Saturday, April 5, 2014

My Brief Turn as a Russian Housewife

Though I extolled the virtues of Russian men back in November, I think I may have spoken too soon. While it’s nice that Russian dudes will open doors, help women into their coats, and pick up the check, I’ve realized it’s because they expect girls to behave in an equally old-fashioned manner—like June Cleaver but with the body of Anna Kournikova.  You’d think I’d have picked up on this since I live with a Russian, but his Slavic misogyny has been tempered by three years of dating an American. When I was in Siberia, however, I was with a predominantly male group, which gave me a totally different perspective. I think my parents can quit worrying that I’m going to get married and defect to Russia—I do not want to be a Russian’s bride.

Though my time in the Altai may have sounded glamorous (or maybe I’m the only person delusional enough to think Siberia could ever be glamorous?), the Oligarch was missing one crucial member of his staff. His regular chef is pregnant, and the day before the trip, she was told she couldn’t fly. So who cooks for a billionaire when his staff is playing one man down?  His woman, obviously.

Elena wanted to please the Oligarch, so she initially took on the responsibility of cooking for the ten of us, a daunting task even for a person who hasn’t had servants for the last three years of their life. I like to cook, so I offered to help and asked her what she was planning to make.

Elena: I thought I’d roast some potatoes and carrots.
Me: Anything else?
Elena: I don’t really know how to make anything else.
Vanya: Dzhessika made borshch last night.
Elena: Oh, could you make it again?

I knew the alternative was meat with a side of meat, so I agreed. Elena tried to sous chef for me, but when I saw her misusing the vegetable peeler, it became clear that she was no Yulia Childs. I kept her away from my vegetables, and the borshch was prepared without incident. When the Oligarch tasted the final product, he was so impressed that he joked he might hire me as his personal chef. Hold up, homeboy, I don’t even know if I want to be your English-speaking sidekick.

The next morning, I was relieved to see that Olya was boiling kasha and frying eggs for everyone, albeit not as quickly as the Oligarch wanted.

“Elena Nikolaevna, why didn’t you cook my breakfast? A wife should have her husband’s breakfast waiting for him every morning,” he said.

“We’re not married,” she retorted.

At first, Olya handled most of the meals, but Elena volunteered our help when it became apparent that Olya’s repertoire didn’t extend beyond curing salmon. Elena’s skillset, however, was not much better. First, she asked if I knew how to prepare salmon.  Then soup.  Then spaghetti sauce from scratch. Each time, I answered in the affirmative, and then started mixing marinades and blanching tomatoes while she whipped up her signature side dish of roasted potatoes.

In exchange for our efforts, the Oligarch remained blissfully ignorant of how much work it takes to keep ten people fed. When Elena told him she didn’t have time to go hiking all day if he wanted food on the table at 3pm, he dismissed her concerns. “How long does it take to make soup, three minutes? You throw in some mushrooms, some carrots, and do svidaniya.” I guess he thinks the remaining hours we spent in the kitchen were devoted to sewing shorter hemlines on our skirts and resting our inferior female brains.

I initially thought the 1950s housewife role was more a product of the Oligarch’s sense of entitlement than a Russian thing. But by the end of the week, Vanya tried to pull the same nonsense on me. I was in the dining room reading when he came in and said, “Make me breakfast.”

I put down my book and stared at him in disbelief.  “Why would I make you breakfast?”

“Because you’re a woman.”

I told him in no uncertain terms where he could take his Russian misogyny, but he just responded with laughter.  After throwing in a comment about “female hysterics,” he opened the fridge and grabbed a beer for breakfast; I was so horrified that I succumbed and told him I’d make him an omelette. I hate to admit it, but there is a not-so-small part of me that loves playing the housewife. I have been known to make people breakfast in bed, bake multi-layer birthday cakes for my roommates, fatten up my co-workers on homemade cookies and pies, and throw embarrassingly elaborate dinner parties.  But these people usually don’t tell me my place is in the kitchen.

Housewife life doesn’t look good on me...
...even if it results in delicious sirniki

Back in Moscow, I recounted my impressions of Russian men to the Oligarch’s HR manager, who nodded like all of this was normal. “Oh, I know. My husband would yell at me if I didn’t have dinner on the table every night when he gets home.”  I was just about to verify that I was still in Russia and not an episode of Mad Men when she leaned in and said, “You know, you’d make a great Russian wife.  You should marry a Russian man!”  Oh dear god, no.


  1. Send me the recipe of those sirniki! They look delicious!!

  2. It turned out OK for me, but I certainly wouldn't recommend it. Ochen' opasno!

  3. I'm already married, but I too would say no to being a Russian housewife after this post!