Out of Russia: Red Square greets a new bearded hero

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - The last man with a big beard feted in Red Square was Karl Marx. He would take his place, alongside Engels and Lenin, on huge propaganda boards. Not only history had an inexorable logic, but, Russians joked, shaving too - evolving from unkempt, through trimmed to goatee. With Mikhail Gorbachev the process seemed complete. After Stalin's moustache and Brezhnev's eyebrows, Gorbachev had hardly any hair at all. Khrushchev, of course, pioneered baldness. But he was ahead of his time and lost his job. Shaving, like revolution, followed a merciless, immutable logic.

Then history went haywire. The revolution collapsed; Gorbachev fell; hair came back to the Kremlin; and yesterday in Red Square, they were again gazing at a fat old man with wild white beard. Like Marx, he was a foreigner. American, they said. His name: Santa Claus. And he had even more hair than Marx. His beard nearly touched his navel. And so it should - the rules have changed. Gone are the bogus standards of the past 75 years. Still, it is all very confusing for a country not quite sure which way it is going.

Yesterday was Christmas in Moscow, celebrated by the Orthodox Church according to the Julian instead of Gregorian calendar. And for the first time since 1917, Russians got a day off work to celebrate, extending a New Year's holiday that has already shut down the country for a week. President Boris Yeltsin is about the only person, aside from Patriarch Alexei II and his priests, still working: he interrupted the holidays to sign a nuclear arms treaty with President Bush.

The American theme was carried over into Christmas too. In Red Square, Santa Claus addressed children in English - bad English with a heavy Russian accent. He arrived on a pick-up truck with Donald Duck. Welcoming them was another bearded man, Grandfather Frost or Ded Moroz, Russia's equivalent of Father Christmas. 'How lucky you are to have relatives in America,' shouted his sidekick, Snowflake. The audience giggled. Donald Duck played the saxophone and Santa Claus danced to cowboy music on a makeshift stage next to Spassky Tower, near the Lenin Mausoleum.

The occasion was a children's show sponsored by a Russian trading house, an Italian jeans company and a firm from Nashville, Tennessee, which donated a gigantic plastic Christmas tree shipped in from the US and now standing next to the Kremlin Wall. It seemed an odd gesture of friendship towards a country with endless tracts of pine forest. In return for their help, though, the firms have been allowed to copy the former sponsor of all Red Square events, the Communist Party, and put up propaganda boards to advertise their wares. The Italians chose a large picture of jean-clad buttocks.

More spiritually minded was a group of Christians from Chicago. Their motto: Family, Church, Country. They set up a nativity scene on the edge of Red Square. 'I believe our two countries are united through a common ideal of bread, work and dignity for all,' declared William J Grutzmacher, their leader. 'Let us live side by side with respect for each other's culture as we pray for a peaceful world under God with liberty and justice for all.' A more Russian formulation of the Christmas spirit stands on the edge of Red Square in the shadow of St Basil's cathedral: a 20ft placard painted like an icon showing Mary, a group of angels with red roses and baby Jesus.

Whether the motifs are domestic or imported, however, many Russians still aren't sure what to make of it. For them, New Year remains the important holiday. Lenin's Bolsheviks originally tried banning New Year but decided it might help stamp out religion and transferred much of the tradition - pagan and Christian - from Christmas to New Year.

But the Orthodox Church is growing fast. It has just won back control of chapels inside the Kremlin and is re-opening other churches used as storerooms and factories for decades. 'Thank God, we are celebrating Christmas again,' said Patriarch Alexei in a message carried by Tass, the news agency formerly devoted to trumpeting the birth of socialism, not Christ. President Yeltsin arrived for a Christmas Eve service in Moscow's Epiphany Cathedral in a stretch Zil limousine. The service was shown live on television, giving many Russians their first glimpse of the ritual of the Russian church - and the even more wondrous spectacle of the leader of the Kremlin sitting amid the incense.

In Red Square, though, the transition from Karl Marx to Santa Claus still shocks. Galina Frolova, who brought her children to watch Santa Claus, said: 'We want to believe but life doesn't make faith possible.' Did she ever expect the old Communist portraits to vanish? 'No, never. Maybe it is different for my children. I grew up as a Young Pioneer. After that it was Komsomol, then the party.' She hesitates, then continues: 'But it is better this way.'