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


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.

Her father, Marek Romanovski, is a Polish Jew who found himself separated from his sister and trapped behind the Iron Curtain after World War II. Foreign relatives and Jewish roots both were cause for persecution in the Soviet Union. So like thousands of others, he simply listed his ethnicity as Polish on his Russian citizenship papers and never mentioned his sister abroad.

All of this has forged a steely determination to overcome the limits of her Soviet past. Romanovska got savvy, shed weight, acquired a new vocabulary. Intimating that she's even shed all sense of her nationality, she says, "I am cosmopolitan."

Now an athletic 95-pounder, she thrives on business and the challenge of decision making.

"Russians are scared to take decisions because traditionally they need four or five signatures, an acceptance protocol, et cetera," she says. "That's why you can't even leave a phone message [at most offices in Russia]; they don't want to take responsibility for communicating it to the right person, at the right time, and it's more work to be responsible."

Clifton Harrison, Romanovska's boss at Tiller International's Moscow office, is impressed. "She never gets ruffled [the way many] Russians do. They can't take responsibility," he says. "She's the best employee I've ever had."

Romanovska's father says he hardly recognizes his daughter, who by his account was a wallflower of an academic researcher in the geography department at Moscow State University a decade ago.

"Marianna was so shy. She was not bold. She was soft," he says, noting she was 25 pounds heavier. "And if I may say so, as her father, she was more beautiful in that old life."

But when the fall of communism in 1991 opened the way to foreign investment, goods and ideas, he says, "it was the liberation of who she is - all the changes in her were because of the change in Russia."

"What I'm happy about," he says, "is that her dream is not to be a millionaire, but to have a Harvard [business] degree."

Romanovska's brand of ambition is tempered by an intellectual edge and discipline. That's what sets her and others prospering in her way apart from Russia's legendary new rich - the gold-encrusted and Mercedes-driving millionaires whose comet tails of decadence rise and fall violently in shady dealings.

Categorized by job and lifestyle, about 80 percent of the New Russians are like Romanovska, says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of Elite Studies at the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of Sociology.

Most are under 40, working in legitimate business, building solid financial foundations and generally becoming a part of the Western-style middle-class model that reformers hope will be the mainstay of a flourishing free market, Kryshtanovskaya says.

Though they typically invest much of their earnings in real estate, often their wealth is hidden in some illegitimate ways. They like to hide their wealth in foreign banks or foreign securities, safe from the arbitrary Russian tax authorities and the notorious scams of the Russian banking system.

An indication of wealth

Romanovska doesn't discuss on the record any details of her salary or investments. But one indication of her income is her annual health club membership, which costs only slightly less than what government statistics show to be the $1,800 average annual wage in Russia.

Romanovska was always apolitical - never voting or joining in any of the many street demonstrations supporting democratic forces in the early days of Russia's transition from the Soviet era.

The specter of a Communist comeback in the parliamentary elections in December and the presidential elections in June suddenly politicized her.

"Before, I had no assets. I had a little bit of cash and my Lands' End clothes. ... Only now that I have something worth good money -- my apartment -- do I care who is in power," she says.

Her prized possession, the apartment she inherited from her grandmother in the pricey Sokol neighborhood of north Moscow, is a window on her westernized soul.

There's none of the clutter or dark, busy wallpaper of traditional Russian decor. Instead, the walls are drenched in a bright Western whitewash. The only clutter in the spare apartment is a scatter of American mail-order catalogs topped by Charmy, her stuffed puppy.

She has calibrated her moral compass on the concepts of Stephen Covey. "I have an abundance mentality," she says. "There is enough in this world for everybody. And that puts a stop to jealousy, unfair competition. Even though the world is not perfect, there is a spot for everyone."

She has little patience for women who fall victim to Russia's rampant sexism -- from the want ads for young and beautiful secretaries to spouse abuse. As a self-made woman, she adamantly insists that women often become victims because they don't take responsibility.

Affairs of the heart? As if citing statistics, she says she's had a couple of affairs. Then, she offers this frank assessment: "I want someone superior to me. In a relationship the man should always be ahead and wiser, so that I always will be trying to catch up.

"If my learning curve flattens out, I lose interest."

Pub Date: 8/20/96

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