Russians ready Vassilissa as counter-strike to Barbie

FORGIEN CLOSEUP

March 03, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

SERGEYEV POSAD, 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 shocking blue hair. Another sprouts wild orange locks.

The hair colors strike the foreign eye as a little hard to love, but purple hair, blue hair, 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 %J Handicrafts and Toys. The voice is shouting, "Barbie, Barbie" right in the ear of Georgy D. Argun, director of the factory.

Mr. Argun, watching business changing around him, sat up and listened. He couldn't, of course, produce Barbie, the heart's desire (inflamed by advertising) of every Russian girl. She's already a huge American business.

So Mr. Argun and his helpers created Vassilissa, a svelte, shapely blonde a shade shorter than Barbie but still taller than Skipper.

She's wearing historic Russian dress -- long skirt and overdress with lots of rickrack and lace and bright colors. She won't quite pass for a Total Hair Barbie -- her long blond hair is worn in a chaste braid that falls far down her back. On her feet she wears dainty little red-leather boots.

Mr. 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 before he takes any orders.

But he feels certain she will be a great success.

"One hundred percent," he exclaimed in an interview. "I'm sure she'll be a success. I'll tell you why."

Barbie, he confided, is for older children, from 12 to 15. That age group, he said, appreciates her rhinestones and high heels.

"Vassilissa," he said, "can be a doll for a little girl, the girl from 5 to 9."

In the United States, where children grow up so fast, many tire of their Barbie collection by the time they're 9. Here, they're just beginning. Mr. Argun is betting that's true in many other countries as well. Recently, he took a doll similar to Vassilissa, also wearing traditional dress, to a toy show in Venezuela.

"The hall was full of dolls," he said. "They dance, they sing, they cry, they talk. I was hesitating to show my simple doll. Then a local businessman approached and bought all my samples for $8 each. He went two floors up and sold them immediately for $15."

Mr. Argun predicts that the world will weary of Barbie and that when it does, Vassilissa will be ready.

"Maybe Vassilissa will not be so famous for so long," he said, "but for five or six years she will. She has a great future."

Mr. Argun's factory, a crumbling brick building, sits across the street from one of Russia's great tourist attractions, the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergei.

The monastery, in the center of this town 60 miles northeast of Moscow, is the official headquarters of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Though much of the town, known as Zagorsk in Communist times, is as dreary as any other Soviet city, the monastery is dazzling.

In the center of the walled compound stands the Cathedral of the Assumption, built beginning in 1559 by Ivan the Terrible.

Its five bright blue domes scattered with lustrous gold stars make the visitor catch his breath at first glimpse.

Across the street at the toy factory, the blue-haired dolls are striking in their own way.

It turns out there is a reason for the blue hair -- this in a country

often short on reasons.

Blue-haired Malvina is a much-loved character in Buratino, the Communist version of Pinocchio. (The fat greedy capitalist-like figures who prey on Pinocchio get special attention in this version.)

Today, poor Malvina has lost her luster, jilted in favor of a capitalist dream girl.

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