Alessandra Stanley,

Alessandra Stanley,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Dec. 17 1997 3:30 AM

Alessandra Stanley,

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       How cold is it? It is so cold that when a small kiosk caught fire outside the Kievsky Railway Station a mile from my office, the fire hydrants were frozen, and the firemen had to douse the flames with buckets. The vodka, thank God, was spared.
       The good news is that the firetrucks are working. The bad news is that the fire didn't spread to the train station, so the BBC crew that raced there to film kiosk disaster footage did so for nothing. But that setback had its own silver lining.
       Today was our preschool's Christmas concert. I felt very virtuous for having recharged our video camera for the first time in two years. But I was outdone by my fellow working mom, Diana of the BBC, who arrived with the entire BBC film crew in tow to record the precious event.
       I love Russian Christmas. The children's holiday pantomime consisted of acting out a folk tale in which a hunter (played with alarming verisimilitude by the Philadelphia Inquirer's driver Sasha, wearing a fur hat, long coat, and a huge rifle) viciously hunts down rabbits and deer with a rifle. My 4-year-old, Emma, wore a furry bunny tail, and was killed instantly.
       I went to a dinner party last night, and actually found myself sighing, "Caviar again?" The dinner was given by British journalists who have the best caviar supplier in town, a petite blond woman named Katya who smuggles about 30 kilos of contraband caviar into Moscow from the Caspian each month. She does her regular rounds--the Duma, the government building, a few favored restaurants, and Western news offices. Her caviar costs $120 a kilo, and is always fresh.
       How Katya manages her smuggling operation is no longer a mystery. My friend Richard once asked her, "Katya, aren't you afraid of the Mafia?" She gave him a long, hard look and replied, "Richard, I AM the Mafia."
       Moscow dinner parties are a Washington hostess's dream. The most desirable Russian male guests never bring their wives, and are therefore free to flirt shamelessly with the Western single women (and us matrons).
       But the guest of honor was Yelena Khanga, the hostess of Russia's first talk show entirely devoted to the subject of sex. Yelena is also Russia's first black TV talk-show host. Her grandfather was a black American communist who emigrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s to build socialism. Basically, the show is Oprah without the diet tips.
       Yelena, a former journalist, is funny, but well read and high-minded--more of a bluestocking than the fishnet kind, if you know what I mean. She now lives in New York and was very reluctant to do the sex show, but said she was talked into it by Leonid Parfyonov, a network executive. Her recruitment sheds some light on the art of business negotiation, Russian-style.
       Leonid is young, good-looking, and knows how to charm. (He too came to the party wife-free.) When Yelena refused to come to Moscow, he flew to New York and took her to an expensive French restaurant. (Yelena was so worried by the extravagance she called a friend in Moscow to ask her if Leonid could afford a 3-star restaurant. "Are you crazy?" was the answer.)
       He didn't discuss salary, ratings, or perks. He asked her what year she left Russia, then asked the waiter to bring a 1989 Bordeaux, handed her the cork, and said, "The next time we drink this wine, you will be a star." Then he sang to her.
       Yelena said she gave in then and there. "I'm a Russian woman. We melt if a man just takes us for a tram ride."

Alessandra Stanley is a Moscow correspondent for the New York Times.