It's wedding season in Moscow, and young couples parade on Red Square to be photographed and showered with rose petals. Our FRONTLINE/World reporter, Russian-born American filmmaker Victoria Gamburg, congratulates them as she walks by but concedes, "It's not all romance and rose petals for women in Russia today."
Gamburg has been invited to Moscow to visit the set of a hot new television series, Balzac Age, modeled on America's Sex and the City. The show follows the lives of four women in their 30s. The first scene we see features the 35-year-old character, Sonya, who is frustrated at having no children, no husband and no job. Her friends cheer her up by hiring Chippendale-like marginally dressed hunks to clean and cook. It's a comedy show, but Gamburg explains that its success comes from poking fun at the real conflicts faced by Russian women today.
The show's stylist explains the paradox of women's expectations. "On the one hand, the husband wants dinner to be ready when he comes home. But on the other hand, he is not at all against having his wife work and not ask him for money."
The behind-the-scenes stories of the actresses illustrate that conflict between being a successful modern career woman on the one hand and a wife and mother in the traditional sense on the other. Before shooting a bedroom scene, the actress sits in the bed talking to her real-life son. The production is put on hold while she tells her nanny not to feed her 6-year-old son kielbasa before bedtime.
Next we follow the actress who plays Julia, a character who lives with her mom and drives a gypsy cab, but offscreen is a single mother of two. "The show was the beginning of the end of my marriage," she tells Gamburg. We learn that her marriage fell apart because her success made the partnership unequal.
Gamburg introduces us to a real-life Muscovite who also faces the dilemma that "success" often brings for modern women. Zhenya Timonova is a senior advertising copywriter in an international ad agency. Her boyfriend, Victor, stays at home and drinks. He takes Gamburg on a stroll through a Soviet-era park, where he stops and admires his favorite monument, a gold statue depicting women as mothers and workers.
Later, back in their apartment, Timonova explains that after World War II there was a decline in the male population. According to Zhenya, men had the luxury of saying, "Just be grateful that I exist," and women became a shoulder to lean on. Zhenya accuses men of being infantile as a result. Victor thinks that it has resulted in Timonova and other businesswomen valuing career over family.
This disconnect between men and women is a theme played out in the show, for example, in a scene in which the character Alla, now a high-powered attorney, runs into her old high school sweetheart, who is now a handyman.
Gamburg learns that characters like Alla are role models to Russian women like Vera, a 49-year-old retired teacher whom she meets in Gorky Park. Vera has just moved to Moscow and sells kabobs six days a week. Her glamorous makeup and well-coiffed blond hair make her look more like a star of the show than a vendor. However, her life is a far cry from the glamorous world of the Balzac women, as we see when Gamburg visits the two-room apartment that Vera shares with her daughter, sister and brother-in-law. But Vera's second occupation, selling products that enhance women's orgasms, could be scripted from the show. Vera's frank discussion with clients about how to make sex more satisfying would never have happened in the Soviet era, according to Gamburg.
Gamburg speculates that the show may, in fact, reflect a women's movement in Russia. One of the actresses sums up the new feminism with a story about grandmothers today. Before, grandmothers always helped our mothers care for the children. Today, they prefer to work as paid nannies for others. "Isn't that the beginning of feminism?" she asks Gamburg. "No, it's capitalism," Gamburg says with a laugh.
Whatever it is, women have more choices than ever before. Zhenya, the PR executive, decides to leave her alcoholic boyfriend for a new job in Kiev. Unlike the characters in Balzac's Age, she believes she will be happier on her own.
But many women, like the kabob maker, Vera, take their cues from the show. "I know many Russian women have an enormous potential inside themselves," she tells Gamburg. "Even in the show, there's a scene about how to become a successful woman." According to Vera, before the show, women were never taught these things. "It will be women who will change Russia," she tells Gamburg proudly. "Everything depends on women."
And with that, we are left with a scene of the female judge in the show, who pounds her gavel and declares, "With this, I declare the matter closed."
San Francisco, CA
I just watched this program again and found it very good--the overlap between fiction and the real world very well rendered. Art imitating life. Also, your correspondent has very nice eyebrows.
I thought it a shame that these women are revelling in the breakdown of the family. The saddest part was when the women described with misguided glee how grandmothers would rather be paid to watch other peoples' children than to watch her own grandchildren. Please help me understand how this is a good thing! I deplore Communism, so I'm glad Russia has adopted capitalist ways but I think feminist capitalism at the sacrifice of family is fundamentally flawed and will ultimately erode their society. It's never good when women forsake family for career, whether it's in America or the former Soviet Union. Wake Up.
Palma de Mallorca
I have to say that all these women are fairly natural. I mean, their jobs and status, which require a lot of energy, knowledge and concentration, combined with their duties as mothers and housewives are completelly contrasting. That's what makes the diference. Obviously, their capacities and skills are being wasted. All of them show an enormous potential to go farther in life than their limitations so far.
