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It's Like 'Sex and the City,' Only the City Is Moscow

At first glance, it is very much a Slavic ''Sex and the City.'' Four attractive, well-dressed girlfriends meet at chic cafes to kvetch about life, love and sex.

But as much as modern-day Moscow can seem like New York, what with fast-paced lifestyles, pressure-cooker careers and complicated relationships, Vera, Alla, Sonia and Yulia are not quite Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte.

''Balzac Age, or All Men Are Bast '' (as in bastards; the Russian short form is a common term here), a popular television program whose second season just began, may be a comedy about sex in a big city, but many aspects of the lives of its four female leads might be a bit of a shock to the fabulous quartet from Manhattan.

'' 'Sex and the City' is full of the glamour, chic, splendor and beauty of New York,'' said Alika Smekhova, who plays Sonia, a widowed gold digger on the prowl for yet another rich, old husband. ''Our heroines, like our countrywomen, are deprived of glamour,'' she added, though Sonia lives in a duplex -- luxurious lodgings in this city of unaffordable apartments.

The series, which enjoyed big ratings on the NTV channel in its first season in 2004, has from the beginning been described here as a Russian version of ''Sex and the City,'' though NTV said it had no licensing agreement with HBO, producer of the original.

Vera has a teenage daughter, a product of the Soviet practice of marriage at a very young age. She and Yulia both live with their mothers, as does Vera's boyfriend, Zhan, reflecting the overhang of Communist-era housing shortages and Moscow's sky-high real estate prices.

Yulia, a nymphomaniac who is unemployed, is desperately trying to land a husband since her father, who supported her, has left her mother for a woman younger than Yulia. Vera finds out that Zhan is married to a woman he says he wed fraudulently to provide her with the residence permit needed for even Russian citizens to live in Moscow .

Alla, a high-powered lawyer with a fetish for male strippers and a fear of commitment, has some of Samantha's traits. But Lada Dance, the pop star turned actress who plays her, is equally well aware of what differentiates the series from ''Sex and the City'' and what unites the two shows.

''It's about our life, about our mentality,'' she said. ''We have our friendship between women. They have theirs. It's different. The only thing is that it turns out that men both here and there are bast '' she added, using the same Russian shorthand as in the program's title.

At first Sonia enjoys her life as a widow, taking young lovers for pleasure, but when the money runs out, she becomes a call girl to an oligarch who is sick of his Barbie-doll wife. She has sex with him in a dark, empty apartment, without seeing his face, and he begins to confide in her.

Harking back to Dostoyevsky's prostitute with a heart of gold and reflecting the attitude of many Russian women toward their men, Sonia begins to pity her lonely client. In a modern twist, she also confesses to Vera -- who is a psychotherapist and, like the Carrie Bradshaw character on ''Sex and the City,'' provides the voice-over for the show -- that she has never enjoyed sex so much as this anonymous kind for money.

In the episode that was broadcast Monday, Sonia ends up being driven to drink and, surrounded by empty wine bottles, her face bruised after a drunken fall, is saved by an intervention from her girlfriends, who listen to her lamentations. ''I'm 35 and I have neither children nor a husband nor a job,'' she cries. ''It's all over. All that's left is a lonely old age.''

Yulia tries to comfort her, then cries when Sonia points out that she is in the same boat. Alla hires male strippers to clean up the apartment, and then all the girlfriends get depressed because they realize that if they were young and desirable, men would clean up for them for nothing.

The hunky strippers in thong underwear washing the dishes and vacuuming the floor gave the bittersweet denouement of the episode a satirical edge. In general, the show's cheery theme music and exaggerated characters and situations underscore its comedic core.

But the series nonetheless reflects contemporary Russian realities. Women, especially in Moscow, have become engines of a growing market economy and are putting off marriage. Yet women over 30 are still often regarded as aging, if not old; even those who have their first child in their late 20's are categorized as coming late to motherhood. Indeed, the show's name, ''Balzac Age,'' refers to Honoré de Balzac's novel ''A Woman of Thirty'' and is the polite Russian way of referring to a woman who is getting on in years.

These mores have long placed men in a privileged position in relationships. So did the Soviet Union 's historical legacy of war, repression and alcoholism, which has left Russia , where men live to an average age of about 59, with an acute shortage of males -- many of whom are raised and spoiled by single mothers.

''It is our history,'' said Maksim Stishov, the scriptwriter and a producer of ''Balzac Age.'' ''We have completely different relations between men and women. We have fewer men, many fewer men than women. This affects relations of women with each other and with men.''

Dmitry Fiks, the director and co-producer, is even more blunt. ''We have infantile men,'' he said. But he added that the goal of the series was not to roast them mercilessly, but to poke fun at their weaknesses. ''We love them and make them funny,'' he said. ''They are very gentle and touching, but all slight imbeciles.''

Not unlike the ''Sex and the City'' stars, the actresses who star in ''Balzac Age'' have seen their lives splashed across Russia's tabloids and celebrity magazines.

Zhanna Epple, who plays Yulia, recently separated from her common-law husband of nearly two decades; in an interview with a Russian television magazine, she said he could not deal with her success.

Yulia Menshova, who plays the sympathetic, studious Vera, divorced after the series began filming. She was host of a television talk show in the mid-1990's called ''I Myself,'' about women standing up for themselves as Russia was making its rocky transition to a market economy. She said the uncertainty of that transition was reflected in relations between Russian men and women.

''People live well, but they always live in fear that this is the last time they will live like this,'' Ms. Menshova said. ''This creates a psychological pressure that makes people so afraid to let someone into their inner world that even relations between men and women have become some kind of threat.''

Photos: The stars of ''Balzac Age,'' from left: Alika Smekhova, Zhanna Epple, Yulia Menshova (also below, with an unidentified actor) and Lada Dance. (Photographs from NTV)

Sophia Kishkovsky, "The New York Times" (29.12.2005)