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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bowing Down to the Cult of Barbie

SERGEYEV POSAD, Central Russia -- One room is filled with boxes overflowing with chubby right arms. Another is stacked high with little bald heads. From these bits and pieces emerge the dolls that fill the shelves of Russian toy stores. One of the favorites has shockingly blue hair. Another sprouts wild orange locks. The hair colors strike the seasoned foreign eye as a little hard to love, but purple hair, blue hair, no hair at all -- what was the difference to a grizzled central planner? Dolls would be ordered, dolls would be produced and five-year plans would be fulfilled well enough without the whispered desires of little girls upsetting the calculations. Now, as the market economy sinks tentative roots into Russian soil, the longings of small children can be loudly heard, even here in the office of the director of the Zagorsk Factory of Handicrafts and Toys. The voice is shouting, "Barbie, Barbie" right in the ear of Georgy Argun, director of the factory. Argun, watching business changing around him, sat up and listened. He couldn't, of course, produce Barbie, the lissome blond bombshell that is the heart's desire (inflamed by advertising) of every Russian girl. She's already a huge American business. So Argun and his helpers created Vassilissa, a svelte, shapely blond a shade shorter than Barbie but still taller than Skipper. Vassilissa has opted for the traditional look, wearing historic Russian dress -- long skirt and overdress with lots of rickrack and lace and bright colors -- instead of the miniskirts and halter tops of her flamboyant Western counterpart. She won't quite pass for a Totally Hair Barbie -- her long blonde hair is worn in a chaste braid that falls far down her back. And on her feet, instead of born-to-strut plastic high heels, she wears dainty little red-leather boots. Argun hasn't started marketing Vassilissa yet -- he's still prey to the vagaries of industry here. Supplies are delivered only sporadically, and he wants to make sure he has enough plastic and fabric to send thousands of Vassilissas marching out of his factory and into Russia homes before he takes any orders.