RUSSIA TODAY II
Perhaps the most striking difference between Russia and America is in clothing. Not that the clothing is that different—the entire world buys Chinese goods nowadays—but the way it is worn. Perhaps it is Hollywood=s influence. Americans allow Hollywood to provide a fantasy, but the rest of the world assumes that this fantasy is reality. At least that is what seems to be the case in large Russian cities.
We often say that less is more, but the reality in Russia is that less is less. Really less. There are variety of body types in Russia, but everyone instantly recognizes that the very tall, very slim, very attractive blonde is more common there than elsewhere. And, moreover, that these very tall, very slim women are stylishly dressed.
This is not to say tastefully. Short shorts are very short, especially in the back. They are cut high. How high? Pretty close to as high as short shorts come down from the waist in America. How tight in the crotch? If the wearers of these shorts were to bend over, if they would be in danger of cutting themselves in two.
High heels, too, are very high. Considering the uneven state of many sidewalks and crossing, this should make high style a high insurance risk. Dark glasses and a self-confident manner complete the outfit. Grandmothers cluck, but who listens to grandmothers?
Very petite, very small, dark haired girls dress more conservatively. Perhaps there=s not much point to having your cheeks bulging out of your shorts at a male=s knee level, but more likely it is an awareness of what works for them. Substance and tradition, not flashiness. Perhaps they read Tolstoi. Of course, the blondes may have read Tolstoi, too—the blondes there got their men and didn=t end up tragically.
Most women, of course, don=t fit these stereotypes. Many work, and they work hard. It=s hard to look good when doing physical labor, eating too many potatoes, and not earning enough money for anything beyond work clothes. As for the hair-dresser, that=s for the emerging middle class, which is still tiny by American standards.
Russian men are more or less like Americans. Businessmen wear suits, laborers wear uniforms, and students look the same everywhere. Nothing to make one turn his head, at least not mine. Russian men don=t live long. The average is sixty, and many men at sixty look old. Too much vodka and cigarettes.
This gives us an unusual sex ratio. Old women vastly outnumber old men, and those who endured the hardships of the Great Patriotic War (WWII) look ancient enough to have participated in driving out Napoleon. Their clothing is generally shabby, and usually black. They stand on the sidewalk, hands out. Passing citizens, knowing that retirement benefits are totally inadequate, slip them a ruble or two. Ten rubles (30 cents) are rewarded with gushing blessings.
Old men don=t beg, but veterans missing legs or hands sit in their wheelchairs, wearing ratty uniforms, and stolidly accept contributions.
Traditional costumes are found wherever foreign tourists gather—in fancy restaurants, at palaces, and whenever singing is involved. Russians sing a lot. Down in the south, in Cossack territory, every Russian who sings seems to become a Cossack. I don=t know when Political Correctness will set in and the Cossacks begin demanding that outsiders stop singing their songs and wearing their garb, but most likely it won=t have much effect. Hollywood has not only created an image of a world culture, but also the idea that if something appeals to you, you borrow it.
William Urban, Lee L. Morgan Professor at Monmouth College, spent three weeks in Russia this summer on a Global Partners program sponsored by the Mellon Foundation.