Victoria Gamburg was born in St. Petersburg but grew up in the United States. She has made a number of films about Russia from her own cross-cultural perspective. Here she talks with FRONTLINE/World Associate Producer Marjorie McAfee about the changing roles of women and men in Russian society, and how a provocative TV show about single women in Moscow reflects life in Russia today. This interview took place in December 2006.
Q: Marjorie McAfee: You were born in Russia but grew up in the United States. What do you still value about your Russian heritage?
A: Victoria Gamburg: I was born in St. Petersburg but left the country with my parents when I was 2 years old. Though I grew up almost entirely in the United States, a big part of me still feels Russian, and I like to speak Russian whenever I get the opportunity. My parents were theater directors in St. Petersburg and raised me to appreciate Russian culture, which is very rich. I'm still a big fan of Russian music and literature, and I love Russian film. One of my favorite film directors, Alexander Sokurov, is from St. Petersburg. Russian culture is more than a thousand years old, so there is much to appreciate!
Q: What is the history of women's lib (or lack thereof) in Russia?
A: There's no women's lib movement analogous to the U. S. women's lib movement. Women in Russia often react against feminism; it's negative for them because they see it as some kind of strange ideology that masculinizes women. The Bolshevik Revolution celebrated the cult of the worker, which included women. Work didn't free women; they still had the burden in the home on top of their work. They were used as men: they were coal miners; they built roads; and during the war when there was a shortage of oxen, they were even used to plow fields. Women were never denied privileges to work in the Soviet Union; people who didn't want to work were sent to the Gulags.
Q: So there aren't a lot of women homemakers in Russia today?
A: Most women can't afford to be homemakers. Women in Russia are doubly burdened - they have to work and still fill traditional roles. In American culture, because of the women's movement, men have become more sensitive to women's needs. For example, my younger brother is a college student and his wife works full-time, so he does all the cooking and cleaning to help his wife. And he doesn't consider it emasculating. I think it would be rare to find that scenario in Russia. There, she would have to work and run home to cook his meals and wash his clothes. It's still a traditional society, where men don't help around the house and aren't expected to.
Q: How have stereotypes of Russian women changed over the past century?
A: They've changed dramatically. Fifty years ago, the image of Russian women celebrated by the Soviet state was the heroine mother-worker. If you look at Soviet Socialist realist sculptures, you see women with muscular arms holding sheaths of wheat or a hammer and sickle while also suckling an infant. That stereotype was beneficial to the Soviet state. Now the Soviet Union is gone, and a new stereotype of the hyper feminine woman has emerged.
Q: Do they just care more about their appearance now, or is it that they can care more?
A: Both. If they have the money, Russian women can now buy the same things that Western women can, and they do. They spend a greater portion of their income on clothing and makeup than many women in the West. This is also because salaries are still comparatively lower in Russia, while the price of consumer goods is the same as in the West. They see looking good as a social necessity. In job advertisements in Russia, you'll find help wanted ads that say, "Must be young and pretty."It also has to do with status. Russian women tend to love glamour. And for so many years, Russian women had been deprived of consumer goods.
Q: Who holds the power in Russia now?
A: Men, in both business and family. In the professional world, men are in charge at the top levels. In politics, for sure, there are very few women. When it comes to family life, there are no special laws on the books that protect women in a divorce. People never had any property to divide in the past, so there are no laws that protect women or guarantee child support. But there are subtleties involved. Russia would definitely fall apart without its women because, as Zheniya, one of the characters in the film, says, "They are a shoulder you can lean on." Women are primarily responsible for the well-being of the family. What's happening now in Moscow is that women have adapted better to the middle ranks of the new economy. Advertising, marketing, product design, fashion design -- these industries didn't exist 15 years ago. A lot of those entry- and mid-level jobs are not that well paid; they require interacting with people, and they require a presentation style. Women are often hired over men for these jobs.
Q: Zhana, one of the actresses in the TV show, has two sons. How is she raising them?
A: I think Russian women are trying to teach their sons more sensitivity, but it's also hard when men don't play an active role in their children's lives. Men tend to be much less present. You'll rarely find a divorce situation in Russia where there's joint custody. If children see their fathers infrequently, they assume that it's the mother's job to take care of everything.
Q: We see that situation in America -- the classic single mother. But many men in America who were the sons of single mothers grew up wanting to relieve women of those burdens, to be better fathers than their fathers were.
A: Russian culture isn't set up that way. Women don't expect men to be there. When Maxim, the writer of the show, and his wife had their daughter, his wife decided to go back to work after a few weeks, and he stayed at home with the baby. When he would take the baby to doctors' appointments or on other errands, he said he would get dirty looks from mothers. He felt unwelcomed by them. He told me that, as a man who takes an active role in fatherhood, he feels devalued. When he goes to his daughter's school and gives a suggestion, he's treated by the mothers like he doesn't know what he's talking about. The view is that because he's a man, he has no authority in child rearing. So even if a man wants to go to PTA meetings or be a stay-at-home dad, these things aren't encouraged by Russian women.
Q: Do you identify with the women of the TV show?
