MOSCOW -- In the late 1970s, Irina Kulagina was a member of the
Young Communist League in her hometown of Lytkarino, 25 miles
southeast of Moscow. Today she's the director of sales at the
Marriott Moscow Royal, a deluxe, Western-managed hotel that stands
as a monument to capitalism in this increasingly glitzy city.
Kulagina was the first Russian to hold such a position at an
international hotel in this country.
Her journey from the party faithful to the market economy
embodies the challenges faced by many of her generation here, men
and women who came of age during the demise of the Soviet
Kulagina attributes at least part of her success to the fact
that she was permitted by the Soviet government to study English.
"Under Communism, very few Russians were even allowed to learn
other languages," said Kulagina.
She was planning to become an English teacher, one of the few
careers the Communists deemed acceptable for pupils of the
Institute of Foreign Languages where she was enrolled.
However, Kulagina's sympathies with the Communists Party
collided with Perestroika, the era in the early 1980s when the
Soviet Union loosened restrictions on civil freedoms and private
enterprise. "Because of eased censorship, I was able to get a
mimeographed copy of George Orwell's '1984.' I read it and all of a
sudden I realized that my country was totally different from what I
"I was very disillusioned, but [this] was positive, too, because
this is when all of the changes started to happen and [Russians]
became more open," Kulagina said.
The other major change in Kulagina's life during her studies was
her marriage to a fellow student and the subsequent birth of her
daughter. "There was a loss of opportunities, because at this time
in Russia, no one wanted to hire a woman with a baby," said
While all of her friends were getting jobs as teachers and
interpreters, Kulagina's prospects looked bleak. "When my daughter
was 6 months old, I finally got a job teaching English to students
at the Institute of Chemistry in Moscow.
"I got $100 month, which was very good at the time, enough to
take care of my family," she said. That was a new priority for
Kulagina, coming on the heels of a divorce.
After a year and a half, Kulagina grew anxious for new
challenges. In 1991, she answered a newspaper ad by the Aerostar
Hotel here, which was seeking English-speaking secretaries and
waitresses. "The first time I interviewed there, I was rejected.
The lady who interviewed me was concerned that I would be out sick
often because of my daughter," she said.
But Kulagina's career is nothing if not a lesson in persistence.
"I kept looking in the papers and three months after my first
interview, the Aerostar had another ad for similar positions, so I
"Instead of talking about my daughter a lot as I had in the
first interview, I explained that my mom was around to take care of
her in case anything happened. What I said must have worked because
I was hired as a secretary in the sales department."
Kulagina also recognized how the Soviet education system had
steered her wrong. "I had a prestigious English degree, but when I
went on the interview, I couldn't understand a word that was being
said to me. The point is, all of our teachers at the institute had
been Russian, and all our learning was theoretical. We had no
experience actually speaking English to non-Russians," she
But at the Aerostar, Kulagina quickly changed her course.
Working in one of Russia's first Western-managed hotels -- the
Aerostar is run by Canada-based IMP Group -- was Kulagina's first
exposure to the Western world.
Her first shock came in the form of a salary: As a secretary at
the Aerostar, Kulagina was making 10 times more money than she
would have as an English teacher, she said.
"The job was a dream come true. Back then, everything in Moscow
was gray, dull and uninteresting, which is unfortunately how many
foreigners view Moscow to this day. But being at the Aerostar was
like an oasis.
"I'll never forget the first week when they taught us to smile.
We had never really done this before and I loved it," she said,
adding that despite all of Russia's recent financial troubles,
smiling faces are now a common sight in Moscow.
After six months on the job, Kulagina's enthusiasm and
adaptability were rewarded with a promotion to the position of
group coordinator for sales. "The whole concept of promotion by
merit was alien to Soviet ideology, so the first time I was asked
about whether I wanted more responsibility, I had to think about
it. But after that, I sought promotions instead of waiting for
them," she said.
Adjusting to a Western-style meritocracy, Kulagina climbed the
ladder to become group sales manager and then sought experience in
a field that was virtually unknown in Russia: marketing.
"There was no Russian equivalent for the word 'marketing' in
1992," said Kulagina. "So I read some books and Marilyn Barker
Paulson, the director of sales and marketing who hired me, became
my mentor," she said.
Under Paulson, Kulagina said she really learned to think for
herself and take initiatives because she was given more
professional freedom than she had ever experienced.
"When Marilyn traveled, at first I spoke with her on the phone
every day to seek advice. But then I knew what to do without even
asking," she said. Kulagina eventually became the hotel's sales and
Moving in on the Kremlin
Kulagina was worried about becoming complacent. "The Aerostar
was very important because when it opened it had few competitors.
But eventually many other Western-managed luxury hotels came to
Moscow, and I wanted fresh challenges," she said.
Asshe mulled her options, the four-star Tverskaya Hotel, now
part of the Marriott Collection in Moscow, sought out Kulagina in
1997. "When the Tverskaya hired me, it was first time that a
Russian national became a sales director for a Western-managed
hotel. The general manager was taking a real risk, since Russians
were not brought up in the same sales and marketing climate as
their Western counterparts. I was a test case," said Kulagina.
Kulagina admits the product was not hard to sell; she had on her
hands a comfortable, medium-sized property, closer to the city
center than the Aerostar at a time when occupancies were sky-high
But she did come up with several sales initiatives of her own
that were unique in Moscow at the time, including value-added
packages in the summer as well as programs that lured business
travelers for extended stays.
After 36 extended-stay suites were opened and the corporate
client base was expanded, Kulagina was again getting the itch to do
She learned that a five-star property, only a few blocks from
the Kremlin, was to make its debut at the end of 1998. Kulagina was
hired as the director of sales after a two-hour interview with
Jerone Gerrese, the general manager.
Besides opening a brand-new hotel, Kulagina had the additional
challenge of selling a five-star property in the wake of Russia's
financial crisis, which exploded last August. Kulagina would not
release sales figures, but she said the Marriott Moscow Royal is
holding its own in a tough market.
And her next hurdle?
"I still have many challenges, one of which is countering the
stereotypes put forth by the Western media. Based on what they see
on CNN, some guests here think that a wait for fresh bread at a top
bakery means Russia is being overwhelmed by bread lines," she