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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From Young Soviet Star to Capitalist Counsel

MTYevgenia Tarassova has managed to bridge the cultural gap between two political eras, and succeed in both.
"I normally tell people I was a spy; that cuts the questions," says Yevgenia Tarassova.

This is the explanation the 45-year-old managing partner of international law firm Salans Hertzfeld & Heilbronn's Moscow office gives to explain a bits-and-pieces accent acquired during a law career spent dealing with people from all parts of the world.

Today the blonde Russian is in the midst of fine-tuning some of the country's first production-sharing agreements between Western multinationals and Russian oil and gas giants.

But even before the fall of the Soviet Union, Tarassova was negotiating contracts with the likes of U.S. media tycoon Ted Turner and representatives of current Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The diplomat's daughter, born in Pakistan and raised in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Russia, says her cosmopolitan childhood was good preparation.

However, an education at Soviet showpiece School No. 45, where the students were often put on display for foreign dignitaries, proved even more important training.

Tarassova can still recite Hamlet's soliloquy by heart, having been compelled to memorize Shakespeare's masterpiece in order to "spontaneously" recite it for visitors.

"It was good training for people to not be afraid of newcomers and keep their poise," Tarassova says. "We're finding now that with younger lawyers, they may be perfect minds, they speak languages very well, but their ability to hold themselves in a meeting -- to insist in an intelligent and not aggressive manner on their viewpoint, which is extremely important, especially in our profession -- is not there."

Tarassova received her law degree at Moscow State University, studying at night and on weekends while working full-time at the Soviet Copyright Agency.

After graduating in 1980, Tarassova spent a few years working on a dissertation on copyright law applied to satellite communication, a new subject at the time. But before she had the chance to finish, she landed a plum job as the first legal counsel of the foreign relations department at the State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting, or Gosteleradio,

She was later named head of legal operations for the organization's commercial arm but began as a one-woman show in what she said "was still a man's world, largely."

"Today, the profession itself is kind of a rough one enough, but in the international sector in Soviet days, it was primarily a sector for men and not really for women at all."

The excitement of work that involved drawing up contracts covering the breadth of the Soviet Union -- Gosteleradio's broadcast zone stretched across 10 time zones -- and beyond is still fresh in the polished lawyer's gestures and exclamations today.

Initially, the majority of the contracts she negotiated outside the Soviet Union were with television and radio stations in the Eastern Bloc. During perestroika, however, Western companies began taking interest in working behind the Iron Curtain.

Tarassova worked on a 1987 agreement between the U.S.-based Discovery Channel and Gosteleradio. It was the first-ever deal for a Western company to broadcast live from the Soviet Union, complete with subtitles, and Tarassova calls it the pinnacle of her career at Gosteleradio.

"Can you imagine Americans for the first time seeing the Soviet Union live: the people, the streets and shops?" she says. "Nowadays, it's nothing exciting. But at that time, it was like a bomb. Viewers in the States wrote to us saying: 'I couldn't believe it! People there are wearing jeans, too. There is beer in the stores.'"

At the time, Gosteleradio -- which was desperately in need of funds to cater to the new taste for films and Western-style programming -- began taking its first steps toward becoming a commercial organization. Tarassova and her colleagues were asked to come up with ways for Gosteleradio to make money without compromising its communist standards.

"The idea was: 'Hey guys, try to balance the virginity of our state and at the same time earn some bucks. Come up with ingenious ideas,'" she recalls.

One "ingenious idea," put forward by a company connected with Berlusconi, was to place a small brand name across the face of a clock featured on the news program "Vremya," watched by hundreds of millions of people every evening. The proposal was considered and ultimately approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

"It was debated and debated, and bucks won ultimately," Tarassova says.

The political climate was changing dramatically, and by 1990 opportunities were opening up for the first time for lawyers to work outside the government in private firms. One of the newcomers on the market, international law firm Cole Corette & Abrutin, asked Tarassova to establish a Moscow office, and she agreed.

Western-style law firms at the time were as revolutionary as McDonald's. During the Soviet era, legal work was split into four categories: in-house counsel working domestically, counsel working internationally, litigation lawyers and lawyers in law enforcement agencies.

Tarassova continued doing similar work as at Gosteleradio but in the commercial sphere and stayed with the office when the Moscow arm of Cole Corette & Abrutin merged with the Moscow outpost of international law firm Salans in 1992. The merged firm recently celebrated its first decade in Russia, with Tarassova now heading an office of four partners and 30 associates.

Over the years, the firm has had to adapt to the Russian style of practicing law, which still resembles Soviet methods, Tarassova says.

"One of the principal mistakes I see with the Soviet-style approach is that people don't listen to the needs of a client. They forget about the needs and say 'Here's the recipe,'" she says. "The second thing is that you need to understand the business context in which you give your legal advice."

However, the differences are quickly disappearing, she says. "Within these 10 years, there has been dramatic change in the developing profession here."

The Russian business community is realizing the importance of having lawyers on board, she adds.

Despite the positive changes, could Tarassova leave the profession for other pursuits?

"I was always interested in real estate and interior design," she says, laughing. "One day I'd like there to be a whole building called Salans. Not just these two floors."