Perhaps hosting the World Cup will not have the effect on the Russian citizenry as Putin intended.
Russian women may be learning that their men do not have to act hyper-macho, they can actually bathe, deodorant should not be optional, women can be treated with respect, and a toothbrush and toothpaste is not just for Saturday nights. Oh, and a man can be able to dance and that is considered… very sexy.
Notice a Russian man’s response. Says Ivan, a 24-year-old fitness trainer, referring to the Russian women meeting Westerners, “They’ll swim with the dolphins for a bit, but then the dolphins will swim away, and they’ll come crying back to us.”
Oh, Ivan, those Russian women are going to be spoiled by men acting, dressing, behaving, and bathing by Western standards. Maybe you could learn a thing or two.
‘They have a new category of men to compare to … Beautiful men who are happy to have sex with condoms, who act gallantly without accusing them of being slutty. It’s a whole new universe’
It is barely afternoon, but the carnival has already arrived on Moscow’s Nikolskaya Street.
At every skip along the central drag – the World Cup’s unofficial fan HQ – foreign visitors are contorting their materials and limbs energetically. Barechested Colombians dance salsa. Bicepped Brazilians, still giddy at the early exit of rivals Argentina, dance forro with anyone willing. Boozed-up Englishmen are gyrating around plastic pint glasses.
One woman of about 25, with a Russian flag painted onto her face, is filming the otherworldly events on a camera phone. “Tanya, it’s inc-red-i-ble,” she says to her friend. “They’re so fluid. So sensual.”
Thirty seconds of staring later, the woman is noticed by one of the Brazilians. He comes over, smiles for a selfie, before departing.
For the two weeks of the World Cup, Russian cities have been awash with men and women from the competing 32 nations and beyond. And if the feedback on Nikolskaya Street and social media is anything to go, the locals seem to like what they have seen. Many of them have posted video stories of early summer romances with foreigners.
According to Daria, a blonde woman of 23 – she declined to give her surname – the foreign men are like day to the local night: “They are more beautiful and look after themselves better. It’s enough that the men don’t smell of sweat, and that they know what aftershave is.”
It may not be a sexual revolution, says Maria Arzamasova, author of the country’s most popular sex blog, Masha, come on! But it has raised the “iron curtain of Russian sexuality” a little, she adds.
“They have a new category of men to compare to,” she says. “Beautiful men who are happy to have sex with condoms, who act gallantly without accusing them of being slutty. It’s a whole new universe.”
The suggestion that Russian men might not be up to the competition has been met with a furious response by patriotic media.
One leader article in Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s most popular tabloid, was titled “Generation of whores”. Meanwhile, a programme on Tsargrad, the ultranationalist Orthodox Christian TV channel, blamed “liberal media” for “promoting the most extreme forms of feminism”. Their website ran a long article, citing a dozen foreign women who praised the “authenticity” of the Russian male.
And the men themselves are angry. Ivan, a 24-year-old fitness trainer, told The Independent about local women’s interactions with foreigners: “They’ll swim with the dolphins for a bit, but then the dolphins will swim away, and they’ll come crying back to us.”
Some men have taken to writing in an “ironic” group set up on the leading Russian social network. The patriarchal views there are unmistakable. Its users pour scorn on the “whores” and “prostitutes” who are “ruining the country’s gene pool” and “pouring shame on the country” – Usually written with poor grammar.
Official discourse has not been far behind. Before the start of the World Cup, Tamara Pletnyova, the deputy chairman of a parliamentary committee, urged Russian women not to have sex with foreigners. Mixed-race children were a bad thing, she said: “Russians should raise Russian children.”
The comment was reminiscent of instructions given out before the 1980 Olympics about who Soviet women should and should not go out with – Westerners were no-go, but those from socialist countries were OK.
Pletnyova’s views probably did not represent the views of the authorities, says Marianna Murayeva, a sociologist at the Higher School of Economics. But they did speak to “neo-Soviet thinking” that is widespread in government.
Murayeva describes the state’s approach as a “male discourse of protectionism” which sees Russian women as “resources” that need be defended. “It is an attempt to control women’s bodies, however absurd that is in the present age. And it is always young women, by the way. No one is bothered if you are above 35 – then you are free as far as the state is concerned.”
Russians have a complicated relationship with sex and sexuality in general. In many of the larger cities, and among educated classes, a liberal attitude prevails. Abortion and casual relationships, if not quite promoted, are certainly not frowned upon.
But while Russia’s conservative forces have not quite yet managed to enter the bedroom, they have made inroads elsewhere. Many “immoral” websites are now banned, for example.
In smaller towns and cities, meanwhile, “traditional values” – read a patriarchal agenda – dominate the offline world too.
The arrival of visibly different values may make a difference, says Arzamasova. “Women can now see that it’s OK to want love, sex, romance, and the company of beautiful men who do not denigrate them,” she explains.
“Now it is the time for Russian men to step up to the competition.”