"Concentrate all your thoughts and senses on what you desire the most at the moment," a young woman wearing a short blue chiffon dress whispers as she slowly lights a candle.
"At new moon, there is a high chance that all that you wish for will come true," she says, smiling playfully.
Ten women, ages 25 to 40, sit in a tight circle, their faces dreamy as they focus on their utmost desires. Each is holding a lighted candle. Soft meditative music is playing. Welcome to the Moon-reading class.
Across the hall, another group of women is moving rigorously, trying to catch the sophisticated beat of a nerve-tickling, Oriental theme. These girls are practicing the elements of an ancient Sufi dance, purportedly aimed at opening up the heart chakra that's responsible for giving and receiving love.
And next door in the "How to Inspire Men" class, a handful of women eagerly debate effective ways to encourage men to make marriage proposals, give lavish gifts and earn money.
It seems a lot like a sect, a queer hodgepodge of local lore and West-imported New Age ideas that Russians readily buy into. But this isn't a sect, but a routine weekday evening at the Moscow branch of the Private Lives Academy, a smashingly popular St. Petersburg-based training center for women. It says its mission is to "bring back femininity to the world and help women regain their female energy to attract the men of their dreams and build harmonious marriages."
And this school is by no means unique; similar centers are flourishing across the country. It is a curious trend for a country that has long been considered spiritually feminine and its females - among the most beautiful in the world. (Not to mention the loud controversy caused by one of my columns where I had referred to Russian women as the country's most precious natural treasures and resources.)
Interestingly, Larisa Renar, Private Lives Academy founder and director, does not quite agree with my "natural treasures" notion. “We've been living in an oppressive patriarchal society in which women are unable to thrive for as long as humanity can remember,” she says.
In her view, women were only allowed to become part of the man's world on condition that they behaved like men, using "male energy" (Renar's favorite term) to get their way. And the result? Hordes of girls with successful careers, but unsatisfying or nonexistent private lives.
Renar, a forty-something mother of two with perfectly coiffed auburn hair, wears silhouette-flattering dresses and stilettos every day. It’s the compulsory armor of a Genuine Woman, she insists. She also sports a necklace with four sizable precious stones symbolizing the four key energies - Earth, Fire, Water and Air – that she believes every girl should employ in order to be balanced and fulfilled. But this energetic Petersburg native is no freaky mystic or even ardent missionary. She is a savvy businesswoman who holds two degrees (in business and psychology). A two-hour class at her academy costs about $80, an individual session with one of the coaches (granted, they're all female and all happily married) - $120, and a popular two-day course, The Circle of Feminine Power, which she occasionally teaches herself, costs $700 and has a long waiting list.
Renar's bestselling book, also called The Circle of Feminine Power, was recently published in the West and she has written three more Russian bestsellers since. Renar is also about to start shooting a series in Kiev, Ukraine. Additionally, she constantly travels all over Russia and the former Soviet Union with lectures and classes, and is planning a project in New York City.
At 9:30 p.m., when the sessions are over, excited girls rush from the classes to reception to sign up for more. I am the only one, it seems, who has been left somewhat perplexed by the experience. Not that I don't get inspired by the idea to keep inspiring my man, I just sense a bit too much of desperation in the air. One of the school's most popular classes is The Art of Being a Wife, and I wonder what that says about the state of my country, which has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. Could the growing demand for the schools like Renar's be an attempt to overturn this worrisome trend?
Many in my generation were raised by single mothers who had to carry all the family's responsibility (in Larisa Renar's terms this would mean exploiting their male energy too much, which is unnatural and unhealthy for a female). Many girls, myself included, chose to pursue careers to be able to provide for their siblings and aging parents, not just their ambitions, like their sisters in the West did. And many of the men, raised by the same stressed and super-dominant single moms or overprotective grandmothers, grew up insecure, despite their macho facade, which might have caused alcoholism to grow out of proportion. But perhaps females have also contributed to this predicament. Perhaps we've lost this art of being a wife somewhere along the way.
But Larisa Renar says the Return of the Genuine Woman is a worldwide tendency, and Russia, where the interest in various spiritual and mystical movements has always been strong, happens to be at the forefront. "The Age of Aquarius has begun," she says matter-of-factly. "That means the female energies are back, and women feel an urge to return to their natural selves and stop competing with and overtaking guys but loving, accepting and inspiring them instead."
I just hope our men don’t drown in our female energies too soon and manage to join the club.
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Women Talk: Russian men don't exist any more
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Russia has always been referred to as feminine and Russian women have been one of the most popular stereotypes of this nation, both positive and negative. But is this an all-male fantasy? Here is a hip, modern, professional and increasingly globalized Russian woman looking at the trends around her, both about her gender and the society at large. She talks and lets other women talk.
Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.