In an apartment on the west side of Moscow, Alesya Terekhova is on a roll. “Adam and Eve ate the apple,” she declares. “And now, we’re eating it every single day.” Oxana, one of Terekhova’s “girls,” nods after every syllable. At one point, the acolyte reaches for Terekhova’s left arm and grasps it. Doesn’t let it go. The two women are in perfect synchrony: They finish each other’s sentences, laugh at the same jokes, and agree on every single thing.
Terekhova is about to start a one-on-one “womanhood” session with Oxana. It’s for Woman Inside, a new school she founded for young ladies who want nothing more than to get married. The sessions are held in an open space in the middle of her apartment, which feels almost cabin-like—all wood fixtures and green paint—against a stunning backdrop of skyscrapers. Contradictions are everywhere: Buddhism symbols next to Molitvoslov, the Orthodox prayer book. Murakami novels next to Fifty Shades of Grey. On the windowsill, incense burns next to imagery of Russian Orthodox saints. Terekhova shyly looks away from the photographer—“It’s not good to look directly into the camera,” she says. “Someone could cast an evil eye on you.” But she does it while posing like a seasoned model.
Terekhova is a modern woman, an entrepreneur with a thriving business. She is also a crusader for some of the most archaic ideas about love and sex you could possibly imagine. And for women like Oxana, she is a savior—at least until a man comes along.
“She’s like this bulb of light, a teacher, a guru,” says Oxana, standing by the kitchen while Terekhova makes some tea. “She spread my wings and now I feel happy, stronger and free. Now I know what I want in life.”
In Russia, where unmarried women are considered old maids by their mid-twenties, a cottage industry has sprung up around women’s last-ditch efforts to find or keep a man. On VKontakte, the country’s Facebook equivalent, dozens of “womanhood schools” have hundreds of thousands of subscribers. There seems to be one for every taste imaginable, from how to catch a husband by giving the perfect blowjob to saving oneself until marriage, a strategy Terekhova recommends.
Only six months old, Woman Inside is holding its own amid a sea of competition in Moscow. The club, which guarantees complete confidentiality, caters to an exclusive group of single women and wives who want to improve their marriages (never more than 20 at a time, Terekhova says). A flyer for the school roughly translates to: “For the most incredible, successful, perfect young women who are what worthy men’s dreams are made of.”
Here’s how it works: A woman confesses her woes—a lack of money, no husband, a rocky marriage—and Terekhova prepares an individualized program to course-correct. A reboot, she calls it, “just like with computers.” The program includes daily phone conversations, in-person individual and group sessions, and “assignments” to complete each day, specifics of which she’s not willing to divulge, at least not for free.
She’s equally vague about her past. “My childhood was just a common one,” she tells me dismissively. I’m able to eke out a few details: Terekhova was an only child in a middle-class Moscow family. She attended art and music lessons on top of regular schooling. Her father, a real estate agent, was constantly busy, and her mother died when she was very young, so she spent much of her time with her paternal grandmother, an empathetic accountant who became a source of inspiration for Terekhova and her womanhood school.
If you ask Terekhova, Woman Inside has been years in the making. A lithe 28-year-old blonde and a self-described role model for women, Terekhova says she’s been helping women find themselves on a pro-bono basis for a long time. She’d always provided counsel to her friends and acquaintances about their personal problems. When she graduated with a public relations degree and briefly started her own ad agency, she realized her heart wasn’t in it and thought she could spin her penchant for giving advice into a career. And judging from the massive success of womanhood schools in the city, it’s not hard to see where she got the idea to funnel her talents into a school like this.
“My heart was flaming with love, and I could see inside people and feel their pain,” she says. “So I decided to create this island of goodness for the girls to be able to come and learn that happiness is in their reach.”
If all this talk about flames and islands seems a little…grandiose, that’s because it is. Terekhova, who claims she was always “special” and “very ahead” of her peers, is full of sweeping statements and mixed metaphors. She bounces quickly from idea to idea, never answering a question directly, even about the cost of the school (though she insists it remains affordable to most women). All my inquiries lead to her supposed spiritual powers, her guiding force, her secret formula behind a woman’s happiness. It’s clear Terekhova believes it all—but sometimes I have no clue what she’s trying to say.
The first time we meet, at a café nestled in a modern mall in south Moscow, Terekhova walks in 10 minutes late speaking confidently into her phone. As she scans the tables, she hangs up forcefully. It’s late January, and temperatures are well below zero Celsius. Terekhova is wearing a long, light brown fur coat over a tight, brown turtleneck sweater and dark brown pants. Hanging from her neck, as always, is a crucifix.
She sits and immediately commands the attention of a waiter. Orders some pastries to share. “The way to a happy life is through sweets,” she says.
