Russian New Year: Enter Grandfather Frost, a skinny Santa with slim pickings for children

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The Independent Online
So they have already smashed up the computer you gave them? The next time you decide that the festive season brings out the worst in children, consider what life would be like somewhere else. What, asks our Moscow correspondent, if your child was not John but Ivan, not Natalie but Natasha?

Like any self-respecting child, Zhenya has taken the precaution of writing a letter listing her seasonal requirements in detail. It is addressed not to Santa but to Ded Moroz - Grandfather Frost - and is placed prominently in a cabinet over the dining table, awaiting his arrival on New Year's Eve, when Russians traditionally exchange gifts.

Russians believe that Ded Moroz is superior to his Western counterpart, not least because he is lean rather than obese and wears a full-length coat rather than a silly little red jacket. But, like Santa, he is a giver, and that is what eight-year-old Zhenya is counting on.

Among her desires, she explains in her painstaking handwriting, are some dolls of the great man and his Russian fairytale companion, Snyegurochka, the snow maiden.

Her list will also include a videotape of Just You Wait (a popular cartoon) a water pistol, a pocket tape recorder, a notebook and ballpoint pen.

At this point, Santa (though not Grandfather Frost) might well be expected to drop his mince pie and gape in amazement at the modesty of her expectations. Where is the request for an all-singing-dancing Packard Bell with Pentium Processor and a stack of blood-curdling CD-Roms?

"Of course this list is to help Grandfather Frost make his choice," said Lena Slivkina, Zhenya's mother, evidently anxious to dispel any impression that her daughter is avaricious, "She is not getting everything."

The days are over in Russia when parents had to queue for hours just to buy one Soviet doll, which invariably shed its limbs the moment the children began to play with it. In Moscow at least, you can buy a wide variety of toys and games - if you have enough cash.

There, of course, is the rub. Russians love to spoil their children. Usually stern-faced women break into generous grins at the sight of an infant. But for many, Barbie dolls, in-line skates and computer games exist only behind glass as the stuff of fantasies. A lack of disposable income and different cultural traditions ensure that their New Year and Christmas, which is celebrated on 7 January by the Russian Orthodox Church, is very different from the children of fully fledged consumer societies.

So, other seasonal pleasures have to be found, often of a curiously Victorian flavour, such as a trip to the circus, an art gallery, a museum, or na yolki - a mixture of dance, circus acts, music and games organised by local authorities in cities across Russia. Muscovites can also take their offspring to McDonald's, although hamburgers and chips are still regarded by many as too costly a luxury. On New Year's Day, the closest culinary equivalent to our Christmas, they are more likely to stick to jellied minced meat, salted herring, and bland salads.

When Zhenya opens her presents she will have to find space for them among her meagre collection of furry toys and dog-eared colouring books. She does not have a bedroom of her own, but a corner, which is cordoned off by a large curtain. She, her parents and two dogs live and sleep in one small room in a dingy communal apartment in Moscow. The kitchen and bathroom is shared with two other couples. Her mother and father - a driver in the market - sleep on the fold-out sofa.

Pressure of space is one reason why Zhenya is not particularly a child of the television culture, although she has watched the video of 101 Dalmations countless times. Every weekday, she spends four hours after school in a clapped-out Soviet era sports hall, working on her headstands and somersaults. Although only eight, she is already in her fourth year of gymnastics and is trained by a former Olympic world champion. Watching her at a recent Moscow competition -where little girls around her wept with effort and frustration as they performed - was enough to confirm that it is tough, disciplined work.

But that is work. New Year is about play and a relief from the rigid training schedule. The chances are that, whatever gifts she is given, Zhenya will not complain. She remembers by heart every present she ever received on her birthday in October (shampoo, a box of chocolates, a book of fairy tales, trinkets).

And if she does grouse, she will get short shrift from her parents. The approach to discipline in Russia is straightforward. "If she misbehaves at home, she gets a sharp reprimand," said her mother, Lena. "That is usually enough. She knows that after that she gets a clout. It's the same principle that I have been using to bring up my dogs. I give the commands once. That's enough."

All this might also be enough, you might think, to lower the spirits of any young soul. But it is not so. When I asked Lena if her child was happy, Zhenya interrupted. "Yes," announced the little girl cheerfully (and, startlingly, in English) before doing a back flip across the threadbare carpet.