Russia's new men gear up to face the muzhik

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The Independent Online
It is 11pm. On the television, Chuck Norris is cheerfully brandishing a pistol in the face of a bewildered-looking blonde. On my desk lies a copy of the Moscow News; I can't help noticing that half a page is devoted to a story headlined "Russia's Arnold Schwarzenegger".

Russia lacks many things but this particular species of male is not among them. A friend assures me that, here in Moscow, they believe you can read a man by his haircut. How, I wonder? So many - at least among the young - seem to have the same one, a cranium-hugging carpet that doesn't know whether to stand up or lie down, and usually ends up doing both, forming a wavy line of exclamation marks above a frown, breeze-block pectorals, and a double-breasted suit.

The man in the Moscow News, 25-year-old Alexander Nevsky, is a particularly striking figure. There is a photo of him, bare-chested but for a leather jacket unzipped to the pubis. He, too, is a lawn-head, although his crop is tamed by gel, the finishing touch on a hit-me-if-you-dare face that would not be out of place at Stamford Bridge.

"I was never taught to fight," complains Mr Nevsky to the News, a former bouncer who became Mr World 1995. "I think this is unfortunate. When I was a teenager, things were a lot different than they are now - we fought honestly, one-on-one.

"Now, everything is so intense, and I think that the most helpless and defenceless boys are the ones from the good families. However pompous it may sound, muscles will help them in their pursuits. Muscles aren't a panacea against any danger, but they really boost one's self-confidence."

Like the highly-paid action hero he aspires to be, he is keen to show that he is basically a goodie, a white hat. He rails fiercely against the evils of young Russians taking steroids, recommends the merits of education, warns that brains are as important as brawn, and plugs his book, How to Become a Schwarzenegger in Russia. In life, he explains, he depends on his mum, his girl, and his cat.

All societies have their stereotypes, but Russia's muzhik - the no-nonsense guy's guy - has got to be one of the most deep-rooted. He goes back centuries, , and is daily perpetrated by social conditions: the army, the police force, the security services, the flourishing private security guards industry and - in this new age - the advertising business whose commercials are dominated by granite-jawed guys and sud-covered women.

Inevitably, he therefore populates the political landscape, from Boris Yeltsin - with his down-home, pie-baking, wife Naina and pugilistic style - to several of his challengers, including the gravel-voiced general Alexander Lebed, the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, and Yuri Luzhkov, the 60- year-old mayor of Moscow.

So it was wonderfully refreshing to meet Andrei Sinelnikov. Andrei is 29-years-old, the son of a senior army officer. He is thin, tall, goateed and smiley. If the haircut test is to be take seriously, then his long fair hair is encouraging; you could not find a man less concerned about his biceps. But he is not lacking in courage.

Andrei is organiser of a group called Male Solidarity, and is in the process of forming a club for "repentant" Russian men who no longer wanted to be corralled by social pressures into being guy's guys.

Several years ago his American girlfriend left him because, he believes, he was too much of a stereotypical Russian male (although we are not talking here about a wife-thumping vodka-swiller). He simply failed to appreciate her desire for independence - her insistence, for example, that she might sometimes pay the bill in a restaurant. Now he has a new girlfriend, also American, with whom he claims to enjoy a truly equal partnership.

"In Russia, we have a formula for women - kitchen, church, housework," he explains, "But there are also two archetypes, created by commercials ... men are always something between a bandit and a businessman, while women are economic prostitutes.

"We want to create a precedent. I know that there are a lot of men here who are not comfortable with their roles ... yet they cannot imagine that there is another way to behave. The social pressures are great. Many women, for example, believe that boys have to go into the army before they are considered as men. It is a sort of initiation process. We have a lot of myths like that."

All true. What is less clear though, is that Andrei can make a difference.