Back in the USSR: Learning to Date American-Style With Ex-Soviet Parents

oneinchpunch/Shutterstock
oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

I wrote a column for Thrillist on the differences between what dating/sex was like in the Soviet Union versus modern day United States, based on research and personal experiences from family and friends.

Read the article online here. The full text of the article can be viewed below.


“Back in the USSR: Learning to Date American-Style With Ex-Soviet Parents”
By Danielle Levsky

Growing up as a first-generation American in a family of Soviet refugees, I was constantly straddling two cultures. Old-world thinking permeated everything; from being meticulously taught my mother’s special recipe for borscht, to when — and whom — I was expected to date.

It’s no wonder the advice I got from my parents and their friends (most notably my mother’s girlfriends from Zumba class) dumbfounded me. Growing up in the US, I experienced dating and romantic relationships in a totally different way from the older generation — and my friends overseas. From the time I saw my first Disney movie, I was forming ideas about courtship traditions. Dating, and inevitably sex, was a central topic in American literature and films, and even in the classroom. My first sex-ed class happened in sixth grade. For my generation, porn — and answers to every sex-related question — have always been just a mouse click away.

I live in a different world from my Soviet relatives; and my parents and their friends were well aware of it. Their discussions around sex and dating became much more broad and open-minded once they landed on American shores. And with those perspectives in mind, here are the most notable discrepancies that make me grateful to be sexing and dating in the US… even with all the craziness of this country’s dating apps, reliance on texts, and tech advances that even include virtual lovers.
Americans are romantically pragmatic

In the US, specifically in large cities like New York and Chicago, dating is logical. People shop around, often dating more than one person at a time to see who best suits them. And actually, 66% of 18- to 59-year-olds agree it’s acceptable to date multiple people at once. When things progress and two people like each other, they say so.

My friends and relatives, on the other hand, grew up in a 1980s-era Soviet Union on the verge of collapse. These dating concepts didn’t exist there, where exclusivity was assumed. Once two people began seeing each other outside of a friend group and in public, it was assumed they were in a relationship. There was no “dating around.” In fact, the labels “hooking up” and “exclusive” would never even enter a Soviet person’s lexicon.

Soviets did not do dinner out

A typical date in the US involves meeting up for drinks or dinner, catching a show, or seeing a movie. And first date etiquette plays a major role in whether there will be a second.

In Soviet culture, dinner was usually out of the question. Most people could not afford to take their date to a restaurant.

On every date, it was customary for the boy to bring the girl flowers. Dates would usually be comprised of walks in a park or a trip to a movie theater. The man was always expected to pay; unless the couple had already been good friends for some time. This was true for my parents’ generation too — they met when they were 14, and were good friends until they began dating five years later. After that, my mom would often carry around extra bills in case my dad ever didn’t have enough.

“We have no sex in the USSR”

Through defining the relationship (DTR), two people in the US typically have sex if they’re hooking up, friends with benefits, or in a relationship. The majority of Americans are cool with sex before marriage. There’s a sexual norm that Americans are familiar with: the third-date rule. We all generally accept that after three formal dates, it’s totally fine to have sex. And we’ve got no shortage of venue locations: apartments, separate rooms in houses, motel rooms; even people still living with their parents can usually slink off to have sex in a car.

My mother enjoys reminding me of an infamous phrase aired during the Leningrad-Boston perestroika teleconference. “We have no sex in the USSR,” a woman had said. And though this is not entirely true, sex in the Soviet Union was not discussed very frequently — and this continued into my generation.

Places to have sex were limited. Hotel rooms were not available for unmarried couples (or those without an enormous sum of money). In order to get a hotel room as a couple in the USSR, you had to present your IDs and marriage certificates. So, people got creative. Couples went camping and slept together outside, under the stars. If you were traveling a long distance on a train, you could buy a train car and have the entire space to yourself and your partner. But you still had to be on guard, in case the conductor came around to check your tickets.

Condom sales were kept quiet in the Soviet Union

In the US, contraception is readily and freely available through pharmacies, medical clinics, gynecologists’ offices, etc. Sure, buying condoms at Walgreens might get you an awkward look from the cashier, but for the most part, it’s a manageable experience. If you’re with a pharmacist, you can also discuss the quality, taste, color, and smell of a condom. I’ve also had a gynecologist enthusiastically describes the merits of a NuvaRing to me, as if we were talking about something as casual as grocery store milk choices.

In the Soviet Union, condoms were also available at most pharmacies. But! Discussing contraceptives and lube in public was totally unacceptable. And typically, men were the ones to buy condoms. They would go into the pharmacy and whisper to the pharmacist: “a bag, please” or “aspirin,” with a wink or a nudge. Unfortunately, because sex was such a no-no topic, the pharmacist, at this point, would give you a scowling look, make an offhand comment about your private life, embarrass you, or shame you.

It didn’t manner if you were 25 or 50 — everyone received the same defeating treatment. For those living in small towns, the news of a condom purchase would spread like wildfire and the slut-shaming would begin.

When someone couldn’t obtain condoms, or was ushered out of the pharmacy in embarrassment, there were many myths and — and fewer safe forms of contraception — women and men used. My mother’s friend knew a woman who would insert a lemon into her hoo-ha each time after she had sex. Because it was an acid, she claimed it staved off pregnancy. Aside from inserting lemon slices into themselves, women also douched with potassium permanganate.

Living with your SO — and your mom, your dad, your cousin…

In the US, living with your SO before marriage is criticized by some but mostly permissible, especially in larger cities. In fact, about 80% of people in this country think it’s totally fine to move in together before becoming engaged or married.

In the Soviet Union, society did not approve of unmarried couples living together at all. And in larger cities, newly married couples often lived with one set of parents. About 70% of childless young couples in the USSR lived with parents during the first years of marriage because of low income or a shortage of housing. This also made divorce quite difficult; my mother’s friend remembers an acquaintance who lived with a man she’d divorced for EIGHT YEARS before one of them was able to find an available apartment.
Breaking up is hard to do

In recent years, breakup trends like ghosting have become pervasive in US dating culture. The dawn of dating apps, and the fact that most people communicate via text, have changed how our relationships end. Often, the post-breakup feelings linger… especially if the two people are connected on social media. It’s now easier than ever to drunk dial/text a former flame or check up on their life through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn… the list goes on.

Breakups in the SU happened in person — maybe the nicest part of dating in that culture. Because couples often came out of tight-knit friend groups, it could be much more devastating to the party that was broken up with to continue being in the same group. Having tough conversations in person lends some humanity to something that hurts.

The US certainly has its fair share of crappy dating tropes. But for all those issues, I’m forever grateful I had the chance to grow up and date here instead of the SU.

Danielle Levsky is a freelance writer, editor, and designer who will talk dirty to you in English and Russian. Be her comrade @daniellelevsky.

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