Courtesy of Polina Sokhranova/Instagram
Polina Sokhranova, 31, worked for Vogue and Interview magazines in Russia before she was offered the role of editor-in-chief of Cosmo Russia, where she’s been since November 2014. She’d never imagined the magazine “as a place to work, to be honest. I thought I understood this brand very well but I don’t think I did,” Sokhranova told Cosmopolitan.com. She also spoke about what it’s like to write for women who don’t have access to any other magazines and why Russian women are scared to identify as feminists.
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When you say that you didn’t quite understand the Cosmo brand before, is that because you thought Cosmo had a certain reputation and you were nervous to kind of go near it?
I should say that because I was into fashion, I was always a reader of other magazines and Cosmo was never on my desk like a necessary thing. It did come in my arms. I did read it from time to time, but because I was so obsessed with fashion and this was not a fashion magazine, I had a very general idea of what Cosmo was compared to what I have now. Of course I understood the niche Cosmo has, I didn’t have any idea what a huge responsibility it would be to run the magazine. How much influence it had in beauty, for example. If you are a Russian girl who is a manager and makes huge money, you’d probably read Cosmo. If you’re a beauty freak, you’d go to Cosmo. Among magazines, Cosmo has incredible influence.
How old is the Cosmo Russia reader typically?
We have two groups of readers. The first one is, like, 25 to 29 and the second one is 30 to 35. Of course, there are younger girls who like to read it because they really want to know more about romantic experiences, they want to look good and all that. Then there is a part of our readership who is older. It’s a weird thing because Russia is so big that some readers are so far from Moscow. Not every magazine sells in places far north and in the northeast. So basically what you have there is Cosmo and sometimes something else, but you would definitely have Cosmo. Some of these readers are so used to reading it even though they are not the core Cosmopolitan age but they still want to read it because it makes them feel young. You discover that a lot of women, for example, don’t want to switch to Good Housekeeping from Cosmopolitan because they still want to feel the pulse of life. They still want to be young. Even though they have children and they have a husband and they want the whole calm married life, they still want this Cosmo energy inside them. That’s why they read it.
So your readers who are outside the typical audience still like exactly what they’re getting.
Well, I would say that there is an issue with being child-free as a mag because in Russia, women start having kids quite early. Most of the girls already have one kid by 25, so they ask for articles about children. That could be anything from fashion to how to raise an intelligent child. We won’t change [our content] because Cosmo is a child-free magazine. The reader obviously wants to have kids one day and she’s free to do so, but she’s probably going to read about it somewhere else.
What celebrities are your readers most obsessed with?
We have experimented a lot on the covers. Since I came on board, we have tried eight covers with our own Russian celebrities. It turns out it doesn’t matter who [the cover girl] is, but they want her to be kind of smiley, welcoming, friendly, sexy, beautiful, not tacky, and elegant. She has to be energized. Sometimes it happens that they don’t even know the girl on the cover but they would put the girl on the cover again because they like her vibe. There are certain celebrities who are not Cosmopolitan. They do not just have an image of a female friend — a female friend among other females, but they love girls next door. Sarah Jessica Parker works every single time. Every time. They have such a positive association with Sex and the City. They like Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez. Then there are, for example, edgier celebrities who really do not conquer her heart, like Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga. They prefer something fun and safe and happy.
Gay marriage is famously illegal in Russia. How do you cover LGBTQ issues in the magazine? Is it even something your readers are receptive to?
This is a very complicated issue in Russia. We covered it for the time when I was here, we had a real story from a two women living together who had a child of one from one of the women’s previous marriage. They did not want to be photographed so we only shot them from the back. Russia is quite a conservative country and you’re absolutely right that our readers take that information and I’m not really sure they would take that freely. Even if there is somebody who’s gay and would like to read about gay issues because it is a part of her life, we never hear about it. There is so much noise around the issue because of society’s opinion. We try to be very careful with it because a lot of times, it causes a very negative reaction. It has to be done step-by-step, I think. We get plenty of emails from readers saying, “This is my life and I want to read something about this,” but we have never received anything like that from gay women.
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When you say you get negative feedback on coverage you provide of gay couples, is that from readers themselves or is there governmental interference?
No, no, no, no. Governmental interference does not happen on this level. Of course, Russians are aware of people being gay and living very different intimate lives. Unfortunately, I’d say the mass way of appropriate thinking here is not gay-friendly. The readers would be like, “Oh my god,” but they wouldn’t be too aggressive. For example, when Glamour awarded Caitlyn Jenner as a woman of the year and it was on Instagram, there were no positive comments on that but that was it. There were a lot of negative comments.
