Ambitious investor in new democracy The capitalist: A child of the Communist era becomes a charter member of the prospering class of New Russians.

August 20, 1996|By CLARA GERMANI

MOSCOW -- An unapologetic capitalist, Marianna Romanovska always goes straight to the bottom line.

Her gauge of whether Russia's young democracy is working rests on simple, personal tests:

The art and adrenalin of closing a business deal, the deed to an apartment, Victo-ria's Secret and Lands' End catalogs, Self and Shape magazines, MasterCard, a health club membership.

And diet yogurt, which appeared on Moscow shelves a year ago. She loves diet yogurt.

Romanovska is deputy director of the Moscow office of Tiller International, a British investment firm. She is a charter member of the prospering class of Russians who owe their well-stocked, brand-name existence to the 1991 fall of communism.

This emerging class of New Russians is still a very thin layer of society, perhaps constituting no more than one in 100 people in Russia's major cities. While gaudy excess and fabulous wealth have become the stereotype of this class, the vast majority of them -- like Romanovska -- earn $12,000 to $60,000 annually.

They are considered a stable, hard-working group -- with the tastes and values many Americans would cherish. Even so, Romanovska is conspicuously wealthy amid the sad-eyed and threadbare Russian masses.

"I am a self-made woman - I have two passions, my job and fitness. I'm ambitious, strong, independent. I'm fast-track," says Romanovska, in flawlessly cliched business English. It's a style she developed over five years of advancement from a Pepsi-Cola International receptionist to an investment executive.

Put the impeccably dressed 33-year-old on a Manhattan street, and she would pass for just another tightly wound MBA.

But in Moscow, Romanovska is exotic. Her confident Reebok-and-business-suit gait, her ready smile and the slight impatience of a can-do attitude are all things she learned from Western mentors and popular U.S. self-help books.

Teen epiphany

She is a true post-Soviet creature, attacking the Stairmaster with as much precision and planning as she does the real estate negotiations and contracts she supervises for Tiller International.

And yet, Romanovska is a child of the Communist era. The defining moments of her life - from the frivolous to the traumatic - make up a blueprint of the opening of modern Russia: from perestroika in the 1980s to Yeltsin's hybrid democracy.

There was an English teacher, her high school's Communist cell leader, who came back from an exchange visit to America with tantalizing stories of happy, Beaver Cleaverish families.

"She said they smiled at each other all the time," recalls Romanovska, whose childhood was marred by her parents' divorce.

There was her teen epiphany in a 1970s student exchange visit to Czechoslovakia, where the bright contrast to drab Soviet life crystallized her hatred for the Communist regime at home.

She fell in love with the "lightness" of life, so different from grim Soviet conditions. "It was the correct thing for us to say we were homesick, that we missed our motherland. And I did say it," she says.

But she wasn't homesick, and worse, she says, "I couldn't say it out loud."

Russians lived a lie, she says, "not because they wanted to deceive but because they didn't know the truth -- we thought we lived in abundance."

There were the college nights in the 1980s she spent secretly taping Voice of America broadcasts - not for information, but to learn English.

There was her risky leap from a state-subsidized numbers-crunching job to private enterprise in the late 1980s, when the first fissures of perestroika opened up.

As a free-lance English translator from 1988 to 1990, she built a network of contacts that would eventually lead to a job with Pepsi. But she led an impoverished life, sewing all her own clothes and spending nearly every ruble she had to pay rent.

When she won the receptionist job at Pepsi's new Moscow offices in 1990, she finally gained access to the free-market world of which she'd always dreamed.

But it was an unfamiliar world of fax machines, concepts such as profit margins, and the very foreign expectations of an upbeat office manner and answering the phone politely.

Romanovska embarked on a frenzied study of literature banned in Soviet times. She read everything from basic market economics to self-help books such as Stephen Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," which has become the spiritual foundation of her sunny disposition.

She even pored over scholar Paul Fussell's "Class," an ironic, snob's-eye view of the American social ladder. A novelty read for Americans, it was a confidence-building primer in Romanovska's search for such things as the do's and don'ts of corporate trench-coat colors and polyester.

Steely determination

Finally, in a strange twist of the Cold War era's legacy, there was the sudden arrival last year of a hitherto unknown aunt -- from Israel. At 32, Romanovska learned she is Jewish.

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