Almost always enjoy Frontline/World, but I have to say that this was one of the weaker segments I've seen. The theme of shifting gender dynamics in modern Russia is certainly interesting. Unfortunately, the piece just seemed very disjointed. Very little was offered to put the stories of the three women interviewed into a larger historical context other than the director's own musings.
Very good. Thank you.
Round Lake, IL
Interesting that the Director used the backdrop of a far flung Russia to dance a familiar tune of the redundancy of "all things masculine." In all fairness, let's applaud the great strides women have made, continue to make, and unequivocally will make to our societies. Thus said, I openly wonder when we will grow tired of the lie that "strength" is tied to the notion of being a "free and independent actor on the economic stage." Rather, I would applaud a piece celebrating the notion that men and women are inextricably tied to each other in a beautiful and complimentary dance of life.
Internationla female living in Rye
The reality is that men have created a system that favors them. Even in societies were women are more independent than men, the men still find ways to have the upper hand. I believe that there is just a small portion of men that are misoygnists but the rest just enjoy the priviledges and won't challenge the system. That leads to men that don't mind their wives working but still want her to be subservient.
San Diego, ca
What this show really reveals is the common genetic origins of all humankind.
Russian women cut off from western society for all those years aren't fundamentally all that much different in behaviour from the ones you'd see in New York or L.A.
It's ultimately politics that divides peoples. During the Cold War, thanks to government propoganda, the Soviets were viewed as savages; upon closer view we have Russian women concerned about family, career, and their own orgasms. Maybe they should have been reading Cosmo all that time.
Before we assign the views of a nation state to all of its denizens, perhaps we should look at them as free thinking individuals unable to speak their own opinions.
Bottom line is, we're all human, and being humans we all want the same thing: a better world for our children.
Perhaps, if history plays any hand, World War III will turn out to be a global war waged by global citizens against the world's provincial politicians!
Thank you for an engaging story. Usually I do not waist my time on shows like Sex and the City. I find them trivial and shallow. But I enjoyed "Moscow's Sex and the City" on Frontline/World. You made it noble. My only complaint - the episode is too short. I would like to see more on the subject of women in post-communist Russia.
It is sad, but I am glad women are making their mark in Russia.
East Hampton, NY
Very Interesting, especially in the obvious change in Russian Society. There are obviously many stories here.
Thank you for this.
Maryborough, Qld, Australia
I found the video extremely informational and the other info that is listed on this site helped with my assessment piece.
Moscow sounds exciting and I hope that I get to visit it sometime in the near future !!! ;)
Kansas City, Missouri
I spent four years in Latvia and knew many Russian women, who are among the strongest, most resourceful and most insightful people I've ever met (the woman going to Kiev nailed it on the head about Russian men). In terms of a "women's movement" in Russia, as the narrator points out, the women worked in all of the traditional men's jobs during Soviet times. After the breakup, it seems to me that they just wanted to enjoy being feminine and feign weakness. But make no mistake, they are strong and smart and do represent the future of Russia (if given a chance..).
It was very interesting and insightful perspective on women in Russia. In response to Robin Leary's comment: only an insecure mind would see a "men bashing" intention in this story. Frontline's portrayal of men's dilemma with successful women in Russia is realistic, non-judgmental, and most compassionate. I had tears in my eyes, when Victor walked away at the train station. Victor's image reveals how painful for some to transition to a post-Soviet era with a fast-pace free enterprise system. Nostalgia for the old order, where events are predictable, where the "nanny state" takes care of everything, drives some into drinking. And Zhenia is a hero, because she dealt with Victor's problem nobly. Frontline is very tactful in showing personal drama of real people.
Hook me up! What beautiful, intelligent women and such loser guys. I'm going to Moscow. :-)
I am planning to travel to Moscow, Russia in a few weeks. I found the segment extremely educational and fascinating. Thank you.
Thanks, Victoria. Welcome to Kyiv to shoot the happy end :) Jey
I enjoyed the narrative and was fascinated by the pathos of that young couple's relationship. I also enjoyed the woman from the kebob stand with her open nature and garish hair. I was married for a few years to a Russian doctor and I was always amazed by his arrogance and narcissism. I have read many times that men in Russia were spoiled because they were so scarce after WWII and that they felt by virtue of being men that women should swoon! Glad to see that the women are breaking their restraints even if they are unsure of their direction.
A fine, economical report that left me wanting more. I like how the story digressed from the show to cover some real women. I won't forget the former lit professor who now sells kielbasa and sex aids, or the ad woman fleeing the charismatic loser boyfriend. They set the real show off very well.
