Once-starving Russia finds Western diets fashionable

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

October 14, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- In the weeks and months after the August 1991 coup attempt, everyone worried that Russia faced starvation. Two years later, with life returning to normal after the recent, bloodier uprising against democracy, Muscovites are once again thinking about food.

Today, however, there's little fear that economic shambles will produce hunger. Now, it's self-inflicted. Russia has gone on a diet: Herbalife has arrived in Moscow.

Herbalife is a line of health and beauty aids that comes from California -- where else. It offers to keep you healthy while you're losing weight.

Though they're still new at the finer points of capitalism here, the main message has gotten through: You can never be too rich or too thin.

Some people hope to get rich selling Herbalife; others hope to get thin taking it. Either way, this huge land offers tremendous potential.

More than 70 years of communism left the majority of the country with empty wallets and ample thighs -- the healthiest of diets relied heavily on large amounts of sour cream.

Now comes Herbalife, ready to take on everything from cellulite to low energy levels.

Marina Sevash, a 30-year-old pharmacologist, signed on in May. She sold her car and rented out her dacha to get cash for the initial investment as an Herbalife distributor.

Not just the rich buy it, she said, though it's ferociously expensive for Russians. A month's supply of liquid meals and supplementary vitamins costs up to $150, while the average monthly salary is about half that.

Of course, who can put a price tag on a dream?

"A doctor I work with bought it for her daughter," Miss Sevash said. "She wanted her daughter to lose weight so she would be more attractive."

Another client, Babushka Yulia, is 83 years old. "She doesn't want to get old and helpless," Miss Sevash said. "She heard about Herbalife and she made up her mind."

She moved to a smaller apartment, rented her former dwelling to a Polish businessman and went to work cooking for him to get Herbalife money.

Now when Miss Sevash visits, Babushka Yulia raises her skirt flirtatiously and chortles happily, "Soon I'll be wearing a mini-skirt."

Herbalife is American through and through, but it actually arrived in Russia via Israel.

Dmitri Potapov, a 26-year-old distributor, said Russian emigres returning from Israel brought it with them.

"The marketing concept makes Herbalife a very attractive business," he said. If you sign up other distributors, he explained, you earn a 5 percent commission on their sales -- perhaps capitalistic exploitation at its finest.

Already there's competition. Slimfast, which offers diet food substitutes, is now widely available, too. But Mr. Potapov asserts that "Herbalife offers quality over quantity."

He is slim, handsome and exudes good health, all of which no doubt boosts his sales potential.

"The market in Moscow is very big," he said. "Young people love it, too. They understand how important health is. You can't buy health, but you can buy Herbalife."

Slimfast isn't the only competition, though. Tradition can be a big obstacle.

Consider the case of a Moscow woman named Lena Ilingina. She had been adhering heroically to an Herbalife program when she visited Tatiana Ignatyevna Stratyeva in Kiev, Ukraine, recently.

Ms. Ilingina was eating only one meal a day and taking Herbalife products for the other two. But no self-respecting Ukrainian host would ever put up with a guest nibbling at her food or -- horrors -- drinking a meal.

So, Lena politely wolfed down a supper with three varieties of calorie-laden salads, caviar, cheese and fried cutlets -- just to begin -- and a breakfast involving multiple portions of fried chicken, potatoes and pies.

Then, at the end of her stay, came a dinner with more salads, cheese, deep-fried eggplant, breaded pork and a large, glistening plate of that fabled delicacy salo -- cured pork fat.

"I think," said Tatiana's son, Viktor, grinning with satisfaction, "we've driven the last nail in the Herbalife coffin."

He, it goes without saying, is reed thin.

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