A: In Russia, the show is called Balzac Age, with the tagline "All Men Are Bastards." I'm not a product of Russian society, and my attitudes about a lot of things are different. Unlike the women in the show, I feel that it's OK to be a single woman of any age. There's a scene in the show where one of the characters is upset about being 35 and single because she fears a miserable and poverty-stricken old age. I can't say I share these sentiments.
Q: Does Balzac Age reflect modern-day Russia?
A: Balzac Age is really only about Moscow because people don't live like that outside of Moscow. There are fewer opportunities outside of big cities, and salaries tend to be much lower. Many Russians still live in poverty. Additionally, the older a woman gets, the harder it is to find a partner. Russia has one of the lowest male life expectancies in the industrialized world - just 56 years, the same as in Bangladesh. So as women get older, there are fewer men to choose from. And they become pickier, more discriminating, as a byproduct of age and wisdom.
Q: What does "Balzac Age" mean? Has the connotation changed?
A: It's a flowery way of saying "old maid" or "a woman of a certain age." It comes from the Honoré de Balzac novella, A Woman of Thirty. In Russia, the term means a woman over the age of 30. The perception of the term is changing in Russia. Thirty isn't so old now in Moscow. But there's no pride in the term. It's a way of saying your freshness date has expired; you've entered your twilight years.
Q: What does this story mean to you?
A: Making the film was a lot of fun. It was interesting for me to live in Moscow for the duration of the shooting. I hadn't spent that much time in Moscow since the early '90s, and I was amazed by the changes. Last time I lived in Moscow, tanks were rolling down Leninski Prospect, and there were snipers in the streets. It is a totally different world today.
Q: The cast members of the American version of Sex and the City lived their lives under a microscope. What's it like for the stars of the Russian show?
A: The Russian actresses are subject to the same kinds of media attention as their American counterparts. They are always in the tabloids and the fashion magazines; they're huge stars in Russia, and people want to know every detail of their personal lives. Zhana invited me to her birthday party, and there was a paparazzi photographer there; the photos ended up in a magazine the next week. Despite their fame, the actresses were accessible, especially Zhana. I spent a lot of time with her and found her unaffected by fame.
Q: How does Balzac Age compare with other Russian television productions?
A: In one episode, the Russian Special Forces were in a scene, and they were the actual Russian Special Forces. They used real guns and wore real uniforms. These soldiers had probably killed people before. Apparently, they don't make enough money in the Special Forces, so these guys were moonlighting as soap opera actors. They weren't allowed to show their faces so they wore masks the whole time. Compared to the U. S. Sex and the City, the budget is miniscule. But compared to other Russian TV shows, the budget is rather large. Partly, it's because the actresses are such big stars, so a large portion of the budget goes to paying their salaries.
Q: Are there many soap operas in Russia?
A: Just a few years ago, Russia was importing mostly Mexican and Brazilian soap operas as well as American TV shows. But now they have a lot more original programming. The Mexican soap operas have fallen out of favor, and Russians are much more interested in domestic productions. The novelty of foreign TV has worn off; people want to see their own lives reflected in their media. Balzac Age has higher ratings than Sex and the City did when it aired in Russia.
Q: What have you heard from Victor and Zhenya since filming ended?
A: Zhenya is in Kiev and is doing well. She has a great job and seems glad that she made the decision to leave Victor. I hope Victor is okay. I haven't heard from him.
Q: What do Russian men think about this show?
A: The show is aimed largely at the female audience, but people know that the writer pokes fun at both men and women in the show, so I don't imagine that men feel singled out or insulted. One guy in Russia told me that the reason he likes to watch the show is that, since he's single, he likes to fantasize about the actresses and think about which one he'd choose if he could. He picked Lada Dance, a pop star turned actress, who plays the attorney character. But seriously, the show is quite well written, and I think that it is one of the best comedies on Russian TV, so I think Russian men must like it, too.
Q: What challenges did you face in making a TV show about a TV show?
A: I was given full access to the set, and the actresses were willing to talk to me about their lives. NTV Russian Television and Motor Film Studio, the creators of the series, also gave me permission to use their footage. So access and footage were not the issue. The most challenging part of the process was finding regular everyday people to round out my story. I wanted the film to be more than a "making of" documentary about Moscow's answer to Sex and the City. The show's creators told me that their series is realistic and reflects what is going on with many women in Moscow today, but to find out if that was true, I had to meet everyday women. This meant I had to spend a lot more time in Moscow than I originally intended. I did a lot of research, which felt more like casual hanging out with new friends than hard-boiled reporting. I find that it's a good way to make people feel comfortable before they tell you their stories on camera. I think the real-life situations in my piece reveal even more about the shifting power dynamics between men and women in Moscow than the TV show's fictional scenes, which we show.
Q: You have touched on this a little, but given what you know about modern Russian women of your generation, do you think you could return to Moscow and live in that society as it is today?
A: Yes, I think I could, but I'd miss New York City too much, so I probably wouldn't. Russia is full of contradictions today. Though women still have little voice in how the country is run and don't have the legal protections against discrimination that women have in the United States, I think that traditional Russian attitudes are gradually changing. Women in Russia are a huge force to be reckoned with, so I don't think that their needs can be ignored for too much longer. Women today have many more options than they did in the Soviet era. I don't think I would be limited in ways that matter to me most. This is the third film I've made in Russia, and I've never experienced obstacles that had to do with my gender.