IRKUTSK, Russia -- On a quiet hillside in this distant Siberian city, the University of Maryland is training capitalist agents to penetrate deep into the heart of the old Communist system.
The young new agents are being equipped with the latest Western tricks: American business degrees.
"It's no secret that this is one of the most prestigious university departments in Siberia," said Alexander Diogenov, dean of the program at Irkutsk State University.
"It has been attracting the best students from Siberia and the Far East."
In an unusual collaboration, Irkutsk State University, the Far Eastern State University in Vladivostok and the University of Maryland University College are offering a Russian-American business degree.
The students spend their first two years in Irkutsk and Vladivostok studying English and general courses. In the third and fourth years, they work in the American portion of the program in classes taught by University College instructors in English at the two universities.
In those last two years they study everything from management and economics to how to read a French menu and eat with chopsticks -- learning not only Western business practices but how to operate in an international environment.
They graduate with both a Russian university diploma and a bachelor of science in management studies from the University of Maryland.
"This is a way to prevent brain drain," said Sharon Hudgins, program coordinator for UMUC. "The benefit goes back into Russia itself."
Tuition is $15,000 for the U.S. program and $6,000 for the Russian segment -- an astronomical sum here.
Yet there have been eight to nine applicants for every opening. The students must find a business to sponsor them and pay their tuition, and they promise to work for that business for three to five years after graduation.
Still, the program would like to attract more sponsors to provide internships in the West and to support students who can't find local sponsors.
"There is a huge interest in business and management in Russia," Mr. Diogenov said.
"This offers students an education that reflects American standards in business along with a strong Russian academic base."
The idea sprouted somewhat by accident. The UMUC has programs in 28 countries and offers classes at numerous U.S. military bases. A group of 40 students from an Air Force base in Tokyo visited Siberia on a study tour in 1990.
"Probably it was the first time such a big group of military men came to Russia freely, visited freely and left freely," said Gennady N. Konstantinov, academic director of the Russian part of the program at Irkutsk.
Irkutsk professors helped organize a trip to an isolated village in the taiga, the vast Siberian evergreen forest.
"The peasants knew nothing about American military men," Mr. Konstantinov said. "They only knew that when their own sons served in the military, the food was very bad. So each family tried to give as much food and vodka as they would give to their own hungry sons."
At the end of the day, Mr. Konstantinov said, everyone was stuffed and very drunk. "The captain of the boat that took them there was drunkest of all," Mr. Konstantinov said, "and the crew had to get the Americans to help them."
The shared adventure led to friendship, and the Siberians and representatives of the UMUC Asian department began to talk about working together educationally.
The first students were admitted in 1991, and 50 have been admitted each year.
The American involvement, which brought grants for library purchases from the U.S. Information Agency, has meant major benefits for Irkutsk.
"Three years ago we only had two textbooks," Mr. Diogenov said. "Now we have $25,000 worth of textbooks for the third-year class."
The students have had to adjust to a vastly different system -- including required attendance at classes and frequent tests instead of the more traditional end-of-year cramming for one exam.
Each of them exudes a polite self-confidence and eagerly practices English with a foreign visitor.
Vladimir Uonushas had already earned one degree -- in physics, a once-prestigious field in which the Soviet Union excelled. Today, science doesn't pay; business does.
"So I decided to earn another degree," said Mr. Uonushas, a 26-year-old third-year student who was putting together a grant application for a seminar in Paris. "Management is new to us. This is a very good investment for my future."
'The new environment'
Change has occurred so quickly here that most people can't keep up, he said. "After finishing these studies, I'll have a real advantage in working in the new environment," he said.
Business, said Andrei Burenin, a 19-year-old third-year student, is the future.
"This is the only department that really gives me what I'm going to need," he said.
The seven American professors teaching in Irkutsk have had their share of adjustments -- mostly in learning to live without a car.
Mrs. Hudgins, whose husband, Tom, teaches economics here, said it takes an hour and a half to take the trolley bus from the university to the food stores.
Recently, Mr. and Mrs. Hudgins were trying to organize an
end-of-year dinner party. It was a two-day project to buy the food, including the time spent ferrying the heavy bottles of wine up the hill to their campus apartment.
There is considerable waiting in line -- not because of shortages but because of the complicated selling system in Russia where you wait in one line to order and another to pay before waiting once more to pick up your purchase.
"Food is quite available here," Mrs. Hudgins said, "the problem is that only one person is distributing it."
It can't be too long before some Irkutsk-UMUC graduate is out there, waving a time-management study at his or her boss, insisting that the time for change has come.
"They're not used to the idea that businesses have to respond to customers in the market," Mrs. Hudgins observed, "but that time is coming."