OVER A LONG, Russian New Year's Eve, at a table so loaded with food it would baffle the Western naifs who diverted aid from the Sudan to save the Soviets, there were many tales of the ingenuity and luck and blat (connections) expended to put together such a feast. But I think the best was Boris' story about the vodka -- Kubanskaya, considered by connoisseurs to be good stuff.
Boris' institute, a design facility attached to the State Construction Committee, made a deal with a liquor store to let its 700 employees buy vodka for the holiday without the usual two-hour line. But amid all the other shortages, there's a bottle crisis. So the store demanded two empties in return for every full bottle sold.
Most everybody at the institute wanted to buy at least two bottles, which meant four empties apiece, or about 2,800 empties, had to be scavenged from trash dumpsters, gutters, drinking hide-outs in the woods. Or bought on the ever-at-your-service black market, where an empty bottle now costs three rubles -- a few kopecks more than a full bottle cost back in the fondly remembered alcoholic haze of the era of stagnation.
For two days before the holidays, Boris said, nobody in the institute did anything but hunt for bottles and wash them. All other work was put aside for this top-priority business.
This picture of everybody from Ph.D.s to cleaning women scrubbing vodka bottles while the housing crisis is set aside is a perfect emblem for the Soviet economy as perestroika revs its engines for Year 7. But it also shows that -- contrary to the intelligentsia's moaning about how 70 years of communism destroyed the gene pool -- people here still can rally around and work hard when they have adequate incentives.
We had reached the dacha, a solid, six-room wooden house in splendid fir woods a half-hour's drive from Moscow's pollution, an hour before dark, which comes early in a Russian winter. The snow was perfect for sculpting, so we helped the kids make a snow dinosaur. As the last light faded, he looked like a cross between a Doberman and a turtle.
Then we came in for the first round of eating, a two-hour warm-up act of borscht with sour cream, various vegetable salads, several kinds of fish, and pickled everything. There was even fried chicken, since Masha, a devout Orthodox Christian, had ruled that in honor of the occasion they could violate the no-meat rule of the pre-Christmas fast. (Russian Christmas comes on January 7.)
Somehow Masha produced all this from a kitchen with a beat-up gas stove and no running water. The porch is the refrigerator. Water is pumped in the yard and hauled to the kitchen in buckets. Boris has been promised he can take home a chemical "bio-toilet" from work for testing, but meanwhile there's the formidable two-seat outhouse amid the snowdrifts out back.
To burn off the first course, we walked along the dark lane formed by the tall wooden fences surrounding the houses in most Russian villages. We passed the eerie, charred remains of one of nine dachas in the area that have been torched in recent weeks, either by anti-Semites (the area is reputed to be predominantly Jewish) or just by zavistniki, the envious.
We reached a long, frozen lake spotted with holes left by the day's ice fishermen. We held the babies while the other five children (three of theirs and two of ours) took turns sledding down the opposite bank and sliding across the ice.
A full moon drifted in and out of the clouds above us. The only noises were the kids' squeals and chatter in English and Russian, distant dogs' barking, and the rattle of the elektrichka, the suburban train, passing from time to time on a nearby railway bridge.
After more than an hour, we headed back. Boris disappeared into the darkness and ran ahead. By the time we got to the house he had been transformed by rouged cheeks, red suit and white beard into Ded Moroz, the Russian Santa. Waving lighted sparklers in the frigid air, he made a dramatic entrance to the porch and doled out gifts from his sack. Each child had to sing a song in return for a gift, and then we all danced in a circle around the yolka, the decorated New Year's tree.
Boris' performance was spectacular, but fooled no one. This year, unlike last, even our four-and-a-half-year-old recognized him. Boris and Masha used to moonlight as Ded Moroz and Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, making house calls for the district holiday service. They say it gave them an unrivalled sociological window on Moscow, but making 40 or 50 stops a day was exhausting, particularly since parents insisted that they join in a glass of vodka.
The younger kids went to bed, and we returned to the table, heaped with still more dishes. We read some passages from my gift from Ded Moroz: A chilling volume published in 1938 with tributes from all the Soviet peoples to Josef Vissarionovich Stalin.
"Who's the best friend of the Udmurts?" asked one tribute, penned in the small republic of Udmurtia.
"Stalin brought us our dreams!