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A wacky New Year in Russia

Russians treated New Year's Day the way Americans treated Christmas _ decorating trees and exchanging gifts and the like. And some politicians came up with some exciting gift ideas of their own.

Take, for instance, nationalist legislator Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who once campaigned on a platform of getting Alaska back from the United States and who peddles a brand of vodka with his portrait on the label. Just before New Year's, he introduced his own sex advice book called the ABCs of Sex. Talk about your family values.

"I am telling young people: Sex is beautiful. Sex is better than drugs," he writes, not making it absolutely clear how much he knows about either.

Zhirinovsky, who has faded since his rise to prominence in 1993, says Russia should promote sex as an industry. The export of virgins, he reckoned, could earn the country $750-million a year, and the promotion of sex tourism at home could make billions more. Instead of mini-bars, each hotel should be equipped with a cupboard filled with sex tools. Suites should include electric varieties.

Moving on, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, put on sale a new account of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its aftermath. As is customary, he praises himself for things that went right and blames others for things that went wrong. It's not certain that, even at $1 a copy, Gorbachev's Thoughts on the Past and Future will be a bestseller; he already has published a voluminous memoir, and at the new book's unveiling, he undercut expectations of fresh revelations. "Every government has its secrets," he said.

Still, one can wish him luck. His spokesman said Gorbachev had lost $80,000 in a bank that collapsed during Russia's recent economic crisis.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, usually a fountain of New Year's cheer, had to play Scrooge _ the city raised subway fares from the equivalent of 30 cents to 40 cents. He also launched a campaign against illegally bringing in New Year's trees from the countryside. He set up checkpoints at main entry points to Moscow to check for people guilty of "crimes against fir trees." Culprits pay fines of up to $8.

His Honor did go out of his way to provide a kind of national gift: He decreed that Grandfather Frost, Russia's version of Santa Claus, lives not at the North Pole but in Russia! Specifically in the town of Veliky Ustyug, 460 miles northeast of Moscow.

Why Veliky Ustyug? It seems Luzhkov latched onto the idea when he visited the impoverished town last year. Local citizens persuaded him to back their plan to set up a New Year's holiday theme park. Luzhkov, running an undeclared campaign for president, obliged.

Grandfather Frost, wherever he is from, had trouble driving his troika through Moscow this year. The city has had little snowy weather, and late December rains left only sparse gray patches of frozen slush on sidewalks and in parks.

One might think this would be a blessing for Luzhkov, who is relieved from the duty of putting workers on the streets to clear them of snow. Such is his aversion to heavy precipitation that he has on occasion ordered approaching clouds seeded, so as to empty them of rain or snow before they reach Moscow.

But Russians, like Americans, dream of a white holiday, so Luzhkov sponsored an effort by local witches to drum up snow by banging their broomsticks on a barrel of water, according to a Russian news agency. Water splashing from the barrel was supposed to produce snow.

It didn't work. The skies stayed blue.

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