All Russia is besotted with a vacuous 1970s television drama, The Rich Also Weep, which Mexico provided as 'humanitarian aid'. The arrival at the weekend of Veronica Castro, the actress who played the heroine, Mariana, had crowds of hysterical babushkas throwing themselves at her, and caused as much stir as if the Virgin Mary herself had descended from an aircraft at Sheremetievo airport. Nor was it only the airport crowds who got excited. A performance of Swan Lake at the Bolshoi Theatre was thrown into confusion after Ms Castro turned up in the audience. 'The performance was on the verge of disruption,' Tass news agency reported. 'Virtually all the spectators rushed to her box. Ovations and greetings appeared to be endless.'
Everybody in Russia watches The Rich Also Weep, and the country grinds to a halt when the programme is screened. Tired of dreary politics, people talk of little else but the latest intrigues in the house of the wealthy Luis Alberto, who takes the orphan Mariana into his home and eventually marries her. The vast audience is untroubled by the fact that, to save money, all the parts are dubbed by a single (male) Russian voice.
Last week, the press reported the case of a housewife who was so entranced by the programme that her frustrated husband crept up behind her and scrawled obscenities in felt pen all over her naked back without her noticing. As it was a hot day, she went out to the beach in a bikini with the offending words still visible.
A topical homegrown Russian soap opera has fallen flat, apparently because it is too close to reality. Russians prefer to watch the high life - if Mexicans dressed in bell-bottoms, sitting at plastic coffee tables and drinking whisky from the mini-bar can be considered the jet set.
Ms Castro may be having lunch with Boris Yeltsin himself. Some cynics argue that President Yeltsin has much to thank Ms Castro for: the soap opera, they say, has been a godsend to the Russian leader because it keeps people in a trance while he imposes his painful economic shock therapy.
Russian television will soon be showing a second series of The Rich Also Weep - so perhaps we will have a riot-free winter, despite inflation, poverty and rising unemployment.