No Country for Old Men
Loneliness is not the only hard part of being a widow in Russia. by Aleksandr Kolesnichenko 11 July 2008
MOSCOW | During a biology lesson, Zoya Zhikhareva, a teacher in the town of Pushkino just outside Moscow, is discussing differences in men’s and women’s health. If you see elderly women sitting on the bench outside the entrance to your apartment house and no elderly men among them, she tells her students, it’s not because the men are busy doing something else. It’s because there are no old men at all.
Russian men have a notoriously low life expectancy; across the country they are dying significantly earlier than women. Although studies, conferences, even government programs, have been launched to deal with the problem, little attention has been paid to the often-bewildered women they leave behind.
And, as several recent interviews with psychotherapists and sex counselors suggest, those women face not only loneliness but also disapproval of the ways they find to cope.
Tamara Andreyeva is one of the relatively lucky ones. Her husband was killed in a drunken brawl when she was 36. At 45 she married a 52-year-old man and they have been together for 15 years.
There is no shortage of partners for Russian men who survive beyond their 50s. Russia is home to nearly 11.7 million widows, who make up about 8 percent of the country’s population. Photos by Tinou Bao.
"I never thought I could marry again. I hated men. My first husband bullied and beat me for 18 years,” Andreyeva said.
After he died, one day she called an electrician, who would become her second husband. “There was only one problem – my children didn’t like him at first. But they got used to it eventually because their mom was happy with him."
Said Andreyeva, "It’s hard to be alone. As children grow up, they have their own lives, and you’re left behind.”
The numbers show a generation of women left behind. Russia is home to nearly 11.7 million widows, who make up about 8 percent of the country’s population.
Less than a quarter of Russian women over 70 have a spouse, while the figure is 71 percent for men of the same age group. Over the age of 60, women outnumber men by nearly 2-to-1. The average life expectancy for Russian men is 60.4 years – although it is much lower in some places – and 73.2 for women.
That’s a 13-year gap between the sexes, compared with a gap of about six in the United States and European Union.
Most visitors to outpatient clinics and social security offices are elderly widows, for whom seeking medical treatment or social benefits has become a way of life. Men’s wages are typically one and a half times those of women in Russia, so widows often see a steep decline in their incomes upon their husbands’ deaths.
"In fact, the entire social security system is working for these widows. It’s already stretched to the breaking point," said Igor Beloborodov, director of the Demographic Studies Institute.
Even young men die in disproportionate numbers. About 17 percent of Russian men who are 25 today will die before they reach 45. Most work in hazardous jobs, abuse alcohol, or engage in criminal activity.
"A modern Russian woman has a great chance of outliving not only her husband, but also her son," Beloborodov said.
Women over 40 have a slim chance of getting married, whereas over 60 it’s almost impossible, says Dilya Yenikeyeva, co-chairwoman of the Russian Association of Sexologists.
That’s a truth that Tamara Stipnik, a 73-year-old Moscow widow, knows only too well. She says she does not hope to find a new life partner. "I’m no longer part of society. My life is basically over."
Her daughter, Irina Petrenko, 52, lost her husband seven years ago. She has remained single by choice. “I had options but I didn’t try [to remarry]. I don’t need to boost my self-esteem or prove that I’m desirable," Petrenko said.
Many Russian widows simply don’t look for a new husband, sometimes out of a sense of fidelity to their deceased husbands.
Russia can be a lonely country for older women. The average life expectancy for Russian men is 60.4 years – although it is much lower in some places – and 73.2 for women. Photo by Andrey Maximov.
"Women with traditional patterns of behavior don’t usually try to marry again. It’s not customary in Russia," Beloborodov said.
But those who do look, Yenikeyeva said, are often too picky or too self-conscious.
"No one wants to marry a poor man, a wreck, or an impotent. Everyone wants a smart, educated, well-off, self-actualized, and sexually fit man without bad habits. In addition, the partner must put up with all her personal quirks and get along with her children.
"Many women over 45 avoid sex because of diseases,” she continued. “Others are embarrassed to undress because they’re in poor shape, ashamed of saggy breasts, a spare tire around the waist, or cottage-cheese thighs. That’s why women limit their relationship to communication and theatergoing [but] a healthy man takes no interest in companionship without sex."
Since the cost of housing often forces extended families to live together, many widows are able to devote more of their energy to their children or grandchildren. But the experts spot a problem even here.
“While hugging and kissing her grandchildren, a woman gives them affection that should be given to a man. This is bad for the woman because she can’t have sex with her grandchildren, and this is bad for the grandchildren because they may have problems in relations with the opposite sex after being petted by an adult woman," said Mikhail Litvak, a former chief sexual psychotherapist for the Rostov region in southern Russia.
Litvak offers this advice to widows: mourn the loss of your husband for a month or six weeks and then continue with your daily life even more energetically. He advises against making any quick life changes but says women should not turn down chances.
Yenikeyeva often urges older widows to take control of their situation. A quarter of older marriages are arranged through dating services, she said, arguing that older women cannot afford to be shy abut placing ads in newspapers or website. The popular Russian dating site www.damochka.ru has as many as 1,600 such ads posted by women over 50.
Unlike the ads from younger women, who sometimes openly admit to seeking a sugar daddy, middle-aged women often say they need not financial support but rather companionship, marriage, or a travel partner.
Others cope by finding comfort with other women’s younger husbands. Yenikeyeva said her grandmother became a widow at the age of 73. A few months later she married a 47-year-old man who left a wife 30 years younger than she. They lived together for 20 years before Yenikeyeva's grandmother died; he died one year later.
Money is not always the motive behind such match-ups, Yenikeyeva said. "Many young men want to make love to older women, not because they are gerontophiles, but out of curiosity. Women can have an orgasm throughout their life. They can continue to enjoy a happy and satisfying sex life after menopause."