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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Playing Santa Claus Russian Style

Buried inside his red and white Santa suit, Andrei Ryabinin was dripping with sweat as he sat in the schoolroom. A group of children, including Ryabinin's 5-year-old daughter, jumped up and down around him as he recited New Year's fairy tales, passed out candies and relentlessly mopped his brow with the back of his hand. After 30 minutes of entertaining the children, he rushed out of the building, changed back into a suit and greeted his daughter. But the trick didn't work. "Papa, you were Ded Moroz," she said. He smelled of sweat and so do you."

That was 25 years ago, the first time Ryabinin, 60, donned the red pajamas and white beard to become Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, Russia's version of Santa Claus. Since then, Ryabinin has religiously kept to his holiday schedule, becoming one of the many Ded Moroz-for-hires from mid-December to mid-January. Together with Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden who is Russian Santa's assistant, Ryabinin sings songs and performs scenes from a holiday fairy tale he wrote himself about the evil witch Baba Yaga who tries to steal children's presents.

"The first times I saw Ded Moroz, I was thrilled," says Nastya Sibirskaya, 11, whom Ryabinin visited five years in a row until she discovered her mother laying out gifts under the tree instead of Ded Moroz last year. "It was a shock. I thought, 'What a shame that all those wonderful stories are untrue,'" she says. But Nastya is back in the Christmas spirit again, working as Ryabinin's Snegurochka.

"I used to have a different Snegurochka who was 18. But she had a quiet voice and she was unenthusiastic," Ryabinin says. "Nastya is perfect for it."

Together the two travel by metro and bus to homes and schools throughout the city, earning 200,000 to 300,000 rubles ($35 to $50) for each 30-minute performance. So far they have seven orders, but expect more from their advertisements in the local papers. Dozens of Ded Moroz service offers appear in the newspapers in December, from performances by seasonal freelancers like Ryabinin to presentations from professional entertainment firms like Zarya or Ensemble.

"We can never be as serious as the other Ded Morozes who have cars," Ryabinin says of the better-paid professionals. "They steal the business. They can perform five times a night because they can just jump in their car and quickly get across town." In the past, Ryabinin has made 15 to 30 visits in a season, making up to $1,000. But these are hard times, he says, and people don't have the means to spend on Ded Moroz services.

A former driver and janitor, Ryabinin first thought of playing Ded Moroz when he saw another impersonator who looked and sounded just like him. He made a beard and a mask with wrinkles and started taking orders both to supplement his salary and satisfy his lifelong desire to act. "I applied to all the acting academies and troupes, but no one took me. I couldn't understand it," he says. "The kids I visit can vouch for my talent. When I sing and play the accordion, they know it's Ded Moroz."

Ryabinin will never forget one occasion in which he gave himself away to a little girl. He had been visiting her home for several years, once giving her a stick he told her would magically protect her grandfather from illnesses. When the girl was 8, he left his red glove at her house and returned a few days later to retrieve it. The little girl saw him through the window, clean-shaven, in dark trousers and a fur hat.

"Oh how she cried when she learned Ded Moroz wasn't real. It was horrible," Ryabinin says. "And she feared for her grandfather who would no longer be protected by the stick."