Intergirl Revisited: New Gendered Discourses of Russian Orientalism in the West

Alexandra N. Leontieva, University of Limerick, Ireland

The past decade has witnessed the relatively new phenomenon of women’s marital migration from the Former Soviet Union. The image of the Russian “mail-order bride” is constructed as the Other, as either the media in the host countries or their (male) compatriots make a crude connection between female sexuality and material profit. Only recently have Russian women themselves, particularly those living outside Russia, actively joined the discourse around marital migration, previously dominated either by Russian men (Vladimir Kunin, Mikhail Weller) or by the media.

My working hypothesis is that the process of othering, as described by Edward Said in Orientalism and later developed in application to the issues of gender and migration (Brinker-Gabler and Smith 1997, Brinker-Gabler 1995), is multi-directional and multi-sided. Here, different postcolonial (in the widest sense of) dynamics and issues are at stake, as power asymmetries shift, depending on the context of othering. While the post-Soviet Eastern European migrants are being consistently othered by the (Western) host countries’ discourse, they also create their own othering discourse of Westerners, or inostrantsy, as they are often indiscriminately referred to in Russian. The Cold War rhetorical heritage also appears to play a certain role in the process.

I will examine the representation of Russian women's marital migration and their relationship with the various Others in The Russian Wife, a recent novel by Natalia Kopsova, a Russian resident of Oslo. Kopsova’s protagonist narrator, Natalia, is the author’s namesake and alter ego. Olga, the “Russian wife” of the title, married to a melancholy, frugal and pious Norwegian woodcutter, displays the highest degree of “otherness,” as a creature alien to all characters – even to Natalia, who is happily married to a Russian oil engineer.

Olga enthusiastically complies with the Orientalization project, designed by the marriage agency back in Arkhangel’sk. Moreover, she takes it further, redesigning her entire Norwegian life in a decorative, “Arabian Nights”-type, setting. Even to her Russian friend, she appears as a textbook Oriental: irrational, exotic, and eroticized. However, the inostrantsy (foreigners) surrounding the two women are no less exotic, with issues of money, family and friendship, and sexuality serving as the principal markers of otherness. The westernized Natalia exposes the “otherness” both of the local Norwegian population and of American-Norwegian couples, from her authoritative position of a born and bred Muscovite expat who has “seen the world.”
The result is an entangled system of orientalizing discourses, of mutual stereotypes - either refuted or lived with enthusiasm - and of the Russian subject’s continuous quest for self-definition against the Other – whether Occidental, Oriental, or the Scandinavian in-between.


Brinker-Gabler (ed.). Encountering the Other(s): Studies in Literature, History, and Culture. Albany: State U of New York Press, 1995.

Brinker-Gabler, Gisela and Sidonie Smith (eds.). Writing New Identities: Gender, Nation and Immigration in Contemporary Europe. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

Kopsova, Natal'ia. “Russkaia zhena.”, access 29 July 2003.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. N.Y.: Pantheon, 1978.