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SOVIET CHIC : All Things Russian Are at the Summit of Popularity Thanks to Glasnost and Gorbachev

June 05, 1988|George Stein | George Stein is a Times staff writer

The same face that could launch a thousand Soviet missiles or smile over an arms control pact stares out of the mirror at Ron Knapp as he shaves every morning.

A little nail polish up top for the birthmark, and the Huntington Beach, Calif., real estate agent is a dead ringer for Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.

"People are shocked. Believe me, they are shocked," says Knapp, one of at least two Gorbachev look-alikes whose schedules are busy with film and public appearances these days. "(People) give me the big eye, and they take two steps back and they say, 'Speak some Russian.' They want a glossy picture with a hammer and sickle sitting on their desk, signed as Mikhail Gorbachev."

The demand for Knapp and David Lloyd Austin (who impersonated the Soviet leader in "Rocky IV"), is only a small sign of what began before the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow but now threatens to become a full-blown invasion: In Southern California, suddenly, all things Soviet are chic.

--"Surf Russia" T-shirts, featuring the face of V.I. Lenin next to palm trees, sold so fast that boutiques couldn't keep them in stock.

--An "entertainment summit" of Soviet and American film makers became the hottest ticket in Hollywood, with members of the Soviet delegation dragged off night after night to attend the most exclusive dinner parties.

--Armand Hammer Productions worked out a deal with Home Box Office for a 10-hour television miniseries that is to follow one Russian family through the past 80 years. The project promptly became known as "Russian 'Roots.' "

--Mattel International, a division of Mattel Inc., in Hawthorne, Calif., maker of Barbie dolls, started talks with the Soviets about a deal to manufacture dolls in the Soviet Union. "Barbie Doll Diplomacy" the effort is dubbed.

--In December, Gorbachev made the Gallup list of the 10 men most admired by Americans, the first Soviet leader to do so. He placed eighth -- just behind Ollie North, and tied with noted capitalist Lee Iacocca.

--U.S. tourism to the Soviet Union has more than doubled, with Los Angeles travel agents hard-pressed to find tour spaces.

Interest in the Soviet Union -- some of it serious, some not; some informed, some naive -- is skyrocketing, recalling the mood after Nixon went to China. Just as perceptions of the Chinese changed as a conservative Republican president moved from confrontation to consultation, public opinion polls show that the suspicion and hatred with which many viewed the Soviet Union has diminished, at least for now.

Fueling the fascination with Soviet life has been the drama of four summits in 2 1/2 years; progress on arms control after years of stasis; the figures cut by the energetic Gorbachev and his stylish wife, Raisa, during their visit here last December; increased openness under " glasnost "; more Jewish and Armenian emigration; the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, and the inherent suspense in Gorbachev's ambitious attempt to modernize conservative Soviet society. Recriminations have been replaced by optimism about U.S.-Soviet relations -- and the desire to get in on something hot.

The changes in the image of the Soviet Union "have attracted the attention of people who under most circumstances wouldn't give a damn," says Michael Brainerd, president of the New York--based Citizen Exchange Council, the largest nationwide organization engaged in reciprocal U.S.--Soviet exchanges. "You have punk rockers interested in what the Soviets are listening to, and wearing letters of the Cyrillic alphabet on their clothes. I have never seen anything like it before."

Nor has Soviet commentator Vladimir Pozner, who visited Los Angeles Los Angeles in March, 1987, for the so--called Entertainment Summit between Soviet and American film makers. Participants decried Cold War stereotypes in movies, talked about U.S.--Soviet relations, visited film studios, discussed mututal film projects--and partied night after night.

"We were virtually kidnaped and taken to people's homes," says Pozner, who is often a spokesman for the Soviet Union on "Nightline" and "Donahue." "We definitely got this feeling that there was a change in people's attitude and a more friendly feeling. There were the beginnings of a fad. Since then, that has developed."

"It is cool to go to Russia now," says Michael Elias, co-creator and co-executive producer with Rich Eustis of ABC's successful "Head of the Class." So cool, in fact, that next month Elias is scheduled to film two episodes of the successful prime-time sitcom in Moscow.

Americans are going to the Soviet Union as never before. The number of tourists reached a high of 93,000 in 1987, more than doubling 1986 figures, and now is headed for a record 113,00 to 115,000, according to Soviet statistics. The Soviets are feverishly building 26 new hotels in 18 cities to accommodate the influx.

"It has been crazy here," reported Steve Musson, manager of the American Express office at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles. "Everybody is going."

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