MOSCOW -- Vladimir Rakovsky glides around dressed in black with the air of a guru -- albeit a self-appointed one -- as he holds forth before a group of admiring students on the virtues of womanly wiles.
This softly lit room on the second floor of a Moscow theater is as appropriate a place as any to stage a master class for women on how to act -- literally -- to get men, and what they want from men.
This, according to the name of Rakovsky's class, is known as stervologiya, or the art of being a sterva,which in Russian means, literally, "bitch." But wait: This is not a bad thing. At least this is what he says, and this is what the scores of young Russian women who have paid nearly $200 to listen to him during his six-week course must believe.
A sterva, Rakovsky explains, is not someone who is aggressive or mean, but an adept manipulator.
"A bitchy woman, it's not something derogatory," he says. "It's a skill to be bitchy. It's a weapon you can use."
That such a class exists offers a window into the mind of many a young woman, or dyevushka, in Russia today. Numerous sterva schools have opened in recent years, and some women -- obsessed with beauty and status in a society where 12 percent of a their paychecks, a recent study showed, is spent on makeup -- have flocked to them in hopes of snagging the kind of stable, desirable man in short supply here.
If being a sterva doesn't work, there are other possibilities. Both Moscow and Saint Petersburg have geisha schools, teaching students about "erotic" cuisine, among other topics.
And, in the same theater where Rakovsky, 42, divulges the secrets of stervologiya, his 23-year-old wife runs a school where women learn something that for centuries required no training at all: how to seduce men.
Perhaps not surprisingly, these students of stervologiya and seduction generally shun the word feminism -- which is regularly confused in Russia with lesbianism -- the same way Western women shun the word "bitch." But, in a way that pushes the boundaries of reason, these classes are very much about feminism, though of a different -- and, some would say, offensive and demeaning -- ilk. In this world, feminism is above all about being feminine, using that femininity to one's advantage and through that advantage gaining power.
"Stervologiya -- it's a science about women and for women," reads a hot-pink brochure advertising Rakovsky's classes. "It's a science for those who need confidence in tomorrow. For those who are tired of being 'ordinary women,' playthings in the hands of cruel fate. If you feel that the time has come to be a first-class bitch, you are most welcome! If you want to achieve success, this training program is for you!"
On any given night when Rakovsky is teaching, his classroom contains an abundance of high-heeled boots, dyed hair, fashion sense, girlish giggles and expectations that whatever is being said will somehow lead to a better, more fulfilling life.
Lika has come because her marriage to a man she knew a month before exchanging vows isn't going as well as expected -- her husband has become noncommunicative -- and she wants to demand more of him.
"It was mostly my fault," she says sweetly, saying she needs to stop being the "good girl." "I was too nice. I think I should be more powerful, I guess."
Natalya wants to expand her arsenal of womanly behaviors, something she describes as being "different -- not like a tank moving in one direction."
Another student, who is wearing a name tag on which is written not her name but a moniker that translates as "cunning one," says she is trying to find out how to get from a man the three things that matter in relationships: "good sex," "money" and "emotions."
Rakovsky, who calls being a sterva a "state of mind and a way of life," holds a master's degree in psychology from Moscow State University, and has worked as a rescuer for the federal Emergency Situations Ministry. He plans to take his show on the road to Kiev, Ukraine.
In class, he holds court before the students, who are in their 20s and 30s and seated in a long row against a wall hung with a blue curtain. He paces slowly, seemingly saying whatever comes to mind. All Russian women are lonely, he declares. And then: The more a man boasts, the more he should be praised. And then: Women have lost their femininity during decades of pursuing careers.
Some women take notes -- paper and pens are provided -- or nod their heads in silent assent. One evening, everyone gathers around a TV set to watch the George Michael video "Father Figure," which features a sexy catwalk model, intimate love scenes and, presumably, some kind of life lessons.
During the master class -- some of these women have already attended Rakovsky's basic courses -- he calls upon one for a role-playing exercise, and she joins him at the front of the room. She is to find out what qualities a man likes in a woman. Her tactic is to ask outright.
"No, this is too aggressive," Rakovsky scolds. "A woman should be soft."
"How am I scaring him?" she asks.
"You are too assertive. You are too confident," he replies.
"Is that bad?"
If the brochure is to be believed, stervologiya teaches a woman to be free and independent, to lose her complexes and to love and respect herself. But the crucial skill is manipulation. For a woman to get her way, Rakovsky favors the technique of behaving like a little girl -- or, as his wife, Yevgeniya Steshova, puts it, like Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.
"All great women were manipulators," Rakovsky says, referring to Catherine the Great, whose reign, while great indeed, was made possible only by her overthrowing her husband, Peter III, with the help of a lover.
Steshova, a model since the age of 13 who teaches strip dancing to the music of Beyonce as part of her seduction school, has mastered this and is proud of it, though in a sweet, modest way. She describes the ideal woman as beautiful, stylish and adaptable as an actor.
"She must know how to play roles -- the sweet baby, the young girl," she says, demonstrating by sidling up to the nearest man's shoulder, batting her eyelashes and saying, "Pleeeaase give me," a method she has found unfailingly effective. "It's easier for a woman to get what she wants by using her female charm."
Steshova recounts the case of a former student -- 27 years old and, she adds, a virgin.
"She didn't know how to take care of her appearance. She looked more like a man," Steshova says. "When I looked at her for the first time, I thought it was a hopeless case. But she tried very hard.
"She visited a stylist, she changed her hairdo, learned how to put on makeup and walk in a beautiful manner. She learned to dance at the disco."
Now, according to Steshova, she has lots of male admirers, including one who asked her to live with him.
Day one of a recent seduction class brought lessons on how to walk sexily, sit sexily and accidentally drop something on the floor and pick it up sexily; others include how to do a striptease. The homework was twofold: Return with the business cards of three new men, and make a concerted effort to "look beautiful."
Seductive skills can be useful, apparently, in every situation. Irina Ivanova, a seductress-in-training, said after the inaugural lesson that, while she planned to use some of what she learned on her husband of 12 years, the knowledge would be even more applicable in her job at a Moscow cargo company.
"Female charm always works," she said. "Maybe it's unethical to use female charms to attain professional goals, but it's not illegal."