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Russians Loath to Bind Love by Contract

MTMarriage contracts, or prenups, run afoul of Russia's more traditional approach to marriage, experts said. Few can bring themselves to strike a bargain over affairs of the heart.

Yekaterina, 28, a Moscow-based marketing expert, only signed a marriage contract with her husband after they decided to divorce and needed to split their apartment.

The property had been purchased with her money, but it was listed in both spouses' names, she said. Yekaterina's husband ultimately agreed to leave her with sole ownership of the apartment — a lucky outcome after weeks of worry.

"When all is well, you don't think about such things," she said in a phone interview, asking that her surname not be given.

According to official state data, of the nearly 1.2 million Russian couples who registered marriages in 2009, only about 25,000 — or about 2 percent — sealed contracts stipulating the terms of a divorce.

And that's with roughly 58 percent of the country's marriages eventually falling apart.

In the United States, most estimates show that about 4 percent of couples now sign a prenuptial contract, although the divorce rate there is about 43 percent.

The contracts run afoul of Russia's more traditional approach to marriage, experts said. Few can bring themselves to strike a bargain over affairs of the heart.

A prenuptial agreement treats the wife and husband as equal parties, which is unacceptable for Russia's traditional patriarchal view of the family, said Kirill Podyachev, a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology with the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"Marriage is complete submission of a woman to a man," Podyachev said in a phone interview, mocking the traditional Russian attitude. "The wife's duty is to indulge her husband."

Agreeing on how to end a marriage before it begins also contradicts Russians' sentimental attitude toward that institution, said Alexander Tesler, a Moscow-based psychotherapist.

"Russians believe that love and a marriage contract are incompatible," he said.

The country's legal system only introduced the concept of a prenuptial agreement — or marriage contract, as its known in Russian — in 1996, said Alexander Latseiko, a spokesman for the Federal Notary Chamber.

In the Soviet era, there was little need for prenuptial agreements because most people had very little property to contest in a divorce, Tesler said.

But now, with a growing number of affluent Russians, more couples are deciding to settle a question that they hope will never arise.

In the last five years, the number of new marriage contracts has quadrupled from about 5,000 in 2005 to 25,000 in 2009, Latseiko said.

He said no social or age group was prevalent among those who turn to a lawyer before exchanging vows.

"Marriage contracts are the evidence of the country's prosperity," Tesler said.

Legislation on the contracts remains imperfect, however, as it only covers property rights, said Olesya Yermolenko, a lawyer at the Moscow firm Annexus. In the United States and Europe, similar laws also spell out household chores, alimony and the rights to children.

Yermolenko said her law firm drafts marriage contracts — which can be signed after the wedding as well — for two or three couples a week.

The business seems to fluctuate seasonally, she said, with a rise in the prime months for nuptials — March, April, August and September. Married couples think of contracts after holidays, especially the New Year, when "relations in the family heat up," she added.

The idea is gradually taking hold, as a 2008 survey by Levada indicated. Of the 1,000 urbanites polled in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk, 59 percent approved of splitting property in a marriage contract. Only 13 percent disapproved of it, while 15 percent admitted to not understanding property issues. Thirteen percent were undecided.

Notaries also see an inflow of couples interested in marriage contracts after media reports about famous people wrestling over property, Latseiko said.

Most recently, billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev has had to assure possible buyers of his Uralkali potash company that he is currently able to sell, since his wife has frozen most of his assets as part of their divorce proceedings in Switzerland.

Moscow tabloids also closely followed the divorce of Viktor Baturin, a prominent businessman and brother-in-law of Mayor Yury Luzhkov, from his wife, pop producer Yana Rudkovskaya. The case hit the headlines in 2008 after Rudkovskaya had court bailiffs seize her husband's assets.

Media listed valuables such as “a decorative owl,” and “an electric screwdriver,” that were seized in Rudkovskaya's bid to collect the $53 million settlement she demanded from Baturin.

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