So as I was telling you yesterday, once the planned economy of the USSR collapsed, the Soviet men collectively gave up and, in a way reminiscent of Faulknerian women, refused to accept the new reality. Of course, there was also a bandit class that serviced the needs of the apparatchik class but those had always existed and were fine with the changes that they had engineered themselves.
There were exceptions – my Dad, N.’s Dad – men who left their non-paying Soviet jobs, started their own businesses, and enjoyed making money. They were very exceptional, however. All of my friends’ fathers, men you would call “educated professionals”, refused even to try to feed themselves, let alone their families. The need to look for a job, offer their services, go to job interviews was something they perceived as profoundly humiliating.
Most families survived thanks to the women. There were isolated cases where women were as infantilized as men, and then the entire family either had to find somebody else to feed them or would get pauperized. For instance, my schoolmate’s parents both decided to check out and sit vapidly on the couch all day long. The entire family of 7 had to be fed by the elderly grandpa, a World War II veteran who was less beaten down than his 35-year-old son and who started a business of his own to put food on the table. Today, the grandpa is dead but the son is still refusing to work. Fortunately for him, this is now the problem of the government of Canada where the family resides.
I’m not sure whether I need to point out that unemployment benefits did not exist, and the men who checked out of active employment brought no income whatsoever. This would not even be the worst thing, though. What was really intolerable was that they didn’t just sit on their couches quietly, waiting peacefully to be fed and clothed. No, they made sure that everybody else in the family suffered as much as possible. Their greatest resentment was reserved for those who actually worked and supported them.
The way this would look, most often, is that the wife would come home from her three jobs and proceed to do the household chores (we are not a culture where men are capable even of boiling some water for their own tea). In the meanwhile, the man, who spent all day long sighing in front of the TV (we are not a culture where men do any child care), would start to scold, nag and pester her with things like, “Ah, so now you are too important to spend any time with your family,” “All you care about is money,” “What kind of a horrible mother would leave her kids to run around God knows where all day long?”, “The house is a pig-sty, and you are not even around to do any cleaning.”
Another classmate of mine had a Dad who guilt-tripped not only the poor overworked wife but even the kids. I once saw him stand over his own 7-year-old daughter as she tried to eat, berating her in a monotonous voice for eating too much and being a huge drain on the family finances. The man’s explanation for not working was that he was too sensitive, intellectual and spiritual to waste his energies on the evil capitalist market. The elder daughter had to start working at the age of 14, helping her mother haul huge sacks of canned good the women were peddling at the black market. And in the same monotonous voice, Daddy would scold the daughter for spending too little time on her homework.
These were not all middle-aged men. My first husband perceived the need to look for a job as impossibly traumatic even though he was in his early (and then mid, and then late) twenties. Gradually, he slipped into all of the nagging, guilt-tripping, showily depressive behaviors of the older post-Soviet men.
This was a phenomenon that knew no generational, ethnic, or class boundaries. The men in question were striking against the need to be adult men. The role they claimed for themselves was that of children, and they would feel resentment towards the wives who wouldn’t recognize their status as babies and their own children who’d claim the role of babies for themselves.