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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Oddities That Made Us Go 'Huh?'

Russian sushi. A Moscow restaurant introduced home-grown sushi including kolbasa on rice.

That's the kind of story that occurred regularly in 2001. Not news or business. Just the plain weird, interesting, sometimes sad stories that made you refer in exclamation to a famous statue in Ulyanovsk (see below) or choke just a little bit in surprise on your pickled garlic tempura.

The discovery of the year was the head of one Leonid Panteleyev. Otherwise known as Lucky Lyonka, he was one of St. Pete's most feared gangsters who was said to have killed nearly 90 people until he was shot dead by police and pickled. Somewhere along the line -- busy century, lots of pickle jars, not enough labels type of thing -- Lucky's decapitated top was lost. It was found this year, though, bobbing around in a jar of green formaldehyde along with the other jars of body parts in the criminology and criminal proceedings department, a division of the law faculty at St. Petersburg State University.

Lucky may need a new nickname.

"Once someone knocked the jar [containing Panteleyev's head] off the shelf, and it fell and broke," said one of the university's employees, "The head rolled around on the floor -- right over to a woman's feet and scared the living daylights out of her."

A one-time member of the Russian secret police, Lucky would seem perfect for a television series that Hollywood producer Bob van Ronkel was in town to set up. Sort of "The Untouchables" but with the KGB as the steely-eyed heroes, the idea was particularly unappealing to lots of Moscow Times readers who wrote dozens of letters to us. Bless them.

Another hero worshiper was Moscow's favorite tubby Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, who tried to do to Princess Diana what he has done to the Manezh, the Moscow Zoo and Park Pobedy -- create a statue, circa Walt Disney 1943, of the late princess. Britain was called up to take the statue as a present but the country always seemed to be out.

Moscow Times editors showed themselves a prescient bunch near the end of the year by writing a headline for a story on the army's enthusiastic draft drive with the word "dragnet." Days later, the front page bore a story about the skirt-wearing Alexei who was drafted into the paratroopers despite the fact that he is growing breasts and will become a complete woman next year.

The insight of the year was from first lady Lyudmila Putin, who said of her husband in a book by a presumably now former close confidante of the couple from their spy days in Germany that "he is a vampire." Another gem was that the Nosferatu of the Neva "always goes to Finland when he has something important to say. He doesn't think there is anywhere in Russia where you can speak without being overheard." So that explains why he was never in the country this year.

The idolatry that followed President Vladimir Putin in his first year as head of the country continued in stranger forms. A calendar with all the moods of the president, including vampire for the cold month of February, was displayed at an art gallery, and copies were sought eagerly for that place above the mantelpiece. One poor old woman even believed a con artist and swapped her hard-saved rubles for "new" 500-ruble banknotes bearing Putin's likeness.

No statues have gone up to the man yet. Instead, Russian cities tried to find something that they were famous for. Uglich found vodka. Ulyanovsk picked the letter "yo" -- the "e" with umlauts that comes in so handy when you are angry.

The man behind the idea had wanted to put the letter above the entrances of local factories, schools and offices so unpaid employees would have a reminder of what to say when they left for home.

That letter could be heard from hospital staff over in the Nizhny Novgorod region whose pay was crap -- literally. One local authority offered to pay hospital staff with three tons of manure instead of wages.

A local urinologist boasted during the year of his new service Emergency Care for Men, which will hopefully help lots more like the man who cut his private parts into lots of parts -- six to be precise -- after an accident with an electric saw. He is now whole again.

Things began to talk this year. Billboards meowed for one cat food company, while one inventor introduced a vodka bottle that can talk. The top's inane, giggly chatter was matched only by politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose offer to help the twin daughters of U.S. President George W. Bush after their run-in with the law for underage drinking wins the supreme cheek of the year award.

"Think of my advice as that of an uncle to his nieces," Zhirinovsky wrote in a letter. "I am disappointed ... and I earnestly ask you not to use alcohol."

As yet the twins have not taken Zhirinovsky up on his offer to show them round Moscow, a safe city, he assures, where, honestly, no one will offer them alcohol.

Russia's favorite foreign politician of the year was Kim Jong-il, the all-seeing autocratic leader of North Korea who, scared of flying way before the rest of the world caught up with him later in the year, took an armored train from Pyongyang to St. Petersburg and back for a state visit.

The only breach of the high-security trip was a few kids who threw stones at his train. Bless them.