Half a cheesecake later, she explains her confidentiality policy: Many of her students end up meeting wealthy and powerful men. The message of Woman Inside, as retro and straightforward as they come, is that women need men to take care of them. But Terekhova does view women making money as a positive thing, so long as it’s treated almost like a hobby—a fun pursuit that might end up helping women discover their passion. Breadwinning, however, should never the rest on the shoulders of women. Bottom line: Men should protect women, financially or otherwise.
As the owner and only instructor, she guarantees a customized approach to making this happen. Most issues can be solved by “rebuilding” the brain and downloading new information onto the student, she says. This reconstruction includes removing any fears, labels, or concerns from their minds and replacing them with “inner harmony.” That harmony, of course, is all in service of attracting a good man.
Upon saying goodbye, she tells me to call her in a couple of hours if I don’t feel like myself. When people meet her, she says, they are so overwhelmed by her presence that they experience feelings they never have before. When I get home, I am a tiny bit disappointed to discover I feel no such effect.
Terekhova was only two years old when the USSR collapsed and has no firsthand experience with living in a Soviet society. She never knew what it was like for all women to be obligated by law to work or for women to put much less thought into their appearance. But she has certainly benefited from the ambivalent cultural changes since then.
During the Soviet Union, two clashing trends were afoot: Marriage was still the key institution regulating birth rate, sexuality, and a woman’s place in society—but the USSR had one of the highest rates of educated, working women in the world. Academics call this the Working Mother Contract, in which women actually had more responsibilities than men. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, some women—especially educated, urban ones—demanded to be seen as autonomous humans. Feminist circles began to form in major cities. There was more opportunity for women’s financial and sexual independence than ever.
But that didn’t mean every woman embraced it. Now that they didn’t have to work by law, many women seized the chance to live a mid-century model of a bourgeois life and be a housewife. And since the mid-aughts, there’s been even more of a conservative turn in Russia fueled by official statements from the parliament, President Vladimir Putin, and the Orthodox church. The economic crisis the country has faced in recent years has made a breadwinning husband all-the-more valuable. So the concept of marriage has endured as a patriarchal, bourgeois bridge to security that defines all aspects of a woman’s life, and schools like Terekhova’s offer the exact recipe for this model.
Nadezhda Nartova, a professor at Russia’s Higher School of Economics, says that while civil rights movements were popping up left and right across the world in the mid-20th century, none were happening in Russia. Because of this, along with Russia’s extensive military history, the old model of masculinity still dominates. “It’s not only that men want a woman to stay at home and cook borscht,” she says. “It’s also on a symbolic level–how else can a man prove his masculinity, prove he’s a normal, cool macho?”
This macho culture has resulted in widespread suppression of feminist ideas (just look what happened to feminist punk rock protest group Pussy Riot in 2012). And in a society that worships manly men, it’s far easier to succumb to the pressure of finding a man by any means necessary. Of course, women in the Western world get similar messages through pop culture and the media. But the Russian approach is far more constant, aggressive, and culturally accepted. There’s no shame in succumbing to patriarchy entirely; in fact, it’s praised. Here, the outliers are women like Bella Rapoport, a St. Petersburg-based feminist activist who thinks the last thing a woman needs is instructions on how to please a man.
Rapoport, who used to be a lifestyle journalist covering movies and fashion and now writes articles and columns on feminism and gender norms, says there is enormous societal pressure in Russia for women to get married. Rapoport is well aware of the “womanhood schools” phenomenon; Terekhova’s school is relatively tame, but she tells of many other courses that instruct women on specific sex acts, and even what face to make while doing them—“basically a detailed guide on how to be a good sex object,” she says.
She wasn’t always so attuned to Russia’s rampant sexism. At 31, fresh out of a relationship she now recognizes as abusive, she felt she didn’t have the right to call herself a woman without a husband by her side. “Russian women get married to men who they normally wouldn’t even want to be friends with,” she says. “They do all of this for the sake of marriage.”
According to Rapoport, this is cemented into Russian women from the time they are small children. By kindergarten, when girls don’t succeed at small tasks such as organizing their desks, teachers remind them that later in life their husbands won’t take kindly to such behavior.
Meanwhile, Russian men historically have been praised just for the fact of being men. Women flooded the workforce during and after World War II to replace the millions of soldiers who never made it home (not to mention the untold millions of murdered dissidents under Stalin), yet it was still men who were revered. “It’s a firm contradiction to think men are protectors and women are helpless in cases like this,” Rapoport says. “And yet it’s deeply embedded in society.”
This mythical concept of “protection” is something many women in Russia still crave—and this craving might express itself in more ways than one. Terekhova’s students, who consistently refer to her as an “angel” sent from heaven, admit they see a division in their lives: before and after her guidance. Lost and then found.
