that the expectations regarding prospects for women tend to be lower than they are for men, whose range of choices can be limited by their roles as business leaders.

Difficult as it is to gain insight into the lives of the rich, we know about how they understand themselves and their biographical trajectories through revelations in interviews and autobiograpies. The narratives presented in such context are often of hyper-wealthy and powerful men whose success is grounded in the right decisions they have made and the hard work they have delivered. Most of their choice practices, however, are hidden from the public eye. This should not stop us from exploring the topic with whatever opportunities to access data we can find, especially at a unique period in history when the second generation of wealthy Russians is coming of age—the first generation of rich Russians who were never exposed to the Soviet culture of choice.


[1]Ori Schwarz, ‘Cultures of choice: towards a sociology of choice as a cultural phenomenon’, British Journal of Sociology, 2017.

[2]This group totalled 170,000 millionaires in 2013 and 92,000 in 2015 after the rouble devaluation against the dollar. Markus Stierli, Anthony Shorrocks, James Davies, Rodrogo Lluberas and Antonio Koutsoukis, Global Wealth Report 2015, Credit Suisse Research Institute, Zurich: Credit Suisse AG, 2015.

[3]See, for example, Ol’ga Kryshtanovskaia, Anatomiia Rossiiskoi Elity, Moskva:A.V., 2004.

[4]In my approach I was inspired by the French sociologist Daniel Bertaux who collected life histories to study social mobility in post-Soviet Russia. Daniel Bertaux and Paul Thompson (eds), Pathways to social class. A qualitative approach to social mobility,Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997; and Daniel Bertaux, Paul Thompson and Anna Rotkirch (eds), Living Through Soviet Russia, London: Routledge, 2004.

[5]Valery Sperling, Sex, Politics, and Putin. Political Legitimacy in Russia, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, p 4. See also Elena Rozhdestvenskaia, ‘Zarabotat’ Svoi Lichnyi Milliard’,, 20 October 2015, [accessed 15 November 2015].

[6]Alexei Yurchak, ‘Russian Neoliberal. The Entrepreneurial Ethic and the Spirit of “True Careerism”’, Russian Review,vol 62, no 1, 2003, pp 72-90.

[7]Kay, Rebecca, Men in Contemporary Russia. The Fallen Heroes of Post-Soviet Change?London: Ashgate, 2006, pp 2-6, pp 73-85.

[8]Peter Ulf Moller, 2001 ‘“Belles-lettres with a Touch of Filth”: On the Contemporary Reception of Leonid Andreev’s Stories, “The Abyss” and “In the Fog”’, in Linda Edmondson (ed.) Gender in Russian History and Culture,Basingstoke: Palgrave, p 94.

[9]Elena Zdravomyslova and Anna Temkina, ‘Gendered Citizenship in Soviet and Post- Soviet Societies,” in Vera Tolz and Stephanie Booth (eds) Nation and Gender in Contemporary Europe, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005, p 110.

[10]On the topic of marriage and class cohesion see G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? Power and Politics in the Year 2000, 3rd ed. London:Mayfield Publishing,2000, pp 96-9.

[11]Arnold Gehlen, Studien zur Anthropologie und Soziologie.Neuwied-Berlin: Luchterhand, 1963.

[12]Schwarz, ‘Cultures of choice’, 2017.

[13]Böhnisch, Tomke, Gattinnen. Die Frauen der Elite. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 1999.

[14]Yurchak, ‘Russian Neoliberal’.

[15]Valery Sperling lists very similar adjectives in ‘Putin’s Macho Personality Cult,’ Communist and Post-Communist Studies, vol 49, no 1, 2016, p. 15.

[16]Sperling, Sex, Politics, and Putin, p 9.

[17]Michele Rivkin-Fish, ‘Pronatalism, Gender Politics, and the Renewal of Family Support in Russia: Toward a Feminist Anthropology of “Maternity Capital”’, Slavic Review,vol 69, no 3, 2010, pp 701-724.

[18]Rumours which went round after a 2007 photo shoot of Putin with Prince Albert of Monaco that even Putin might be gay were apparently countered with a media campaign popularising his apparent girlfriend, the former Olympic champion Alina Kabaieva, he continues. See Matthias Shepp, ‘Author Claims Putin’s Pets His Best Friends’, Der Spiegel, 2 December 2013, [accessed on 5 January 2017].

[19]Decca Aitkenhead, ‘Evgeny Lebedev: ‘Russia is not a homophobic country’, The Guardian, 14 March 2014, [accessed on 14 January 2017].

[20]Elisabeth Schimpfossl and Ilya Yablokov, ‘Coercion or Conformism? Censorship and Self-censorship among Russian media personalities and Reporters in the 2010s’, Democratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratisation, vol 22, no 2, 2014, pp 295-312.

[21]Kseniia Sokolova, ‘Anton Krasovskii: Ia gei, ii a takoi zhe chelovek, kak president Putin’, Snob, 6 February 2013, [accessed on 14 January 2017].

[22]Sperling, Sex, Politics, and Putin, pp 16-7.

[23]Dan Healey, ‘The Disappearance of the Russian Queen, or How the Soviet Closet Was Born’ in Barbara E. Clements, Rebecca Friedman and Dan Healey (eds), Russian Masculinities in History and Culture,Basingstoke: Palgrave 2000, pp 152-171.

[24]Renata Salecl, Choice, London: Profile Books, 2010, p 13.

[25]Kay, Men in Contemporary Russia, p 156.

[26]This is a historically tried and tested mode of survival for lesbians in Russia. See Francesca Stella, Lesbian lives in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia: post/socialism and gendered sexualities, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

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Elisabeth Schimpfoessl

About Elisabeth Schimpfössl

My research focuses on elites, philanthropy and social inequality as well as questions around post-Socialist media and self-censorship. I did my PhD at the University of Manchester and taught at Liverpool University, Brunel and UCL before taking up my current post as Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University, Birmingham, UK. I live in London.