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The reason I ask is because I get such varied answers from country to country. In many countries, one wrong word about sex or abortion can land you in jail.
Well, the law in Russia is very tricky because it forbids media to be propaganda of the gay way of life. Nobody really knows how it works because not a lot of media outlets have been punished for such things. You can only practice to see what exactly is propaganda of gay lifestyle and what isn’t. If you show happy gay people, is that propaganda or not?
Have you actually published “propaganda” by accident?
No, not yet.
You mentioned earlier that Russian women tend to become mothers so early, yet Russia has one of the highest rates of abortion in the world. What kind of information are you publishing about abortion?
Every few issues, we do something about contraception and we are preparing a very big issue about abortion for the spring. We are searching for a new way to cover it because abortion is now a very big thing in Russia and women need to be supported. Guidance from Cosmopolitan can literally save souls of women in Russia. For 20 years on the Russian market, the magazine has become a very good friend to women here and finally [women] are ready to share their very different experiences with abortion [with the magazine] and also open the magazine to find solutions in difficult situations. Abortion [content] has not appeared in the pages of the magazine for some years now.
Recently, Russian female astronauts with degrees in things like biophysics and medicine who are headed to the moon in 2029 were asked at a press conference how they would survive without makeup in space. How often do your readers ever complain about sexism in the workplace?
Well, we recently have published a feature about working in a male office and it had a guide on how to behave yourself to make sure you’re not provoking sexual harassment. Russia, as I said, is quite a conservative country. For a lot of women, finding a man is one of the biggest issues on their minds. It’s so complicated … I don’t know how to explain it. This country is considered to be a women’s country because of a lot of things. It happened because of the Second World War. It happened because in the ’30s, a lot of men were sent to prison and died there during Stalin times.
Basically, as a part of society, men are less than women, so there is a big competition for men, you see [Ed. note: As of 2014, women made up 53.56 percent of the Russian population. By comparison, women were 51 percent of the United States population the same year.] Women have been doing as much work as men for many, many decades already, but there has never been a sexual revolution or any feminist group or movement or party or anything that is just a platform to support women and their rights. The Russian reader takes the word feminism quite aggressively. It is in Russian nature to have a man who is the main person the family.
In the ’90s, we had quite an aggressive feminist movement here but after the Soviet Union stopped existing, because everybody had a chance to do something, people changed professions. Women started working more than men, started even [making more money] than men sometimes. That aggressive period has stopped and now we’re in a more stable time where the presence of family has become very important again. Even celebrities in Russia say, “My family is the first thing. My man is the first thing. When I’m working, I’m made of steel. When I am at home, I am very feminine. I try and inspire my man.” So they do not really complain about their men. What they really want to know is where they find the one. That’s what bothers them. When they get The One or they think he’s The One, they do not really complain. Especially in work.
Are you saying that women will tolerate sexism at work if they believe that maybe they’re dealing with someone they would date?
No, not everybody. No, no. It depends on her. Of course, there’s no question there’s sexism at work. She obviously does not pay any attention [to the sexism], but I also know women who are going to work and trying to find a couple [to be a part of] there also. I’m not saying they’re going [to work] for [a partner] but they’re looking around in case maybe somebody around them is interesting. So in that case, I think they would be softer in terms of the sexist kind of thing. But when you are saying “sexism,” are you saying that the boss would sit the meeting and say things like, “You’re a woman. You can’t do that. That is why Bob will do it because he is a man?”
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Yes. It just was kind of shocking to me that somebody would even ask this question.
Really? To be honest, I don’t think it was that insulting. I think the media was trying to find details that would also make these heroes look human and female-like. I don’t think they were trying to humiliate them or something.
It’s possible that I misinterpreted it.
People saying, “You’re a woman. You can do that or you can’t do that,” [does] not happen here. I think women should stand for their rights more than they do now because this country is a lot of times in the hands of women.
What do you mean when you say the country is in the hands of women?
Historically. Russian women are used to working very very hard. Women here live longer. They fight stress easier. Women are not sitting. They are not waiting for anything. They are more active.
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So why do you think there is such a negative connotation around feminism?
Because in the history, there has been no example of a positive feminist movement or anything. No role model who said, “Girls, we can do it together.” “Feminism” as a word is always taken by our readers as, “I hate men. I want to live without men.” If one of our articles goes online with the word “feminist” in it, somebody would read “feminist” there and comment: “I hate when they write ‘feminist.’ I hate feminists.” You comment and say, “Listen, I think you got it wrong.” Explaining this every time is not going to change anything. To change, there needs to be a solid movement and a platform and role models that can explain feminism is not bad. For now, it has a negative connotation. Women imagine this ugly, very, very old-style, lesbian, short-haired woman. That’s what they think a feminist is.
