EDUCATING VITA: A Tale of Christmases From Past and Present

What more poignant demonstration of the road we have just traveled, and indeed, of children's adaptability, than the announcement that Vita is to play Mary in Bray-on-Thames' nativity play ? This time last year, she was rehearsing her detsky sad end-of-term concert, a particularly secular affair for which I, to my horror, was ordered by her thespian music teacher to run up a Russian national costume -- blouse , sarafan (a kind of pinafore), lapti (Russian peasant shoes) and headdress. Luckily I remembered seeing them on sale to tourists at Izmailovo and shamelessly cheated.

At the great event, a unique Ded Moroz (Father Frost), one of the two I have seen with enormous bosoms, a shrill voice and uncanny resemblance to a headmistress, appeared under the imported plastic fur when the children had finished reciting their litanies to world peace and little birch trees.

This year Vita will be in blue and carrying tiny baby Jesus rather than a balalaika in her arms. Poor Sasha, an inevitable product of an atheist Soviet youth, is torn between pride that just weeks after her arrival in the U.K., 3-year-old Vita has been launched into the star role (bar the baby, of course) in this most Western of Christian traditions, and on the other hand his innate unease with matters religious.

Vita must be one of the few Marys to bear the surname Anichkin, and like any good Russian father, Vita's papa will certainly be there with his zoom lens. But it will be hard for him to resist pointing out to her that the Christ story is scientifically unproven and, moreover, the "opiate of the masses."

If and when he does, I shall naturally retaliate that communism is no less the mass opiate and, even taking into account the Crusades, a lot more nasty. Although no defender of the communist system, Sasha no more wants me to paint an unremittingly grim picture of his country's history to his children than I want him to make them laugh at the Beefeaters outside the Tower of London.

But Vita's new career highlights the difficulty we hardly anticipated when, as we were covering the events of October 1993 together, rushing down from the White House each evening to file our respective reports, I found out, quite unexpectedly, that I was carrying Vita. Happily we have a mutual respect for the best of each other's cultures. Nevertheless a huge diplomatic mission lies ahead of us.

How bad were the Russians -- or the Soviets? How daft is Christianity -- or any religious belief? Whose was the greater empire and is Pushkin better than Shakespeare or vice versa? Which language has a wider vocabulary and does a pig go "oink-oink" or "khryu-khryu?" Ideally it will not become a competition, but instead Vita and Benedict will enjoy inheriting the very best from their dually impressive cultures.