He may be the last Soviet folk hero, waging a rear-guard defense of Russian traditions against a wave of imported Christmas commercialism, symbolized by a Western fat cat named Santa Claus.
He is Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), a mythical character rooted in Russian fairy tales and promoted by the former Communist regime as a Slavic and secular bringer of gifts and New Year's cheer to Soviet kids.
But today, the spare, enrobed, and heavily bearded figure of Moroz is being resurrected by politicians and business leaders seeking a champion for Russian cultural values and, of course, commercial interests.
"There has been a deep process of Americanization over the past 10 years, and it has left people feeling a bit alienated," says Alla Aliyeva, a professor of Russian literature at the official Institute of World Literature in Moscow. "Since the Iron Curtain came down, our own Ded Moroz has been eclipsed somewhat by the universal image of Santa Claus."
Orthodox Russia celebrates Christmas on January 7, but the Soviet-era holiday of New Year's remains the key day for feasting and gift-giving. Western practices have made an impact, however. Russian schools will close for winter vacation on December 25 - several days earlier than in past years. Russian state TV plans to broadcast a full day of Hollywood Christmas films, and Western carols are standard background in most Moscow malls and department stores.
"We have already passed into the world market, and there is no going back," says Luna Koneva, an expert with Comcon, a Moscow advertising agency. "Santa Claus is a worldwide cult, and the challenge is to find the right niche for Ded Moroz in this world. It is a bad idea to encourage competition between the two."
None of this agitates Russian children, who find few problems with the idea of two grandfather-types bearing gifts. "Ded Moroz is skinny and wears a long robe," says Natasha Leonova, 12. "Santa's fat and always laughing. I think he's German." Masha Kuznetsova, 10, complains that "Santa expects you to write letters to him if you want a present." She adds that Ded Moroz is lucky to have a pretty female companion, Snegurichka (Snow Maiden).
For many adults, Ded Moroz is not merely the stuff of their Soviet-era childhood memories, he is one of them. Lean, earthy, and occasionally profane, his capricious approach to handing out gifts seems to appeal to the famous Russian fatalism. "No lists of who's been naughty or nice for him," says actress Marina Volkova. "Ded Moroz rewards children for making him laugh, for being energetic, or just because he feels like it."
"Ded Moroz is an absolutely Russian guy," says Natalya Vidanova, press secretary at Moscow City Hall. "He throws tantrums, he sips vodka, he dishes out punishments as well as rewards.... Santa seems a rather abstract and passive character by contrast. And he has only reindeer and those awful elves for companions. Who'd invite him to a party?"
But if Ded Moroz is a popular choice, Santa clearly has powerful forces on his side. The battle lines are drawn on Moscow's Manege Square, by the Kremlin. A giant portrait of Ded Moroz, with his crystal staff and fur coat, was mounted by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov atop Hotel Moskva. Below, Coke billboards feature a rosy-cheeked St. Nick; a plastic Santa soars in his reindeer-driven sleigh over a department store.
Mr. Luzhkov is rallying behind Russia's folk symbol. The mayor and other officials will greet Ded Moroz on television tomorrow when he arrives from his far northern hometown of Veliky Ustug. A week of city-sponsored celebrations will follow.
"This is nothing against Santa Claus," says City Hall's Vidanova. "He has his place, and everyone respects him. But he's a foreigner, after all, and Ded Moroz is made from our own national dreams."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society