How sexual subtlety gets the hard sell

The Moscow Charm School is more than an exotic oxymoron, but the venture sometimes falls short of its own fairy tale promises, its founder and sole teacher, Katerina Sobchik, admits.

A front-page advertisement in Moskovsky Komsomolets offers a wealthy husband, prosperous career and happiness ever after.

When confronted with the free market, says Mrs Sobchik, even the purveyors of charm and tact must sometimes use the hard sell.

Her sales pitch, delivered last week in Moscow's most popular newspaper beneath an article certifying Vladimir Zhirinovsky insane, targets "young and attractive unmarried women striving for prestigious marriages" - and willing to part with $100 for a 10-day shot at changing their lives.

"Are you pretty and intelligent? Excellent. Let's use your potential to the maximum. We will let you succeed in your personal life and career," her Charm School promises. "Pay us a visit. You won't be sorry."

Selling charm, like any other commodity, no matter how scarce, is an aggressively competitive industry in Russia these days. Grace was never high on the Bolsheviks' list of political or social priorities. From the moment Lenin set up his revolutionary headquarters in the Smolny Institute, an aristocratic finishing school in St Petersburg, good manners were doomed. Reviving what passes for tradition is a lucrative business.

After several years shuffling between rented classrooms and ramshackle palaces of culture, Mrs Sobchik now operates from the more salubrious quarters of a lavishly remodelled Russian bank. (The bank provides a third floor room free of charge in return for etiquette courses for staff). It is still a far cry from the Smolny Institute but, says Mrs Sobchik, the new address is a marked improvement on previous premises next to a communal bathhouse full of drunken, sweaty men.

Rivals in the self-improvement field are legion. The Sharm-Biznes Kolledzh offers a sandwich course in astrology, accounting and etiquette; Kontakt runs what it calls a professional course in "female culture and attractiveness".

Mrs Sobchik, something of a pioneer in the field, mixes romantic fantasy with the facts of life. Her programme for new entrants includes lessons in "psychology of attraction, psychology of sexual partnership, strategies for finding and preserving love, secrets of a successful marriage, deportment, fashion, make-up, etiquette, business style and the psychology of formal relations."

More and more women, says Mrs Sobchik, a 40-year-old psychology graduate from Moscow State University, are fed up with being classified as bimbos or babushkas. The Soviet Union went through a sexual revolution in the 1970s but many women, she says, remain deeply confused, lurching between matronly reserve and outrageous promiscuity.

Her teaching methods borrow heavily from her previous job as a group therapist. After 10 years working with potential suicides, she knows how to put people at ease. Good manners, she says, grow from peace of mind.

Her basic precept is "never panic", especially when confronted with an unwelcome suitor: "A woman must stay calm but create a distance. Any emotion can provoke the man. There should be no trembling, no reaction, no excitement."

She tells pupils to avoid mini-skirts and plunging necklines at work but urges them never to neglect their femininity. Feminism, she says, is best avoided, at least so long as Russia's sexual demographics are stacked in men's favour.

"Women should try to obey, or at least make it seem as if they are obeying." When it comes to mating and marriage, the grim rules of Soviet-style supply and demand still apply: no matter how shoddy the product, shortages ensure it rarely gets left on the shelf. And, as always in Russia, it is women who must wait patiently in the queue.

Andrew Higgins