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Changing Lifestyles : Russia Has New Luxury--and Some Old Habits : Ritzy hotel staffed by 'heroes of capitalist labor' is thriving.

June 22, 1993|MATT BIVENS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Yuri Bondereyev spends his spring nights on the roof of the Royal Philharmonia. From there he watches the stars and listens to classical concerts, free. Best of all, he follows the goings-on at the hotel nightclub across the street.

"It's good to see people having fun," said Bondereyev, the concert hall's handyman, as he dreamily watched St. Petersburg's upper crust dancing and drinking. "I would also probably like to have a good time like that."

It's unlikely Bondereyev will ever be doing any of that at the Grand Hotel Europe. It would take half his monthly salary of 20,000 rubles (about $20) just to meet the club's $10 cover charge.

The Europe is St. Petersburg's most visible and probably most successful legal enterprise. Since reopening under the management of Sweden's Reso Hotels chain in December, 1991, business has been roaring. In 1992, the hotel turned over $32 million and occupancy averaged 87%--despite basic room charges ranging from $175 to $820 per night.

FOR THE RECORD - Unpublished Correction No Desk 1 inches; 26 words
In a June 22 story by Matt Bivens The Freedom Forum was referred to as the Gannett Foundations Freedom Forum. They have been independent of the Gannett Co. and its foundation since 1991.

Most impressive is the imported work ethic: In a country famous for listless and rude employees, the Grand Hotel Europe has found people willing to work Western hours and smile Western smiles. Among a population turned cynical by the unrealistic production demands and wild government boasts of the Communist era, the hotel has found fertile ground for a ludicrous management credo that urges employees to be Heroes of Capitalist Labor.

He operates by the "Elephant Principle," says technical director Boris Petrikevitch: "If a guest calls the front desk and asks that an elephant be delivered to his room, the receptionist should ask two questions: 'Will that be an Indian or an African elephant, sir? And what time would you like it there?' That's what five stars means."

No one's asked room service for an elephant yet, although employees, as they were in their red-kerchiefed Soviet Pioneer days, are vsigda gotovi --"always prepared."

Meanwhile, workmen installed four additional phones, three fax lines and extra dark curtains at one mysterious guest's bidding. For newspaper tycoon Allen Neuharth, chairman of the Gannett Foundation's Freedom Forum, the hotel staff flew in eight Western newspapers daily. The staff quickly found a rare king-size bed when Ted Turner and Jane Fonda requested one on arrival.

And when a visiting sheik wanted news from home, hotel guests received three days of Arabic TV alongside their CNN and MTV. The hotel also made a kitchen available to the sheik's cooks.

Other guests have been picked up by the hotel limousine straight off the runway at Leningrad International Airport, bypassing customs entirely. "With gifts, anything can be arranged," explained front office manager Walter Neumann.

Is this the new Russia? Can the "Elephant Principle," as communism before it, electrify the country? Is the Grand Hotel Europe's staff of 430-odd Russians--hired, personnel manager Yuri Ugolnikov frankly admits, on the basis of good looks, youth and English skills--the vanguard of a new revolution?

Irina Nikolayeva thinks so. Reso Hotels rescued Nikolayeva from a run-down motel about 15 miles from St. Petersburg after she wrote them about her disgust with her lazy colleagues. Now she's the Grand Hotel Europe's back-of-house manager--and its firmest convert to the Elephant Principle.

"I think the hotel is very important," Nikolayeva said. "People here unlearn their bad habits--laziness, irresponsibility. People who leave the hotel take those lessons with them."

The hard currency hotel salary, coupled with management's emphasis on English proficiency, makes it a haven for struggling professionals. Union leader Sergei Stepanov, a former professor of Russian literature, estimates that half the employees have doctorates or the equivalent. A handful of physicians work as chambermaids, waiters and security guards.

Even the doorman has a Ph.D. After defending his thesis in 1985, Kamil Novinsky became an assistant lecturer at the St. Petersburg Veterinary Institute. On 375 rubles a month, he supported his wife and their two children, ages 8 and 5, and, over his wife's objections, tithed to the Mormon Church.

Novinsky, 35, started out as a dishwasher at the Grand Hotel Europe, then traded his steel wool for a black top hat and long coat. He now makes 2,000 rubles plus $27 in hard currency a month.

"In this hotel, we have some steps. Dishwasher is the first step, and then doorman," Novinsky said. And what next? "After doorman? I don't know. But I think . . . as a veterinarian."

New employees aren't just trained; they're re-educated. When Olga Atsetieva, 19, and Ilyana Kovnoneva, 20, showed up for training to take room service orders over the phone, Peter Kumlin, manager of the hotel restaurant, ordered them instead to clear off and clean a series of metal shelves. They exchanged confused looks.

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