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Russia: Grandfather Frost Dispute Roils New Year

This year, as Russia celebrates the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great's initiative to align the Russian New Year with the West's, a squabble is spoiling the spirit of the season. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that two Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), both claiming an exclusive right to the name, are souring the festivities.

Moscow, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Is the real Ded Moroz from Arkhangelsk or from Veliky Ustyug? Since Grandfather Frost returned from his Soviet exile in Lapland, two towns are claiming to be Ded Moroz's homeland. The northern city of Arkhangelsk boasts an Arctic geography and direct flights to Rovaniemi, in Finland, home to Ded Moroz's Western counterpart, Santa Claus. Laid-back Veliky Ustyug, a big village where two-thirds of the population still live without any running water, says its deep dark forests are the ideal hide-out for the mysterious bearded man.

In Soviet times, the Russian Santa Claus -- who unlike his Western Christmas counterpart gives presents at New Year's -- used to be a worn out actor in a drab red coat whose services workers' unions could rent for their party along with a cleaning lady. But as New Years is becoming more and more of a commercial affair in Russia, Ded Moroz is being exploited as a juicy source of money.

Arkhangelsk was Ded Moroz' first post-Soviet home, claims Andrei Tymashkevich, head of the "Ded Moroz" stock company. Back in 1991, taking market reforms in hand, Tymashkevich quickly registered Ded Moroz's name and address as a trademark in the Arkhangelsk registration office.

But a local Arkhangelsk journalist, Vladimir Anufriev, tells RFE/RL that Ded Moroz's activities were limited to a seasonal venture and therefore didn't bring in enough profit to compete with a competing initiative from Moscow.

"Because times were so [hard], Perestroika, the end of the eighties then the [difficult] beginning of the nineties, the financial situation was unfavorable to really promote the [Ded Moroz] idea on a national level. So the company was only active towards the year's end -- answering mail, giving out presents, organizing parties."

Two years ago, Russia's second official Santa Claus made a come-back in Veliky Ustyug. Though the town is a twenty-hour train ride from Moscow, the capital's Mayor Yury Luzhkov decided with the local governor of Vologda to revive laid back Veliky Ustyug's economy by patenting it as Ded Moroz's true hometown. Mixing populism and profit in his usual bustly way, Luzhkov helped launch the project.

The former "Druzhba" sanatorium has been turned into Ded Moroz's new home -- a big two-story izba with traditional lace-like carvings framing the windows. Four rooms -- called Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall -- will make it possible for Santa to invite his guests all year round. There is also a restaurant, billiard room, sauna, and souvenir shop. A theme park, hotels, ice cream parlors, a new road, a gas station, and a camping ground are planned.

Dmitri Nazarov, an actor from Vologda who plays the Veliky Ustyug Ded Moroz, is two meters tall and wears size 47 shoes. He was given a popularity boost thanks to Moscow's promotion. Every year Nazarov is personally greeted by Luzhkov at the opening of a series of children's New Years parties financed by Moscow's municipal budget.

The Arkhangelsk Santa Claus, Tymashkevich, decries his Vologda counterpart as an impostor. Tymashkevich argues that since Ded Moroz received his first Russian "propiska", the registration stamp inherited from Soviet bureaucracy, in Arkhangelsk, that makes it his only home. Also, he says Ded Moroz proved his lawful place of residence by dutifully answering thousands of children's letters addressed to Arkhangelsk for seven years.

Tymashkevich says Veliky Ustyug is resorting to wrongful competition by using a local governor's and Luzhkov's administrative levers. The Moscow City Council allegedly sent out letters into all the regions, promoting the Veliky Ustyug Santa Claus.

Arkhangelsk journalist Anufriev asks "what else can Russia's poor North hope to make money from if not from Grandfather Frost?" He also warns that a new party to the dispute may be lurking. Anufriev says he has heard that there's another registered Grandfather Frost in Murmansk who also claims to be the real one.