A strange thing happened in late June, when the big Russian Internal Ministry bosses disclosed their earnings and those of their family members, thanks to President Dmitry Medvedev's new anti-corruption measures. The surprise didn't come from the men: The head-honcho cops were the fat cats everyone assumed them to be, declaring incomes that strangely exceeded that of the president. And the ranks of the obscure upper-middle management fittingly declared modest incomes, usually topping at out around $50,000. A Russian-made car here, a modest apartment there.
But the wifely half of the family disclosures was far more revelatory. There was, for example, the amazing financial statement of the spouse of Viktor Smirnov, the deputy director of the Russian Internal Ministry's Center to Ensure Operation Performance to Combat Extremism. In 2009, a year in which the Russian economy struggled to get back on its feet after the financial crisis turned it virtually inside-out, Mrs. Smirnov made $500,000. She also owns two plots of land, each about 40 acres. She has shares in two apartments as well as in a housing complex, plus a Subaru Outback, an industrial truck, and a BMW 3-Series, which can retail for over $60,000. What does Mr. Smirnov own? One-quarter of one apartment.
Others wives flourished, too, like the Chechen one who owns 10 hectares of land, two apartments, a summer cottage, a pig farm, two cattle barns, and one slaughterhouse. Her husband, the deputy head of the Chechen Internal Ministry, owns exactly one trundly Russian-made hatchback.
What's happening here is, of course, quite clear: corruption, pure and simple—the very sort Medvedev is making a show of rooting out by requiring his employees to declare their incomes. If, in a superficial stab at transparency, you are forced to disclose your assets, how do you, as a government employee making a pittance, conceal all the "left"—or dirty—money you made by using your uniform to squeeze it out of people? Register it in the wife's name. The wives aren't limited in their salaries the way the men are. So technically, they can have all the goodies that come from the extortion or embezzlement of their husbands.
But while using your wife as an offshore bank account is a simple—and universal—trick to slick your way through disclosure on a loophole, there are also broader consequences for millions of Russian working women. Most of them are not the wives of crooked cops or officials who use their government positions to loot the Russian state. Most of them, in fact, are the sole bread-winners in their families, despite the country's macho fantasies of itself. Most Russian women still work and, with male life expectancy at 62, provide much of the household income into their senior citizenship. Their struggles are nowhere reflected in the mirror held up by Mrs. Smirnov. And yet she's the cultural icon they're stuck with.
According to a poll conducted after the disclosures, no one is falling for the spousal Internal Ministry accounting trick. Asked "Why do you think that many wives of high-ranking civil servants have incomes that exceed their husbands' by several factors?" a full 84 percent of Russians responded that it was because "the resources of power"—connections, access, etc.—of these civil servants "is used by members of their family to conduct private business and increase the family income." In a country so rife with corruption that Transparency International ranked it on par with Zimbabwe, Russians are surely right not to buy the fictions of the high-rolling wives of modest civil servants.
To understand the way that corruption has undercut professional Russian women, one must understand a radical shift of the last 20 years. Many of the Internal Ministry wives grew up in the Soviet system and can remember when there were few housewives supported by their husbands' earnings. In those days, the Soviet woman was supposed to shed the shackles of labor division based on bourgeois notions of gender, to be a "mother-comrade." She was expected to go to college, have a career, bear and rear children, and, oh yes, also keep house. Granted, this did not stamp out the strong paternalistic strains in Russian culture, nor did all women do this with joy (many complained that it took away their femininity), but it gave the country several generations of female scientists, doctors, lawyers, and engineers. (Two of my great-grandmothers, for example, were physicians; one was a professor of chemistry. They were all superb cooks.)
Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, followed immediately by the sudden onset of no-holds-barred capitalism. It came as a huge psychological shock. Money seemed to fall out of the sky—or off the carcass of the collapsed state. Making money in the lawless, gangland 1990s became a mostly male sphere. As their husbands' wealth ballooned, many wives—even the doctors and the professors among them—decided they'd rather stay at home than work long hours for tiny Soviet-era salaries. Eventually, the goal for many women became to find a man, any man, to support you instead of working. Naturally, the old paternalism blossomed under this old-fashioned arrangement, especially since most men and most women came to agree that the man was supposed to be not only the family bread-winner, but also the uncontested family boss.
Enter Elena Baturina, a plain, tow-headed bureaucrat in the Moscow city government in the 1980s. She worked for a man named Yuri Luzhkov, a big gun on the Moscow city council. By the post-Soviet mid-1990s, Luzhkov became mayor, and he ruled the city like a latter-day Boss Tweed. Baturina, 27 years his junior, became his wife. As Luzhkov developed and oversaw the extremely corrupt process of privatizing Moscow property, most of which had belonged to the Soviet state, Baturina simultaneously amassed a fortune in Moscow real estate. Did she make this money because she had inside information and access through her husband? Was she stashing the cut Luzhkov pocketed from the buyer? It was unclear, and Luzhkov and Baturina sued anyone who tried to find out—and won every single time.
When Luzhkov finally disclosed his earnings for 2009, he revealed that Baturina brought home more than $200 million—1,100 times more than her husband the mayor made. And that was just the cash. Baturina is, by far, Russia's richest woman—its only female billionaire—as well as its biggest farce. She is the lens through which the recent Interior Ministry disclosures were derisively viewed. She has become the embodiment of the rich, corrupt woman, whose husband's fortune is registered under her name.
The problem for other Russian women is that with the image of the mother-comrade gone, these two images have replaced it: The corrupt businesswoman a la Baturina, or the lux dame who expresses her femininity by not working. Both are entirely reliant on their husbands' support. Neither is a selling point for women more generally. Or a role model.