Barbie's invasion of Russia faces stand from a doll with `soul'

The West has never been in any doubt about their dislike of Nato expansion, or foreign debt, or international criticism of their clapped- out nuclear power stations. But the Russians' latest grievance against their old Cold War foes is of a more personal nature. Their sensitivities have been offended by a small, blonde, plastic, and utterly Western creation - the Barbie doll.

Russian traditionalists may have grown used to seeing their compatriots queuing by the hundreds to eat a Big Mac, or driving around Moscow's streets in BMWs, or avidly reading Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan and Penthouse. But the esteem in which the nation's small girls hold Barbie is just too much to bear.

At least, it is for Slava Zaitsev, 58, one of the country's leading fashion designers. He has accused the doll of being "absolutely cold, scrawny, cynical and pragmatic". He also thinks that she is unduly sexual (though not sexy). And he plans to supplant her - with a warm-hearted Russian doll who has that most elusive of Slavic properties: "soul".

That Barbie is hugely popular in Russia is not at issue. You only have to poke your head in the Moscow's huge children's store "Detski Mir" to find Barbie in scuba gear, Barbie at the Oscars, Barbie as a pilot. She is on sale everywhere. You may not be able to find an edible sandwich or a working lavatory at many Russian airports. But Barbie, in all her cosmetic glory, is certain to be there. So, for that matter, are Ken and Sindy.

To find a prototype for his rival doll, Mr Zaitsev - designer of the forbidding black robes worn by Russia's senior judges - staged a competition among 15,000 girls called "Goodbye Barbie. Hello Marusia!". A panel of designers, toy-makers and artists selected three angelic-looking children, aged between eight and six: Katya, Vika and Anna.

Exactly what the finished product will look like remains to be seen, but if Mr Zaitsev's prescription for a good doll is any guide, it will be more "babushka" than babe, more mother than moron. "It is high time to think of the creation of our Russia dolls with a Russian soul," he told the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. "... it must be chubby and cuddly."

The fashion designer has dreamt up some headline-catching stunts to sell his new toy, such as using two giant balloons to spirit Barbie away from Russian soil. Patriots will, no doubt, applaud.

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