What is it that makes a Russian see red?

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A day or two ago, a Russian neighbour and friend, arrived at the door. He wanted us to look after his dog while he was away on a trip. Would we mind?

I have known him for more than a year. I have walked with him, talked with him, dined with him, all of which has been conducted under one common understanding: that his dog was called Richard.

Russians do not generally name their pets using their own names - Alexander, Boris, Olga - but they have no compunction about summoning an animal to heel by bellowing out the name of an English king. Now, out of the blue, my friend revealed a secret. The dog has two names; he also called him "Tolik", a short form of the name "Anatoly". The conceit was simple: the dog, a setter, has red hair; so too does the first deputy prime minister of the Russian Federation, the second most senior man in the government, the economic brain-box beloved of the West, Anatoly Borisovitch Chubais.

Red hair arouses peculiar sentiments in Russia; at best, there is a vague tendency to single out redheaded people; at worst, there is blind and bloody-minded prejudice. Mr Chubais is widely disliked here because he masterminded a vast privatisation programme in which millions of Russians were issued with vouchers, only to find them worthless. Ever since, he has been blamed for selling off the equivalent of the family silver. But he is also scorned, for reasons far harder to fathom, because of what happens to grow on his head. Even Mr Gorbachev, with his famous birthmark, did not suffer thus.

You rarely hear a Russian slagging off Mr Chubais without first appending to his name the word "ryzhi" - redhead. "You know what that stupid redhead Chubais has done now?" Thus begin a thousand conversations every day from St Petersburg to Vladivostok. This is not only malicious, it is also inaccurate. Mr Chubais is more flaxen than red, and has none of the ivory pallor and bright hue of a genuine redhead, or even the ruddy tufts of our new Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. (Alas, I fear he will find the Russian man on the street is wary of him).

Strains of this prejudice can be found everywhere (personally, I blame it for Neil Kinnock's 1992 election defeat). But its most virulent form grows on Russian soil. I became aware of it months ago, when I happened on a Russian language text-book for English students. Readers were encouraged to follow the exploits of a hapless and irritating boy called Jimmy the Carrot. It was never spelt out, but the assumption was that being annoying was part of his nature, an inevitable side effect of redheadedness.

Rooted somewhere in the Slavic psyche is the notion that redheads are cunning, dangerous, and too clever by half. There is an old Russian rhyme "ryzhi krasni chelovek apasni" - "a redheaded person is dangerous". If you miss out someone while handing round, say, chocolates to a group of Russians, they are liable to cry: "Chto ya, Ryzhi, Chto-li?" What am I, a redhead or something?

The other day, by way of an experiment, I decided to ask every Russian I met why this prejudice prevails. "It goes backs centuries," explained Irena, my Russian teacher, "Russians are usually fair or dark. If there was a redhead in the village, and something terrible happened, he or she would always be blamed. It's like - well, a tradition, but it lives on. Today if there is a redhead in a classroom of children, he will definitely get teased. Without doubt."

I tried Olga, a colleague: "It is just because they are rare," she replies. However, she ventured, she did recall seeing shows when she was a child with traditional Russian dolls. One of the characters was always a redhead and spoke with a ridiculously high voice. Keen to help, Olga called Professor Natalia Burnikova, of the Institute of Russian Language. "It's a cultural tradition ... such people are thought to be a bit special, more delicate than everyone else, so children tend to tease them," said the professor.

Then I tried one of the women who watches over our apartment building. "Red hair has got nothing to do with anything, and, by the way, it is not the reason why we hate Chubais. He robbed the people, and gave away our wealth to strangers. Now all the shops around here are not run by Russians, but by people from the east."

She placed her fingers at the corners of her eyes, pulling them into two tight slits. Some subjects are better left alone.