All Elena Larionova wants is a rich husband. It doesn't matter if he is fat, bald, a drunk or all of the above. Love doesn't interest the striking, blond 24-year-old. Stability does.
If she plays her cards right, she says, she might land herself the biggest Russian catch of all: an oligarch.
That's why she is teetering in her stiletto black boots in a Moscow dance studio on a Wednesday night after work, her ankles bound by an elastic band, ensuring that she can only take baby steps.
Ms. Larionova and 40 other women have shelled out 6,000 rubles ($245) for this six-week night school to learn the fine art of manipulating rich men. The baby-step trot, according to the teacher, makes oligarchs like billionaire Roman Abramovich sit up and take notice.
In her red silk blouse, cascading blond curls, and de rigueur five-inch heels, Ms. Larionova could hold her own in any trendy Moscow nightclub. But she's after a wedding ring. "I want someone who will always be by my side," she said. "A man with money can be relied upon. The more money you have, the more reliable you are."
Thousands of other young Russian women have the same idea.
In a country where the gap between rich and poor is wide, finding, attracting and marrying a wealthy Russian businessman has become a cottage industry.
There are movies, TV shows and bestselling books all based on the Cinderella-themed premise of young girls finding happiness and security in the arms of rich, older men. From Moscow to Siberia, the Internet is filled with schools that teach women how to find, even stalk, wealthy men. Prices range from $200 to $2,000 for top-flight VIP coaching.
The back cover of one tongue-in-cheek self-help manual, co-authored by Russian socialite Ksenia Sobchak, declares: "There are enough oligarchs in Russia to go around. Your equipment: a smile, a sense of humour, optimism and fervour. Marry a prince? It's easy."
The book jacket features its authors in slinky evening wear toting machine guns.
While schools and self-help books make it sound easy, in reality, the odds of an ordinary young woman marrying a rich Russian businessman aren't good.
Competition is fierce for the finite pool of wealthy Russian men. Over the past eight years, President Vladimir Putin has harassed, jailed and chased out some of the richest men in Russia. Still, it's estimated there are about 50 billionaires, 120,000 millionaires and thousands more who are just well off.
It's a tempting aspiration for starry-eyed young women. Russia's moneyed-men set don't shy from spending lavishly. They drop thousands of dollars a night at Moscow's most exclusive nightclubs, like Diaghilev Project, where, until it burned down Thursday afternoon, a VIP booth started at $10,000. They take private jets to vacation spots in the Alps and the south of France. Squiring beautiful women is chief among their pursuits.
Russia even has its own self-appointed guru of high-end matchmaking, Piotr Listerman, a bespectacled, middle-aged playboy who boasts that he has arranged nearly every elite coupling of note in the past 15 years.
When not out scouting bars and ski resorts, Mr. Listerman is host of a reality show called Beauties and the Beast, and manages his matchmaking empire by phone and computer. He said he receives about 200 e-mails a day from women wanting introductions to wealthy men. He also claims to have a database of 500 "very rich men." Mr. Listerman said he meets with every woman who attracts his interest and arranges discreet dates with interested oligarchs.
"The next day, I call her for feedback. I call him for feedback. After, ... I take my cigar, 50 grams of whisky. I feel like a God."
He says Russian's oligarchs trust him and few others with their complicated love lives. (Many are married and looking for girlfriends on the side.) He listens, he said, and doesn't judge, like "a lawyer, a psychologist, a lawyer and a priest," all in one. "They tell me very secret things about their private lives," he said during a late-night interview in the bar of a boutique hotel.
Mr. Listerman, 50, refuses to name the oligarchs he's befriended and matched over the past two decades so it's impossible to verify his tales.
But he definitely has a reputation. The former ski instructor was the inspiration for the Russian feature film Glyanets, or Glamour, which chronicles a young woman's move from the countryside to Moscow where she works as a housekeeper for the owner of a high-end dating service. He eventually sets her up with an oligarch and the movie's final scene shows the pair attending Moscow's Millionaire's Fair arm-in-arm.
Mr. Listerman also claims he is Russia's gatekeeper for access to the finicky oligarchs, most of whom prefer Russian models and actresses. Ordinary women such as Ms. Larionova can dream, he said, but they stand little chance of landing a rich man without his assistance.
Still, Ms. Larionova, who is the deputy head of the credit department in a bank, is optimistic and determined to learn how to "conquer a man."
The classes she has enrolled in are run by Vladimir Radovsky, another self-appointed romance guru, who claims he can teach women how to manipulate men. Mr. Radovsky, who has franchises in St. Petersburg and Kiev, calls it the art of stervologiya, which translates loosely into "how to be a Russian bitch."
The term sterva is less pejorative in the Russian language. Its English equivalent is closer to a female "player."
Mr. Radovsky, 42, said the key for women wanting to attract powerful men is to act powerless.
