Russian sexuality and the country’s general mores have become a topic of conversation in the United States, mostly in relation to President Trump’s alleged connections with the Kremlin and his behavior during his trip to Russia some time ago, which is the subject of the infamous “Steele Dossier.”  The British press has not ignored the subject.  Recently, the Express published an article that features the odd headline “Kremlin sex threat to England players,” in which Prof. Anthony Glees, director of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Security and Intelligence, outlined the dangers Russian women would pose to the U.K. team during the World Cup.  As the article’s authors write, Glees “said ‘gorgeous’ Russian women could seduce England players in the build-up to a big game before blackmailing them—or worse.”  Indeed, from the perspective of Washington and London, Russia’s sexual mores appear to symbolize civilizational conflict between Russia and the West.

Reacting to the increased conflict between East and West, Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s major ideologues, has proclaimed that Russia should be prepared to be alienated from the West for centuries.  But this is an oversimplification; it is also misleading.  A close look at the sexual mores of many Russians reveals their strong desire to be Western, or at least to be related somehow to the West, even at a time of external hostilities.

This inner conflict can be seen in the promotion of Russian sexbots.

In time for the World Cup, Russian authorities issued permits for the opening of the first official brothel in Moscow.  But instead of staffing it with living humans, the brothel owners “employ” dolls that imitate females and even have “artificial intelligence.”  This seems puzzling, if one remembers that Putin blasted the West for the spread of perversion and moral degeneracy, manifested in the legitimization of same-sex marriage.  But no contradiction is apparent if these things are placed in the broader cultural context of the Russians’ perennial fascination with the West.

In the late Soviet era—I am old enough to remember it well—many Russians were fascinated with erotic and pornographic literature and movies smuggled in from the West, as the Russian movie The Envy of Gods (2000) demonstrates.  This interest in Western erotica was not owing to the authorities’ imposed puritanism.  In fact, Soviet men of that time were much less restrained in their sexual behavior than males in the West.  Back then, the Soviet authorities, while projecting external images of the U.S.S.R. as a puritanical and almost desexualized country, implicitly legitimized promiscuity as a way to channel hoi polloi energy and interests in a safe direction.  Kremlin officials implicitly believed that forbidden pleasures would distract the masses from politics and, in a way, compensate for shortages of basic commodities and the drabness of daily existence.  That is not to say that Soviets had no restraints in their sexual behavior.  But such restraints came not because of state or societal control, but were often the result of a simple lack of space and privacy.  Under the Soviet regime, an entire family might have to live in one or two rooms, and those who strayed from home to engage in illicit sex did so in the most bizarre places, ranging from toilets to street corners.  Still, even within these limitations, Soviets were hardly puritanical.  This was especially the case with Russian men, who could always find opportunities for illicit sexual behavior, especially since the number of women far exceeded the number of men.  In that era, Russian women were much less inhibited than their American counterparts, even though sexuality was not publicly discussed and no prurient publications were officially allowed.  Moreover, smuggling erotic or pornographic literature into Russia entailed stiff punishments.  While in the U.S., the proliferation of pornography runs counter to sexual norms in society that are relatively restrictive, in Soviet Russia the officially puritanical ideology was a thin veneer masking loose sexual mores, especially in the big cities.

Thus, Russian men’s fascination with Western erotica stemmed from something other than a desire for sexual liberation as such: American pornography and presumably loose Westerners’ sexual mores were a symbol of the mysterious West’s advanced civilization, to which Russians wanted to belong.  The West—and America during the Soviet era was a symbol of the West—was thought to be a place not only where the women were sexier, all consumer goods were available, and everybody could be rich, but where talent and independent, creative minds were appreciated and rewarded.  The two facets were considered parts of the whole.

This was what made the West quite different from Russia, and the image could be traced back to the 19th century, when Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s classical poet, complained that, because of his life in Russia, he could not develop his talent to the full extent.  Only in the West could the gifted man enjoy not just uninhibited creativity but equally uninhibited women.  In the Soviet Russian mind, all American women looked like Playboy centerfolds, and the magazines smuggled into the U.S.S.R. were read with near religious reverence as a window into a mysterious, utopian America.

Consequently, the beginning of Gorbachev’s reforms, aimed at making Russia a more Western country, led to a true sexual revolution that could be seen in the popular movies of the time.  In Little Vera (1988), the sexually promiscuous girl became a peculiar revolutionary, and in Interdevochka (1989), the same honor was given to “currency prostitutes.”  (Currency prostitutes received their pay in dollars instead of rubles; most of their clientele were men who, as foreigners, possessed hard currency—rare among Russians in the late 1980’s and early 90’s.)

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, prostitution became endemic in many cities —especially in Moscow, where prostitutes lined up in the downtown area as if on parade.  The spread of prostitution and the general notion that female employees should be, by definition, an additional sexual outlet for the boss, was so widespread that newspaper ads in which women advertised themselves to potential employers often had a characteristic conclusion: “intim ne predlagat.”  Sex shall not be considered a part of the job description.

