Make Your Own Borscht! On The Still-Too-Slow Liberation Of Russian Women

In some ways there's been great progress in a woman's ability to control her destiny in Russian society. But in other ways, it's actually even worse than during the Soviet era.

Better off alone?
Better off alone?
Nadezhda Petrova

MOSCOW - What do Russian women want?

There has been much worried talk in recent years about the declining number of woman who want to get married. In 2009, unmarried women in Russia were less likely than men to say they wanted to get married. And yet by 2012, that had already been reversed, with women once again more likely than men to want to tie the knot. Combined with other demographic factors, that has brought marriage rates back to the same levels they were in 1990.

Still, there are many factors that determine women's decisions about marriage, but it is certainly more complicated than just romance.

Most women don’t look at a man’s wallet at the beginning of the relationship. They just “want to meet a man, who will allow them to be a woman and not worry about tomorrow,” said Yulia Gryisunova, from the dating service Wamba. “Almost all of the women write that they want to find a man with whom they can build a strong relationship. It is extremely rare for women to talk about incomes.”

But it’s hard not to worry about tomorrow if you don’t have money. According to the dating site eDarling.ru, which is marketed as a place to look for a serious relationship, the income of a potential partner is "very important" to 27% of women, but only 3% of men.

In contrast, men’s willingness to help with household chores was much less important. “If you look at the studies, it’s clear that expectations regarding future spouses are still very traditional,” remarked Olga Zdravomyislova, a sociologist.

The Sorting Hat

Income is something that can change, often for the better. Unmarried men who are living with a woman earn more than bachelors, while married men earn even more. According to the economist Andrei Aistov, only half of that phenomenon can be explained by women’s choices.

A study of long-term economic situations of men between 1994 and 2011 shows that there tended to be a significant increase in men’s income about four years before marriage and two years before living with a partner. Incomes tended to decrease after divorce, but didn’t drop to the levels of a bachelor’s income. That means that not only do women tend to pick men with higher incomes, but also that being married causes incomes to increase.

“On average, in Russia you see both effects, of about the same magnitude,” Aistov said.

If a man has a low income and is living with a woman, it is likely that he won’t make the step to marriage. “Men who earn very little or don’t have regular work aren’t very attractive partners for a marriage. Women will sometimes live with men like that for years, have their children, but never marry them. In focus groups, some women have told me, ‘I’m not his wife, I am not obligated to make him borscht. I can look around. If something better comes my way, I’m not tied to anything,” said Olga Isupova, a demographer.

According to Isupova, the society’s expectations are built on the model of women fighting for the successful man. As a result, she says, too much is still left on the woman’s shoulders. If a man cooks or takes care of children, it is only because of his good will -- not because society expects him to.

"I can look around..." - Photo: Uncalno Tekno

Labor dynamics

It’s possible that women value marriage so much because they value themselves so little. Women earn on average 36% less than men (compared to 15.5% in the European Union). Woman are less confident in the labor market.

“Women have always been in lower demand in the labor market than men,” explained Valeria Chernetsova, an analyst from the job portal superjobs.ru. Specifying the gender in job requirements only became illegal on June 1, and among the job postings that did so, two-thirds wanted a man -- and for managment positions and high-paying jobs, the ratios were even worse.

“There are many more factors now that, from an economic point of view, don’t favor conservative families," says Isupova. "And women who earn money are always tempting.”

Zdravomyislova notes that many women are prepared to get married not because of social norms, but because they fear poverty. “There is still an idea, although it is an illusion, that marriage guarantees economic stability," she says.

But surveys show that this illusion is also slowly evaporating: fewer and fewer women believe that their husbands will be able to provide for the family, or hope to be housewives. Especially among the younger generation, there is a rising fear that the man simply won’t be able to bring home the bacon.


In all of this, men don’t seem to be suffering much. In surveys, they seem to rate their relationship satisfaction higher than women do in almost all categories. Women, on the other hand, are happy with their sexual relationships with their husbands and their husbands’ looks, but on average give their husband only average marks for ability to provide for the family.

“In the 1990s, we did several studies that compared marriage satisfaction in Russia to six European countries, and Russian women were always the least satisfied,” Zdravomyislova said. “Now marriage satisfaction is even lower. Sometimes they even say that they feel like single mothers because all the responsibilities are dumped on the woman, and she can never relax even for a minute.”

In Moscow - Photo: Geraint Rowland

Zdravomyislova said this is worse than Soviet times, when all families could at least benefit from some social services, like free daycare, which also made it easier for women to work.

Currently, only about 7% of families can truly afford for the wife to stay home. “There is this idealistic notion for the family, but if nobody does anything to solve the problems that it may cause, then many young women will simply refuse to get married or have children. Because they know they can’t handle it.”

It’s a totally realistic scenario. Isupova says that if you look at birth rates in developed countries, it is usually the lowest in countries that have more traditional expectations for women, like Germany, Japan and Greece. In places like Scandinavia, where there is more gender equality, the birth rate is higher. “If a woman is going to turn into a servant if she has a family, then she will just refuse to have a family," says Isupova. "Not many people are really interested in a ‘traditional’ family anymore.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!