Very interesting program. I watched the Russian version of "Sex and the City." I liked it and I was curious to find out how Russian people like this movie. It was interesting to see movie stars talking about their project and see their private life. Thanks.
When I was in Russia in 2005, I was amazed at how Sex & The City had struck a chord among the twentysomething female associates I was working with at a Moscow ad agency. It was one cultural phenomenon that united us as working women, breaking through language and nationality differences. We could all laugh and share in the debate about the romantic choices of Carrie Bradshaw. I thought your piece was insightful. The expectations and responsibilities that modern Muscovite women face are daunting, and I have to admit I'm glad I'm not standing in their shoes (even if they are Prada or Blahnik's).
Las Vegas, NV
Your piece on women in Russia today was one of the more exciting I have seen on this subject. I especially enjoyed how Ms. Gamburg was able to coax those interviewed into speaking so frankly about some rather awkward or taboo subjects, such as how to achieve better orgasm during sex. Some of the comments by the women interviewed conveyed some ideas with a tinge of irony, hypocrisy, and naivete that made me wonder if Russia will ever achieve the "progressive" attitudes on gender roles that many Americans take for granted. It also made me wonder if our own society is perhaps not as advanced in this area as some would have us believe. Thank you for a wonderful and refreshing show!
I thoroughly enjoyed this segment of your program. I am a Russian emigre currently living in the U.S. I found the depiction of male-female relations in Russia to be a thoughtful and accurate portrayal of Moscow society today. The fimmaker's investigation of the changing role of women in Russian society conveyed a surprising depth and sensitivity for such a brief segment. I just wish it could have been longer!
West Palm Beach, Fl
Thank you very much for this delightful story. It had valuable information about changes in modern Russia. It is very refreshing to see how today's Russian women, regardless of their heavy load of responsibilities, remain optimistic about their future and their role in society in this new world of capitalism. The images are compelling and touching. The Directors ability to get the sincerity, the spontaneity, the deep emotion out of real people, to let them forget that they are in front of the camera and, therefore, in front of millions of potential viewers, is amazing. Being of Russian heritage, I still find this film eyeopening. Thank you, Frontline.
Brooklyn, New York
Thank you for this segment. I can not tell you how much I related to the situation the one girl was in with her alcoholic boyfriend. It gave me a sense of courage to deal with my own situation. It was such an interesting piece. We are all going through so many of the same experiences no matter where we live and times we live in. Secondly it was thought-provoking truly as I know a lot of Russian girlfriends in the past who never experienced the freedom these women share now in Russia. They only had prostitution, etc, as a way out. Even when they did move to the States, it was hard for them to take on new and better opportunities as they are comfortable in doing what they knew best sadly. I hope many women watched this and saw how lucky we truly are in North America.
Jack De Feo
Frontline needs to be reminded that our Russian allies are still dedicated Communists and no amount of favorable trends in their society to emulate the lifestyles of the West will change their opposition to the principles of a free and democratic nation. What should have been highlighted in the episode of the Russian version of "Sex and the City" is the power of the TV media to influence the hearts and minds of the people of Russia. TV in Russia is used as a political weapon of Orwellian mind control of the State. Lessons that we who live in a free society should be made aware of from programs like Frontline.
San Angelo, TX
It was very impressive that you could go completely to the other side of the world to bash men! Sex and the City and other "chick" shows/movies always bash men. It shouldn't be surprising that a Russian show would do same. Only natural and is the nature of the format. But you took it a step further. You delved into the personal lives of the actresses to Bash Men. And of course, all of the Russian women were independent mothers, shining individuals, and great heroes and of course all of the men were sniveling non-working bum stinking drunks at best. What a load of crap. Frontline "World" seems so much less respectful than the actual Frontline show. It's horrible.
I almost always enjoy Frontline/World, but I have to say that this was one of the weaker segments I've seen. The theme of shifting gender dynamics in modern Russia is certainly interesting. Unfortunately, the piece just seemed very disjointed. Very little was offered to put the stories of the three women interviewed into a larger historical context other than the director's own musings.
Thank you for your research and very accurate depiction of the transformation of womens' existence in modern day Russia. I just returned home with my newly adopted beautiful daughter on 11/25 after 2 trips to St. Petersburg, 1 trip to Moscow and multiple trips to the small town of Tikhvin. I spent a lot of time alone waiting for my adoption to be finalized -- 5 weeks in the country in total. I too interviewed many women, for my daughter's sake so that I can pass on to her, her legacy. I agree this is a difficult time as the women are carrying a heavy load. I am also in agreement that they truly are the backbone of the country. My experiences with my female judge, female adoption coordinator, female court translator, historian/tour guide,etc. proved to me that they really have it together. Some do embrace the change as depicted by you, others could not be more unhappy, which at times was hard to be around. I personally thank you for your excellent TV footage and Web site information.