Year of dog bodes well for Russians

THIS New Year, if I am lucky, I may receive a rubber dog. For superstitious Russians, who celebrate New Year rather than Christmas, have adopted the Chinese system of identifying certain years with particular beasts and are convinced that the nature of the animal determines the fate of humans for the next 12 months.

1992 was a bad year because our lives were ruled by the monkey, who likes to play cruel tricks. But 1993 was even worse. Last New Year, my friend Vitaly toasted in 1993 thus: 'To 1993, the Year of the Black Cockerel. This will be a year of death. Only those who live very carefully will survive this year.'

Whether it was the influence of the Black Cockerel or not, Vitaly's prediction was not far from the mark. 1993 has been particularly bitter for Russians whose society, deeply divided over reform, came to the very brink of civil war in October when over 140 people were killed in the battle for the White House.

Russians have already psyched themselves up for a good year in 1994 and they are sure fortune will smile. There are two reasons for this: one is that the frost is hard this winter after several years of mild temperatures and slush; the other is that today the dog comes into his own. The dog is friendly to humans, as we were informed in all seriousness by newscasters this week, and the Year of the Dog cannot fail to bring blessings provided our festive dinner includes food he would like. So, tinned meat chunks in vitamin-rich gravy all round.

A new political star has risen in the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. At a press conference after his election last month, he said: 'I am a dog. I was born in the Year of the Dog and every 12 years I am happy.' We can only hope that the year which favours the wolf does not turn out to be a bitch for the rest of us.