One evening in Moscow, Tanya (not her real name) found herself at a dinner table with a group of friends, most of them married couples. One of the men started to tell a story about the coda to a recent guys' night out. He'd stumbled home the next morning to his wife and two children—a 2-year-old and an infant—to find that he'd forgotten his underwear. Everyone at the dinner table, including the man's wife, laughed at the story: the hijinks!
Wandering spouses have become a common trope for the women of Moscow. "Men's environment here pushes them towards cheating," Tanya told me, adding that, these days, a boys' night out in Russia often involves prostitutes. Tanya and her friends are young, educated, upper-middle-class Muscovites, but talk to any woman in Moscow, and, regardless of age, education, or income level, she'll have a story of anything from petty infidelity to a parallel family that has existed for decades. Infidelity in Moscow has become "a way of life," as another friend of mine put it—accepted and even expected.
This is quite a shift, given that 20 years ago an affair was considered a career-wrecking scandal. But by 1998, a study showed that Russian men and women led their peers in 24 other countries in their willingness to engage in and approve of extramarital affairs. Since then, these attitudes have taken hold more deeply after a prolonged consumer boom that encourages Russians to indulge their whims and desires. What does this culture of infidelity look like, and what are the costs?
Any explanation begins with a basic cultural difference. When Christianity arrived here, in the 10th century, it landed in a peasant, agrarian culture that treated sex as a natural barnyard phenomenon. Russia's expanse was notoriously hard for the already disorganized church to govern, and so, when it came to sex, a sort of dichotomy of word and deed persisted well into the 19th century, more than in the West. Then came the Bolshevik Revolution, which rooted out the church and replaced it with a prudish, asexual model for behavior. Sex, once viewed as natural if vaguely sinful, ceased to exist altogether: "There is no sex in the Soviet Union," the saying went. Parents stopped having the birds-and-bees talk with their children, and men could be dragged in front of their local Party Committee or labor union and made to suffer professionally for infidelity.
But this was not a deeply entrenched new morality; it was a code of behavior that did not convincingly explain itself. Communist ideology—a political and economic view of the world—was not a good stand-in either. Why was sex a taboo topic for socialist citizens? Why was cheating on your wife amoral if Communism rejected traditional bourgeois norms? The Soviets answered only with prohibitions and contradictory rhetoric. Outwardly, the prudishness held into the late Soviet era: Sex remained a shameful, tasteless topic, and it was impossible for girls to buy condoms in stores. (This was when abortion was the most common form of birth control.) At the same time, studies showed that Soviets were having sex earlier, getting married later, and doing all the other things their Western, sexually liberated counterparts were doing, but without the debate to make sense of it. It was, once again, a new set of behaviors devoid of moral explanation.
This was the perfectly explosive mix that greeted the overnight arrival of market capitalism and the oil boom of the last decade. Suddenly, there was no one to forbid anything or to admonish anyone. Everything that could be had, was; one needed only the will to acquire it. All of this has thrown Moscow into a consumer-driven hedonism that would make an American mall rat blush. Everything is available and everything is for sale. Sex is just another pleasure product, like a bottle of Moet. A recent Russian movie, What Men Talk About, featured four middle-age men on a road trip discussing the burdens of married life and the pleasures—the necessity, even—of infidelity. "Why can't she understand that sex with my beloved, and sex with some other woman are two completely different activities," one of the men says, comparing the latter to sneaking baloney from the fridge in the middle of the night. The film was, of course, a hit.