The palace of Moscow's 'privileged class'
It hunkers down on Moscow's Dzherzinsky Square, across from the forbidding headquarters of the Soviet secret police, the KGB. But it is literally a world away from the darker side of life in the Soviet Union.
A ''Children's World,'' to be exact.
That's the name of the five-story gray stone building in central Moscow (in Russian, it's called Detsky Mir). It is the biggest store for children in the Soviet Union, probably in the East bloc, and perhaps among the largest in the world. The ways in which this store differs from toy stores in America - and the ways in which it is similar - yield a few insights into life in the capital of the Soviet Union.
Detsky Mir's 215,000 square feet (about five acres, or an acre each floor) of shopping area is covered with sundry articles for children, from infants to age 16. From basinettes to balalaikas, if it's available in Soviet stores, it's at Detsky Mir.
The store was opened by the Soviet government in 1957. It employs 2,000 salesclerks, who handle from 250,000 to 350,000 transactions daily. The annual turnover is more than $700 million, according to a store official.
Detsky Mir is usually jammed with shoppers and gawkers. For an American, shopping in such controlled pandemonium can be rattling, even draining. But, in a society chronically short of consumer goods, crowds are considered a plus.
''That means it's a good shop,'' a man in a blue knit hat says in between jostles. ''They have a big selection.''
Indeed, they do. And the prices are, in many cases, quite reasonable - by Soviet or Western standards.
That is because in this ''class-less'' society, children clearly constitute a privileged class. They are fawned over, pampered, and given the best that rubles can buy.
And the best is at Detsky Mir.
Soviet children's preferences in toys are apparently not unlike their American counterparts. The perennialuffeajump,20p4TOYSTOYSUFmrk,119l
best sellers are dolls for girls and electric trains for boys. Board games with a sports theme are also popular.
On a recent weekday, I counted 25 dolls for sale, at prices ranging from $2 to $21. The most popular sports game - a hockey match with the players controlled by mechanical rods and pulleys - sells for $13.50.
If the laughter of children is a universal language, then so are the sounds of their toys. Plastic Russian cows, it seems, say ''moo,'' just like their bovine American cousins. Ducks, however, speak with a Slavic accent here, saying ''kree-ak'' instead of quack.
And there some other things about Detsky Mir that are decidedly different from toy stores in the West. For one thing, many sections of it are not especially cheery. Most walls are drab institutional green. The floors are wooden and badly in need of cleaning.
And, like virtually all Soviet stores, there are the queues: one to view the merchandise, another to pay for it, another to pick it up. Most of the merchandise is behind counters. Neither children nor their parents are free to wander through aisles trying out the wares.
But there is a large, well-equipped playroom on the ground floor for lost children - or weary mothers, for that matter - to seek refuge. It is a thoughtful touch, one that wouldn't be found in many American stores.
And on the main floor there are huge mechanical displays, such as bug-eyed clocks and moving animals. And throughout the main shopping area, there are plaster-relief medallions of farm and woodland animals. Such ornamentation would seldom be found in the warehouse-like toy stores of suburban America.
Still, it is a bit startling to walk through five floors of children's wares and see not a single electronic game or video cartridge. Such items are nearly impossible to find in the Soviet Union, except perhaps on the black market.
There is a bit of defensiveness about this. A store official proclaims that Soviet children can get everything they need here. He is careful, however, not to say everything they want.
''A child will be dressed from his toes to his head,'' he says, ''and he will get what he needs for recreation.''
If a child needs a playpen (smaller than American sizes), the cost is $25. A stroller is $43. Perhaps the best bargains are wooden toys, which never went out of vogue here.
Typically, such toys consist of a wooden dowel attached to a base. The child then places painted and natural-finished wooden pieces with holes in the center over this dowel, to construct things like wooden soldiers ($1.15), or a model of one of the Kremlin towers ($2).
There is no equivalent to a United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, for example, screening unsafe toys from the marketplace. A store official explains that the government (which, after all, owns all the toy factories) simply doesn't allow unsafe toys to be manufactured.
Still, a toy safety crusader could have a bit of a field day here. There are, for example, toy trains with metal axles that can easily be yanked out of their sockets. Once the wheels are popped off - a relatively easy step - the child is left with a bare metal spike.
But such toys appear to be the exception. Most, although perhaps unfashionable by Western standards, appear to be well-made.
Our nine-month-old son, acting as a paid consultant (wages: two cookies and milk) subjected an assortment of Soviet toys to rigorous consumer testing.
The Kremlin tower did not fare well, quickly losing one point of its star and the hands on its clock. A large plastic Pinocchio ($2.43) came out unscathed (although a bit waterlogged after repeatedly being forced to high-dive into the bathtub).
And a plastic chicken ($1.40), made of multicolored plastic rings on a plastic center pole, is still smiling after being jammed up under the sofa.
Smiling, too, was eight-year-old Anya, interviewed between the doll counter and the stuffed animals at Detsky Mir. She seemed to speak for her generation when she avowed, ''I like it here. Because they have very good things here.''
Perhaps the definitive comment on the store came from 31/2-year-old Dima, who said he like the store a lot.
''Because,'' he said, looking slightly puzzled at the obvious silliness of the question. With that, he proceeded to riddle the green walls with a few more imaginary bullets from his plastic gun.
Detsky Mir is starting to gear up for its second-busiest shopping season, the New Year's holiday. (The busiest is the back-to-school period of July and August.)
This holiday comes, of course, at the same time as the Christmas season, when countless American children sit on Santa Claus's lap at department stores and shopping malls.
But Soviet children in and around Moscow don't have to settle for a few hurried minutes on a red-velvet knee and an overpriced picture recording the event. A Soviet child can get a personal visit from Dyedushka Moroz, (Grandfather Frost), the Russian double for Santa Claus. He will bring toys right to their homes.
Grandfather Frost, like Santa Claus, is part symbol, part salesman.
For a fee of $7.50, Grandfather Frost - costumed in red suit and white beard - will deliver toys purchased at Detsky Mir during the holiday season. Last year , some 5,000 children greeted him and his white-gowned granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Girl).
Some of the children read original poems to the costumed duo. A few cower in fear. Most end the visit with a heartfelt plea to Snow Girl not to melt away, as she does in a classic Russian children's tale.
Admittedly, American parents might not approve of a Santa-sans-reindeer making his rounds in a delivery van. But they probably would applaud a Soviet custom strictly observed by Detsky Mir.
Battery-powered toys must - repeat must - have batteries included with them.
''If the battery is not included,'' says a Detsky Mir official, ''this is a violation of regulations.''