AN elite group of women is meeting daily at Moscow's Russian-American Secretary School, where they are becoming privy to the tantalizing secrets of this once almost- nonexistent, capitalist profession.
The students learn how to file and photocopy masses of paper. They learn to take dictation, type, and hone receptionist skills. Equally important, say their teachers, they are taught the intricacies of setting up a bar, how to wear ``proper'' makeup and appropriate clothes, and how to correctly assimilate the ``symbolism'' and ``language'' of flowers.
``When we opened four years ago, firms more than anything wanted a beautiful girl with long legs. They cared only about appearance,'' says the school's educational director Yelena Privalova. ``But business has changed under perestroika and now we try to train a new kind of secretary. Now we say beauty takes second place to knowledge.''
Back in the Soviet days, real ``biznesmyeni'' were few, and honest-to-goodness secretaries were rare. The word ``secretary'' was usually reserved to denote the head of the Communist Party.
Steadfast at the barricade
Instead, a surly receptionist - usually a woman, but not always - would barricade herself outside the boss's office, who was often some official in a Communist Party-related organization. Her task was not to be helpful, but to keep people from entering.
``In the past, a `secretary' only said `no' or `I don't know,' '' says Ms. Privalova, who practices what she preaches, smiling politely and wearing a no-nonsense blouse. ``If she could type, she considered herself a secretary.''
As more and more Russians go into business, trained secretaries are becoming a sought-after commodity. In fact, people with any business skills, be they secretaries or directors of private firms, are now in demand.
``Five years ago we only looked for people to work in government offices, and they only needed to have initiative and be willing to work,'' says Yuliya Sakhanova, director of Triza, one of Russia's largest private headhunting firms. Nowadays, government experience is considered a drawback, she says.
``In the past we all sat in our government organizations with no responsibilities and received our 120 rubles per month,'' she says. ``But now we need people who can think on their own.''
At the secretary school, the students, who invested $680 for the two-month course, are trying to learn just that.
Free-market foot soldiers
The select group - hundreds are turned away - take 16 mini-courses, including Business English and Diplomatic Protocol, to prepare them for the competitive job market. In some cases, firms pay back the student's fees after they are hired.
In one hallway, a lighted mirror is surrounded by cans of hair spray and lipstick. Fashion books and glossy photographs of the students are on display.
``To work in a prestigious firm, you have to wear prestigious perfume, not stuff from Hong Kong,'' explains Yuliya Bronskykh, reciting one of the school's mantras. A former soldier in an elite aerospace division, she plans after graduation to return to her job as bodyguard, where she believes her new skills will come in handy.
Male students, meanwhile, don't have to worry about cosmetology courses because no men have been accepted at the school, although a handful have applied.
``Men have higher ambitions. Even if he has less knowledge than a woman, he always strives for a leadership position,'' Privalova says. ``Not one said he actually wanted to be a secretary. They all said they wanted to be the director of a firm and thought this is a good first step.''
``I don't want to be the boss,'' affirms student Yuliya Pochina, 22. ``I'm the boss in my family. That's quite enough for me.''
For businessman-turned-politician Konstantin Borovoi, a secretary's lack of ambition is a plus. His two secretaries know who is in charge, he says.
Mr. Borovoi told the popular Moscow News in an interview that Marina is not as smart as Lyena and cannot do simple tasks without detailed explanations, which, he adds, is typical for Russian women. But, he said, he prefers Marina over his other secretary, because her ``legs were longer, her coffee was tastier, she created a nice climate, and carried out `diplomatic' tasks well.'' The day following the interview, according to Moscow News, Marina quit.