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Men's Health Magazine Takes a Macho Tack for Muscovites

First issue includes tips on uncorking champagne and winning a drunken brawl.

January 03, 1998|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — In this haven of hard drinking and heavy smoking, where vices are still valued as the measure of a real man, a little political correctness tried to elbow its way into 1998 New Year's parties: The inaugural edition of Men's Health magazine in Russian hit newsstands with musings on the virtues of vegetables, suave conduct at business lunches and tips for tasteful selection of a New Year's gift for the boss.

But what serves as a guide to good health and savoir-faire in Western countries has had to tailor its message to Russians whose appetite for advice on clean living is swiftly sated.

"It's not the No. 1 subject for our readers right now," Russian edition Editor Ilya Bezugly says of the magazine's stifling of stories urging moderation. "We don't want to scare them off with too much talk against drinking. Our readers are more macho than men in the West, and our articles will have to address that."

Among the items in the January, 132-page issue is a six-step lesson on how to properly uncork a champagne bottle and a postscript with pointers for winning a drunken brawl.

The Russian magazine, published bimonthly in 50,000 copies that sell for between $3 and $4.25, aims at a younger, brassier audience than editions published in the United States, Western Europe, Australia and South Africa.

"Men's Health in the United States is aimed at baby boomers, whereas our magazine is targeting men in their 20s and 30s. As a result, we have to adjust the editorial content to their interests and needs," says Bezugly, 29.

Even his appointment was a compromise with the publication's guiding principles.

Dirk Sauer, founder of the Independent Media empire that publishes Russian Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and a host of international fashion magazines, complained to a group of editors only two months ago that he had despaired of finding a Russian editor for Men's Health who was a nonsmoker.

"I agreed to cut down a few each day once I took this job," says Bezugly, who now describes himself as an occasional smoker.

*

The Russian male lifestyle has long been a documented disaster.

Life expectancy for men fell to a post-World War II low of 57.6 years in 1994 and has crawled back toward 60 in the past three years because of a slight drop in the incidence of alcoholism among those in their 20s, says demographer Sergei Zakharov, author of several recent articles on Russia's mortality crisis.

"But they are still drinking more than their age group did in the early 1980s, which makes me fear the recent rise in life expectancy is just a demographic quirk," says Zakharov, a harsh critic of his countrymen's culture of excess.

"In any case, a life expectancy of 60 is hardly something to be proud of. This is a terrible figure," he says.

Bezugly says alcoholism and drug abuse will be tackled in his magazine but in an informative, rather than judgmental, manner.

"Men's Health in the United States seldom covers these subjects. The editors there figure that if a man is buying their magazine, he cares enough about his health not to be an alcoholic or drug addict," he says. "But we know we have big problems in this area, and we will try to be a positive influence on young men."

Alcoholism is epidemic in Russia, with as much as 60% of the male population afflicted.

Drug abuse is also widespread, blamed largely on the economic turmoil of the past decade that has thrown millions of middle-age men out of work.

The vast majority of Russian men smoke cigarettes, and little of the social censure discouraging the habit elsewhere exists here. But as more health-conscious Western professionals set up joint ventures in Russia, the concept of smoking bans in offices has begun to catch on.

An explosion of pricey new fitness clubs also testifies to younger Russians' keener interest in health, with memberships in clubs like Gold's Gym and the World Class Fitness Center in Moscow selling for as much as $2,500 a year.

Still, Men's Health plans to focus in Russia first on sex, careers, relationship advice and adventure travel, then ease into fitness and diet restraint, says Bezugly, who appears to know his readers well.

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Georgy Shonus, 31, a currency transaction manager at Moscow's Rikk Bank, says he found a lot of useful information in the first edition.

"I especially like its anti-feminist position," he says of the courtship advice in writer Pavel Frolovsky's column titled "Brilliant Answers to Her Most Foolish Questions."

But he and other young readers say they also like the career tips and guidance on demonstrating taste and sophistication on a date.

An example of the advice: "Don't stare at her breasts and refrain from ogling other women--you can do it, it's only a few hours."

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