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Russian Middle Class Sprouts, and Buys

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IN 1992, a year after Soviet communism ended, Natasha Gomberg had her heart set on owning an American doll. Her mother, Irina Yanovskaya, had inherited a 1964 Sears catalog, and after weeks of thumbing through it, the toddler fell in love with a blond beauty in the toys section. Even the doll's foreign-sounding name sounded exotic: Barbie.

Not wanting to deprive her daughter of something she wanted so badly, Irina set out to find an affordable Barbie for Natasha. But money was hard to come by in those days, and genuine Barbies from America were considered a luxury for most Russians.

Natasha got her heart's desire, but at great expense: The doll cost 164 rubles, almost two-thirds of Irina's 300-ruble salary as a chemist at the Institute of Elemental and Organic Compounds at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

''That Barbie cost a lot of money,'' Irina said not long after she purchased the doll, sitting with her husband Mikhail Gomberg in their Moscow apartment. They were eating cake with sweet homemade jam, a luxury in those days when sugar could only be bought with ration coupons. ''But when I was a child, I dreamed of owning one.''

Today, little Natasha is the proud owner of four Barbies and one Ken. The once-grand sum of 164 rubles, which was once enough to buy a child's dream, is now worth about three United States cents. And Irina and her husband, who for years wanted to leave Russia, now plan to stay.

Irina and Mikhail, intellectuals who came of age in the years of stagnation under Brezhnev, are typical of Russia's emerging middle class.

Russia's transition from communism to capitalism has divided many people into the opulent rich, with their BMWs and Mercedes Benzes, and the poor, who sell bread and vodka on the street to make ends meet. But a middle class is also emerging, people like Mikhail and Irina who are making it despite the odds of political instability, ethnic strife, and inflation.

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