The spread of prostitution was caused by many factors, including steep economic decline and the general criminalization of societal institutions.  Still, it was more than that.  Prostitution in the eyes of early post-Soviets was thought to be a legitimate profession in the West, and Russians wanted to be part of the West.  Indeed, they wanted to be more Western than the Westerners.

This fascination with an imaginary West started to fade away soon enough.  Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” would bring the majority of Russians nothing but misery, and this became clear by the end of Yeltsin’s rule.  The end of both empire and the socioeconomic system meant closed factories, unemployment, and hunger, whereas a few nouveau riches emerged thanks to the “privatizing” of state property.  Crime, in its most violent forms, including contract killing, became a part of daily life.  General cynicism and spiritual emptiness followed, even as the “Western partners” moved NATO closer to Russia’s borders.  As travel to the West became increasingly routine, and emigration perfectly legal for anyone, many Russians returned from abroad, bringing back images of the real America—images that were quite different from those that had entertained the Soviet intelligentsia.  Many discovered that making a living outside a planned economy was not easy; they learned that the claim that one actually had to pay for medical services and education in capitalist societies was not the mere invention of Soviet propaganda.  Russian intellectuals also discovered that American universities were hardly places where independent thinking and hard work were appreciated.  And those who were not in academic niches, especially prestigious ones, and who did not parrot the prescribed ideological shibboleths, could find themselves flipping burgers or driving taxis.  And while in Soviet Russia these nonconformists could be seen as “noble losers” who suffered because they didn’t want to bend their convictions to the will of the authorities, in America they were simply losers.  At the same time, the accusation of sexual harassment could be almost as deadly for a man’s career in the United States as the accusation of “anti-Soviet” propaganda had been in the U.S.S.R.; in either case, no real proof was needed.

All of this led to a radical reevaluation of Western, especially American, women and mores in general.  America was no longer an alluring paradise; it was a kind of hell from which Russians should flee.  Russian émigrés also came to the conclusion that Western, especially American, sexuality is largely a lie.  The proliferation of erotic and pornographic literature and movies in America had the same relationship to reality as the Soviet propaganda celebrating the upright Soviet man who had only one desire: to serve, and if need be die for, his country.  Russian men began to regard American women as ugly and repressed.  They viewed the rise of charges of sexual harassment as a means of terrorizing men, driving them to homosexuality.  They viewed feminism as a mask for lesbianism.  Thus, considering the U.S. was a haven for asexual perverts, the normal Russian should appreciate the motherland.  It was in Russia where women were uninhibited, beautiful, and caring, and would be willing to sleep with a man even if he were poor and unemployed.

By the end of the Yeltsin era, this image of alluring and selfless Russian beauties became the new myth.  It served to placate those who had become disenchanted with native Russian capitalism.  At the same time, a grassroots anti-Americanism or, in some cases, general anti-Westernism, was beginning to emerge.

Despite this reasserting of nationalist pride, members of the Russian elite and the middle class continued to put their money in Western banks, buy property in Miami or London, and send their children to Western universities and colleges.  They also sought to establish connections with Western companies.  In other words, they wanted to be patriotic Russians at home and Western in the West.

At home, the provocative apparel of the post-Soviet era was replaced by a conservative dress code, especially in big Russian companies with Western connections, and erotic pictures in male offices gave way to portraits of wives and children.  The desire to appear prudish and morally upright was also encouraged by the authorities.  Putin promulgated the idea that Russia was now the last stronghold of the West and Western Christian culture, with the protection of traditional marriage as one of the cornerstones of the Russian creed.  The West had abandoned its heritage; Russia would preserve it.

How does the opening of Moscow’s doll brothel fit into all of this?  It is the product of Russia’s evolving love-hate relationship with the West.  Most Russian men and even some women ridicule the West for its culture of hypersensitivity toward sexual harassment.  And yet, even amid the mocking, many Russians, especially the elite, want to be seen by the external world as civilized Westerners, not as savages.  Consequently, they believe that Russia should imitate this trend of extreme caution toward women in the workplace.  The organizers of the brothel have stated that one of the reasons for introducing the sexbots is that prostitution degrades women.  Bizarrely, the dolls’ “artificial intelligence” is an attempt at providing an illusion of consensual relations—complete with verbal and emotional communication.  This, in turn, is a nod to the Western concept of transhumanism, much propagated by such luminaries as Ray Kurzweil and Francis Fukuyama.  The brothel organizers noted that, thanks to advances in technology and feminism, sex with women will be an increasingly outdated concept; the doll brothel is simply following the Western trend.

Almost a century ago, Nikolai Berdiaev, the seminal Russian philosopher, said that “Russia’s soul is female, and she always looks for a groom from the West.”  The romance between Russia and her “groom” might not lead to a traditional marriage.  While American liberals obsess over Russian interference in U.S. elections, Russians continue in their old habit of comparing and contrasting Russian and American culture.  The “groom” is the focal point of both criticism and imitation.  Indeed, hatred could be a peculiar sublimation of love and the desire to achieve a cultural union.