Dressed in black, Vladimir Rakovsky glides around with the air of a guru -- albeit a self-appointed one -- as he holds forth before a group of admiring students on the virtues of womanly wiles.
This softly lighted room on the second floor of a Moscow theater is as appropriate a place as any to stage a master class for women on how to act -- literally -- to get men, and what they want from men.
This, according to the name of Rakovsky’s class, is known as stervologiya, or the art of being a sterva, which in Russian means, literally, “bitch.”
But wait: This is not a bad thing. At least this is what he says, and this is what the scores of young Russian women who have paid nearly $200 to listen to him during his six-week course must believe.
A sterva, Rakovsky explains, is not someone who is aggressive or mean, but an adept manipulator.
“A bitchy woman, it’s not something derogatory,” he says. “It’s a skill to be bitchy. It’s a weapon you can use.”
That such a class exists offers a window into the mind of many a young woman, or dyevushka, in Russia today. Numerous sterva schools have opened in recent years. Some women -- obsessed with beauty and status in a society where 12% of their paychecks, a recent study showed, is spent on makeup -- have flocked to them in hopes of snagging the kind of stable, desirable man in short supply here.
If being a sterva doesn’t work, there are other possibilities. Moscow and St. Petersburg have geisha schools, teaching students about “erotic” cuisine, among other topics.
And, in the same theater where Rakovsky, 42, divulges the secrets of stervologiya, his 23-year-old wife runs a school where women learn something that for centuries required no training: how to seduce men.
Perhaps not surprisingly, these students of stervologiya and seduction generally shun the word feminism -- which is regularly confused in Russia with lesbianism. But in a way that pushes the boundaries of reason, these classes are very much about feminism, though of a different -- and, some would say, offensive and demeaning -- sort. In this world, feminism is above all about being feminine, using that femininity to one’s advantage and through that advantage gaining power.
“Stervologiya -- it’s a science about women and for women,” reads a hot-pink brochure advertising Rakovsky’s classes. “It’s a science for those who need confidence in tomorrow. For those who are tired of being ‘ordinary women,’ playthings in the hands of cruel fate. If you feel that the time has come to be a first-class bitch, you are most welcome! If you want to achieve success, this training program is for you!”
On any given night when Rakovsky is teaching, his classroom contains an abundance of high-heeled boots, dyed hair, fashion sense, girlish giggles and expectations that whatever is being said will somehow lead to a better, more fulfilling life.
Lika has come because her marriage to a man she knew a month before exchanging vows isn’t going as well as expected -- her husband has become noncommunicative -- and she wants to demand more of him.
“It was mostly my fault,” she says sweetly, saying she needs to stop being the “good girl.” “I was too nice. I think I should be more powerful, I guess.”
Another student, who is wearing a name tag on which is written a moniker that translates as “cunning one,” says she is trying to find out how to get from a man the three things that matter in relationships: good sex, money and emotions.
Rakovsky, who calls being a sterva a “state of mind and a way of life,” has a master’s degree in psychology from Moscow State University.
In class, he holds court before the students, who are in their 20s and 30s. All Russian women are lonely, he declares. The more a man boasts, the more he should be praised. Women have lost their femininity during decades of pursuing careers.
During the master class, he calls upon one for a role-playing exercise. She is to find out what qualities a man likes in a woman. Her tactic is to ask outright.
“No, this is too aggressive,” Rakovsky scolds. “A woman should be soft.”
“How am I scaring him?” she asks.
“You are too assertive. You are too confident,” he replies.
If the brochure is to be believed, stervologiya teaches a woman to be free and independent, to lose her complexes and to love and respect herself. But the crucial skill is manipulation. For a woman to get her way, he says, she must behave like a little girl.
“All great women were manipulators,” Rakovsky says, referring to Catherine the Great, whose reign, while great indeed, was made possible only by her overthrowing her husband, Peter III, with the help of a lover.
His wife, Yevgeniya Steshova, has mastered this. She has been a model since age 13 and teaches strip dancing to the music of Beyonce as part of her seduction school. She describes the ideal woman as beautiful, stylish and adaptable as an actor.
“She must know how to play roles -- the sweet baby, the young girl,” she says, demonstrating by sidling up to the nearest man’s shoulder, batting her eyelashes and saying, “Pleeeaase give me,” a method she has found unfailingly effective. “It’s easier for a woman to get what she wants by using her female charm.”
Day one of a recent seduction class brought lessons on how to walk sexily, sit sexily and accidentally drop something on the floor and pick it up sexily. The homework was twofold: Return with the business cards of three new men, and make a concerted effort to “look beautiful.”
Irina Ivanova, a seductress-in-training, said after the inaugural lesson that, although she planned to use some of what she’d learned on her husband of 12 years, the knowledge would be even more applicable in her job at a Moscow cargo company.
“Female charm always works,” she said. “Maybe it’s unethical to use female charms to attain professional goals, but it’s not illegal.”