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Liberated Russian Women Doff Hard Hat, Don Apron

ONCE she was an automobile engineer. Today many would call her a domestic engineer.

But elegant, mink-coated Lena, accompanying her son at Moscow's trendy McDonald's last week, prefers to be called a ``society lady.''

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``I would never refer to myself as a housewife,'' says Lena, who quit her job when her husband became a prominent businessman - so prominent that she won't give her last name.

Lena may not call herself a housewife, but she spends her days cooking and cleaning, as well as making herself glamourous for her husband when he comes home from work. And in the New Russia, she's not alone.

``I spend time with my son, I take care of family matters, and I also spend time on myself,'' she says, her petite face partially hidden by large movie-star-like tinted glasses. ``When I worked, I had no time to spend on me.''

For decades, Western feminists fought for the right to leave the confines of their kitchens and work outside the home. But in the ``progressive'' Soviet Union where women were expected to work full-time in the marketplace, many secretly dreamed of becoming full-time homemakers.

``Women are now trying to distance themselves from old lifestyles,'' says Elena Myasnikova, the thirtysomething editor-in-chief of the Russian Cosmopolitan magazine. She says her peers want either to pursue careers that will bring them job satisfaction as well as an income, or become housewives.

``There was the propaganda that women had to become truck-drivers or God knows what, and now they are fed up and want to do just the opposite,'' she says.

The Soviet stereotypes of burly female tractor mechanics and drill-press operators, toiling long hours to build Communism have gone the way of three-hour bread lines and sugar rationing coupons.

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While American schoolgirls might dream of becoming doctors or astronauts, the profession of domokhozyaika, which literally translates as ``mistress of the house,'' is fast becoming one of the most valued - and glamorous - career choices for women here.

In the good old days when incomes were regulated by the state, most families depended on two salaries to survive.

But thanks to the new breed of biznesmyeni, a select group of well-off women can finally enjoy the luxury of staying home - something the older generation could never imagine.

``Many of my friends are housewives,'' says Olga Petrova, a former teacher who stopped working to take care of her two small children. ``If the husband earns enough money, it's quite common these days.''

The new regime

Laura Svetlova, for example, graduated from a trade institute but has never worked. She says she now devotes herself to doing what she does best: creating a happy atmosphere for her husband.

At least once weekly, she visits the newly refurbished prerevolutionary Sandunovskaya Bathhouse in central Moscow, part of a regimen she has perfected over the years to keep herself beautiful.

In the steamy washroom, well-nourished babushkas beat each other relentlessly with leafy birch branches before smearing their bodies with coffee grounds and raw honey.

But Mrs. Svetlova sits alone on a vinyl bench in the dressing room, surrounded by French cosmetics and creams as she sips fruit tea from a porcelain cup.

``My husband is glad I don't work. I never get tired out, and I'm always at home,'' she says, relaxing after a Finnish sauna wrapped in a coarse linen towel. ``If he calls during the day, he always knows where I am. If I'm not at home, he knows I'm at the banya and will be back in two hours.''

Like most of her friends, Mrs. Svetlova says she spends her days either steaming herself in the banya, getting a massage, or attending ``shaping'' classes. It's a Californian lifestyle of self-indulgence that she enjoys. ``I never have time to get bored,'' she says.

Against the tide

But Sveta Gorshkova, a deputy manager of a fish store, says she would go out of her mind if she gave up her profession.

``My husband wants me to sit at home with my daughter and be a housewife, but I don't want to just cook and clean,'' she says, adding that unlike most Russian men, her spouse does occasionally help at home. ``I need to be with people more.''

There are many who would prefer not to see an onslaught of ``society ladies'' invading the country.

Galina Negristuyeva, a spokeswoman for the Union of Women of Russia, says she was disappointed to learn that most of the young women who attend school with her teenaged daughter plan to get a university or institute diploma, but not to enter the work force.

Ms. Negristuyeva says she partly blames this new trend on TV ads for Russian companies that often show the hubby as breadwinner while the missus stays at home.

A typical advertisement, she says, depicts a smiling housewife clutching a gurgling baby as she runs to the front door and warmly kisses her husband as he arrives home after a busy day.

``Being a housewife takes away a women's economic independence. I have read interviews with businessmen's wives who say they often feel worthless and that their husband often ends up choosing a younger woman,'' she says.

``Also, I don't think Russia has yet attained that type of lifestyle which would allow a women to just sit at home and enjoy herself.''

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