What about Pussy Riot who, over here, were written about as big feminist influences?
Definitely not as a role model for feminist movement here. You should understand that how they are seen in the Western part of the world and how they are seen in Russia is very different. They sang a song in church which angered very religious people and people from government and parliament. It definitely was not a feminist act that people discussed. What people discussed was, “Can one come into a church and sing a punk song in it?” Orthodox values are quite strong here. This is what the girls did wrong. They humiliated the Orthodox church. It was absolutely offensive. Nobody talks about them as feminists here. For very some quite small parts of society they might be a feminist inspiration, but not for the country for sure.
What kinds of sex content do your readers ask for most often?
We found that women who are 30 are very much and openly interested in sex content from Cosmo. A lot of them are concerned about making love in a way that is going to make them happy. Not only making him happy, but also yourself. You should understand that since we’re talking about the whole country, there is no sex education. Most women do not have that much sexual experience before they get married and they definitely do not have a sex education, so the place for them is Cosmo. They want to know about exploring yourself physically.
A lot of women complain men are not ready to change things or experiment with new things. As we all know, men are such happy human beings when they get an orgasm. Women imitate pleasure and men don’t even ask themselves if it was an imitation or anything. Basically there is no feedback from one to another and also men don’t give feedback because they don’t say anything. Of course that’s a problem that happens in most conservative countries, that there’s no communication in bed, so what they want to know is how to communicate with him about sex. She wants to find tricks, tips, knowledge about her body and his body from Cosmo.
It’s considered to be an educational resource.
Yes, I would say so. I would say most of it has to be practical. They want to be good in bed, not just for him but also for herself. It’s a good sign. I can say that a year and a half ago, when we did focus groups, most of the readers said they don’t read about sex and they just refused to discuss it openly.
Why do think that’s changed in the past year and a half?
They don’t want to read about sex too graphically. They don’t want it to be printed too aggressively. They want sex to be wrapped in the package of love and relationships. That’s when they say it’s very, very good because it’s all for the sake of eternal love. You also have to find the right language to write about it, which is very hard. You either secretly laugh about it and go red, which is wrong for Cosmo, or you say very rude tacky things which is also wrong for Cosmo. You have to be in the middle.
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What else besides sex content has become increasingly popular since you took over in 2014?
The bread and butter of Cosmo Russia is psychology. They just love to read about what’s going on with [themselves]. You know, answers to questions like, who are they? Why are their dreams not coming true? What to do to make your dreams come true? Is there something wrong with you? An extremely popular one was, “Why Do Dreams Not Come True?” Seriously, almost everybody said it was such a good article. We also changed the lifestyle and food section. Russian women just love to cook. If you think about it, it’s like if you can’t cook, you’re not a real woman here. It’s a saying. A lot of women cook and they love to read about it.
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They’re coming to Cosmo for recipes?
They’re looking for new recipes and for articles about health carbs or unhealthy carbs, sugar-free and stuff. They want to combine the skill of cooking with a healthy lifestyle.
What is the relationship like between the print magazine and online? Are you responsible for both of them?
No. Our website is growing very fast and they just celebrated 5 million unique visitors per month, which is really great. They have a separate team and they have a separate editor-in-chief. If we are working on something big and we know it would be interesting for online, we offer for them to bring a cameraman and vice versa. We follow each other very closely.
What social media platform are your readers most obsessed with right now?
Well, they are very active on Facebook but they also love this Russian social network called VKontakte. If you translate it in Russian it would be like “in connection” or something or “connected.” It’s only Russian and a lot of Russian Cosmo readers use it.
What can you do on the network?
You can put music there and movies there. Unfortunately, you can also pirate content, so that’s not very good.
What about Instagram?
Yeah, they are on there but it was in the hands of our digital team but we felt like promotion of the magazine itself would be cooler through Instagram. We have 80,000 followers or something. So there’s a lot of work to be done.
What do you think might surprise American readers about women who read Cosmo Russia?
Maybe that the image of Russian women is very different from what everyone is used to. Everybody is used to seeing this bling-bling blonde with long hair.
Cosmo Around the World is a weekly column featuring international Cosmo editors. These women explain how they got to be the editors-in-chief of their country’s Cosmo, what issues they run into before publication, and what they are most proud of in each of their editions. Read previous Cosmo Around the World columns here.
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