A gifted sterva, Mr. Radovsky explains to his rapt students, is someone who can control men. There are a handful of roles men prefer in women, he said - sexy, playful, haughty. But tonight he's teaching the benefits of behaving like a servile child.
"Act like a four-year-old girl," he says, pacing the studio. "Your mother probably told you if you want something to get it yourself," he explains. "Get that out of your head. You have to be a funny bunny when he comes home from work with his paycheque."
One by one the women practise their Lolita acts. Holding two oranges, Mr. Radovsky asks one student to beg for them. "It's so elementary. If you act like a baby, the man will treat you like a little baby and want to give you everything."
She kneels at Mr. Radovsky's feet, looks up and asks for the orange. He replies that he doesn't have any. The women is stumped.
"If the guys says 'No,' just keep asking. You have to be confident in your role as a baby."
Exasperated, Mr. Radovsky calls in his wife, a 23-year-old former model. She throws herself at her husband's knees and begins to cry. Mr. Radovsky turns the oranges over and she trots out of the room in her high heels.
Mr. Radovsky said his schools are designed to empower women.
The reality of the typical Russian woman's life is difficult, he said. Most married women combine work with the majority of household duties. They're strong and capable, he said.
But Russia is a patriarchal country, he said. Many men prefer women who are ultra-feminine and "controllable." Russian women also have different standards. Unlike Western women, they don't want a "sensitive man" who loves babies, he said with a grin.
"In Russia, only a few women want this," he said. "The others want a man who is responsible for all the finances."
But some critics fear the Russian craze to marry up is sending the wrong message to women, who are starting to make real gains in Russia's expanding middle class.
Writer Tatiana Ogorodnikova, herself a purveyor of novels that chronicle Russia's rich and powerful, said marrying a wealthy man won't necessarily bring financial security to a young woman. Russia's divorce laws look good on paper, but in reality, if a wealthy man doesn't want to pay alimony, he can bribe a judge or hide his money.
"Most [wives]don't get a penny, not even money for the kids," said Ms. Ogorodnikova, who is married to Leonid Ogorodnikov, a cinema chain mogul.
Ms. Ogorodnikova said her novels are cautionary tales about the perils that face young women who align their futures to rich men. She added she and her husband married long before he was wealthy.
The craze among women for rich mates is destroying families, she added. In the past five years, she said, eight couples in her family's circle of friends have divorced. All the
breakups were caused when the husbands left for young women. Russia's divorce rate is 80 per cent.
Ms. Ogorodnikova's latest book is about a school that teaches young women to find rich husbands with ruthless efficiency. She said her books are based on real people, but like Mr. Listerman, she will not name names.
In researching her latest book, Ms. Ogorodnikova assembled a group of female university students, the latest objects of desire by oligarchs. She was stunned at how many were seeking wealthy husbands and boyfriends.
"They just want money," she said. They didn't care if he beat them or drank too much," she said. "I asked them how much do you need? They said 50,000 rubles [about $2,000)]a week."
Ms. Ogorodnikova said the women saw themselves as Cinderella figures.
"They forget that Cinderella was a good labourer. Her prince was a real prince, not a king with a wife and a couple of children."
Ms. Larionova is undeterred and said the classes have improved her self image and have raised her standards. She enrolled after her boyfriend recently left her. "Now I don't care about him. I want someone better, someone rich."
Like Hollywood celebrities,
the love lives of the oligarchs
are closely followed in Russia.
Abramovich, 41, divorced his second wife Irina last year after reports surfaced of his relationship with Russian beauty Daria Zhukova, daughter of Russian oligarch Alexander Zhukov. Mr. Abramovich and his former wife had five children. Mr. Abramovich's net worth is estimated at $18.2-billion. He has homes in Britain and Russia and is governor of the Russian province of Chukotka.
Vicktor Baturin, formerly the deputy head of Inteko, the $1-billion concrete, plastics and real-estate business, recently divorced his wife to be with his pregnant, 23-year-old Belarussian girlfriend.
a Russian billionaire, was arrested in 2007 on pimping charges after New Year's celebrations at the French Alpine resort of Courchevel. The arrests also included about 10 Russian women who called themselves students and models during police hearings. A judge later cleared Mr. Prokhorov, saying there wasn't enough evidence to proceed with the case. Mr. Prokhorov, an investor in Norilsk Nickel, Russia's biggest mining company, denied any wrongdoing. Later, the Russian elite threatened to boycott the French resort. Russians are among the resort's big-spending clients during the winter season.
Alexander Tarantsev, 50,
a shopping-mall magnate, married model Yulia Vizgalina, and they now co-own Moscow's Soho and Jimmy Choo boutiques.
Lebedev, a jailed oligarch and the former business partner of former OAO Yukos chief executive officer Mikhail Khodorkovsky, divorced his wife of 30 years, Tatiana, while in prison, to marry his young girlfriend, Natalia. They have two sons now.