The Zhivago factor

Cold-War tailoring and poor personal hygiene have given way to sharp suits and cologne in the land of Pasternak, says an appreciative Mary Dejevsky
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The Independent Online

International Women's Day on 8 March was nowhere more ostentatiously celebrated than in the old Soviet Union. Men thought they could redeem their drinking, womanising and layabout habits of the rest of the year with one day of flowers, chocolates and formulaic eulogies. It was a hateful display of hypocrisy and condescension. This year, the event was positively enjoyable.

International Women's Day on 8 March was nowhere more ostentatiously celebrated than in the old Soviet Union. Men thought they could redeem their drinking, womanising and layabout habits of the rest of the year with one day of flowers, chocolates and formulaic eulogies. It was a hateful display of hypocrisy and condescension. This year, the event was positively enjoyable.

In those late years of Soviet power, Russian men were by and large dismal specimens. From their blunt-scissored haircuts and wispy moustaches, to their ill-fitting imitation jeans and cardboard brown suits, they were abjectly groomed and appallingly dressed. Their demeanour breathed apology. When central planning collapsed, and imports flooded in, they went for shell-suits and cognac instead.

Not all of this was their fault, of course. Whether to wear stiff jeans, polyester trousers in brown polyester, or blue tracksuits with white stripes was not much of a choice. At the barber's it was military-style (very) short back and sides. As for after-shave and deodorant - even toothpaste - suffice it to say that there was not much about.

Russian women went to enormous efforts to make themselves presentable; queuing for hours for the few half-decent clothes and cosmetics that might have made a fleeting appearance in the shops; buying Burda magazine (when it became available) just to have Western-style sewing-patterns; and cossetting their "best" clothes in a way which put us Westerners to shame. Meanwhile, their menfolk just seemed to give up on all matters sartorial, consoling themselves with the vodka bottle and bad cigarettes.

How times change. One of the lesser-noticed transformations in post-Soviet Russia is the arrival of New Russian Man. I am not talking of the "new Russians" phenomenon as seen in London, Moscow and Nice where show-couples extravagantly clad in leather and fur, peel high-denomination notes of their wads, but of the "ordinary" men now to be seen in the streets and offices of many a Russian city. They put their scruffy British counterparts to shame.

The first evidence of this transformation came from the televised sittings of the Russian parliament a few years ago - where it became hard to square the sharp suits, Italian jackets and silk ties with the untailored brown and blue ensembles of before. In particular, the quality of the footwear grew beyond recognition: in Soviet times, it was the dire quality and style of shoes that always gave East Europeans away when they were abroad.

But the influence of New Russian Man has spread well beyond the television studio, or the Russian parliament. In the boardroom, New Russian Man has adopted the English or American style - pressed blue or grey suits, white or pastel shirts, and Oxfords. The look is perfectly modeled by Alexei Mordashov and his managers at the steel giant, Severstal. Each does smart-casual well, favouring Italian or French style for their jackets, fine wool pullovers and jeans.

On foot, New Russian Man wears a solid, stylish Italian boot; trainers, mercifully, do not survive well in snow. The overcoat scene has also been transformed. NRM no longer wears cheap quilted Chinese-made anoraks, but long, stylishly-cut wool coats. Fur hats now come in more than one model, and are alternated with tweed or leather caps.

Nowadays, Russian men are being coiffed as stylishly as Russian women - though who knows where the barbers have come from; wisps, that passed for moustaches and beards have been replaced by the real thing, or shaved off. No longer is the scent of New Russian Man tractor oil or old sweat, but Calvin Klein or its Russian imitation. And - maybe it's just my imagination - isn't male Russian breath now less nauseous vodka and tobacco and more minty fresh? If you see New Russian Man drinking in the street at all these days, it is from a carton of fruit-juice.

The apologetic weediness has gone; New Russian Man has a good job. He works hard and takes responsibility. If he has a wife and children, he talks about them affectionately. He looks energetic and fit; dare I say, even handsome. With the smarter appearance have also come delightful changes in manner. Instead of pushing and shoving, NRM is chivalrous to a fault. He is confident, but not arrogant, with a rather French sense of irony and a British self-depreciating, brand of humour. He has a firm handshake, or he kisses your hand, Polish style.

Where did these manners come from? Did Russian men really know how to do it all along? Did Russia's mothers and grandmothers always bring their pampered sons up to behave "nicely", only to have it all knocked out of them by the army or the cruel lottery of Soviet life? Have they been watching films set in Tsarist times to learn how to become "Russian" again?

I am not alone in noticing this dramatic ascent of Russian man. Olga Romanova, a presenter for the independent RenTV company, has remarked on the sartorial assets of certain Russian politicians. Commenting on valedictory pictures of the just-sacked government, she wrote: "Only the lazy could fail to notice that the Prime Minister's chair will no longer be adorned by the figure of Mikhail Kasyanov who, as we all know, had the best jackets and ties in the whole government." She commented, too, on the defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, with his "Hollywood smile" and looks that qualified him to play, "a treacherous Pentagon official in any blockbuster."

I can confirm that there are a lot of younger, no worse-looking versions of Mikhail Kasyanov and Sergei Ivanov out there. So, I suggest that the publishing world forget any Bridget Jones sequel like "BJ gets married". Let's have "Bridget Jones goes to Russia" instead. She would have an absolute whale of a time.

STEPPES IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION: THE RISE OF THE RUSSIAN MALE

Grizzly bears

* Grigori Efimovich Rasputin, deranged monk, prolific seducer, faith-healer and, arguably, the founding father of shabby chic at the court of Tsar Nicholas II.

* Leonid Brezhnev, president of the Supreme Soviet from 1977 to 1982 and owner of the world's most dramatic eyebrows.

* Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia 1985-87. A stylish lover of the good life - and lively on the dancefloor after a vodka or two.

White knights

* Mikhail Baryshnikov, main mover in the Russian ballet scene, and Sarah Jessica Parker's super new squeeze in Sex and the City.

* Roman Abramovich, Russian billionaire and chairman of Chelski - formally known as Chelsea Football Club.

* Alexsei Mordashov, the smouldering Severstal steel magnate and all-round Russian sex-pot, according to Muscovite Bridget Joneses: and his hair is, indeed, all his own.

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