Oxana first heard about Terekhova from a friend, who also happened to be one of Terekhova’s first clients. As soon as they met, Oxana was hooked. Before then, marriage and motherhood had proven to be more difficult than she had anticipated. Oxana, now 30, lived in the U.S. briefly around a decade ago as an exchange student at the University of North Carolina. When she came back, Oxana was convinced she needed to be independent. Three years later, she was earning enough money to support herself, but her new husband didn’t like that one bit. She now believes their constant tension was her fault, a result of her not allowing him to have enough financial and everyday control over their household.
Once she was under Terekhova’s guidance, she swears her problems were solved. “We started working together, and it was like my soul opened up,” she says. She decided to focus more on being a mother, and became so interested in researching parenting skills that she now hopes to start a business to guide new parents on raising techniques—a hobby to keep her busy and give her purpose while still letting her husband take charge at home. (According to her, the perfect number on the independence scale is 30%.) Oxana used to have long, dark wavy hair, but now she sports a shoulder-length ‘do. “With a new soul comes a new exterior,” she says.
A great way to obtain this new soul, Oxana says, is to follow Vedic rules, which uncannily align with Russian ideas of subservience: Women are to be revered and respected, but only in the context of being protected and controlled.
Oxana isn’t the only one thumbing through ancient Hindu texts for guidance; Vedic tradition is trending in Russia. On VKontakte, groups dedicated to Vedic rules for women have amassed thousands of followers. Olga Valyayeva, a womanhood guru who has authored six books on how to be a true Vedic woman, has more than 300,000 followers. Ruslan Narushevich and his “Vedy” group have reached more than 20,000 subscribers, and another womanhood school called Institute for Family Relations, which regularly posts Narushevich’s and Valyayeva’s teachings, has reached the 110,000-subscriber mark.
These groups share daily posts—predigested, condensed snippets of a complex, thousand-year-old belief—reaffirming a woman’s role as exclusively to serve her husband and children. Without them, they say, a woman loses all value. One recent post by the Institute for Family Relations reads:
Girls, remember for the rest of your life: a smart man and a smart woman are not the same. Why? A smart man has a lot of knowledge, and an extraordinary mind. A woman never shows her intellect, especially in her family. She cautiously tries to find the right solution, the softest, the most painless solution.
Terekhova describes her school as having elements of Vedic teachings, along with psychology and a vague concept of “spirituality”—and though she might not like to admit it, a hefty dose of conventional wisdom.
“Women have to understand that men and women are different,” she says. “When a woman finally understands that, she changes her attitude. The first step toward making a man happy is being happy yourself.” To prove her point, Terekhova grabs a piece of paper and begins to draw two shapes that almost resemble jigsaw pieces. A woman, she says, deserves a man who compliments her. “You see? They fit together!” Oxana chimes in.
Oxana’s mind was open to Woman Inside’s teachings from the start, but Terekhova says that even the skeptics walk away from her school satisfied. Irina, a 30-year-old Moscow native, didn’t know what to make of Woman Inside at first. Now, she’s a full-throated believer. After hearing about Woman Inside from one of her friends, she decided to join her during one of the group sessions. A company manager driven by logic, Irina had never attended a class like Terekhova’s before, but was on a mission to understand herself. She wanted to try new things, be more confident, and maybe find her soulmate. Terekhova’s school seemed like the right fit.
“I understand my nature better,” she says. “I now know I need to present myself as a woman all the time if I want to be happy with myself.” In other words: Be more feminine, which was achieved mostly thanks to a brand new wardrobe. Even at work, she says, people have noticed the differences. Now she stands out, she speaks up, and the treatment she gets is undeniably better.
Now that she feels happy and in harmony with herself, Irina believes she might find her soulmate. Not that it’s happened yet. For the moment, Terekhova is not worried about the fact some of her students haven’t successfully have found husbands (it’s too early to tell, she says). What she wants for them is happiness, she insists, and at the end of the day her school is not a dating agency.
She can’t lead by example, either: Terekhova has yet to tie the knot.
“There is no shortage of men who want to marry me,” she tells me. “But I am a very special and complex person, and the man who marries me has to be a special person, too.” Men can offer money and power but can also treat women like toys. What she wants is a feeling of protection from the exact right man. (The man she’s seeing has already popped the question, but she's still pondering whether she will accept.)
“For now I am just one of the most coveted bachelorettes in Moscow. Almost like a princess,” she says as she grabs a tiara from a shelf. She places it on her head and meticulously looks at her face in the mirror. Then she bursts out laughing.
Vasily Kolotilov contributed reporting to this piece.
Paloma Baltazar Pedraza was born and raised in Mexico. She moved to the U.S. to attend the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, where she served as the news editor of the student-run media organization, The State Press.