Children learn the bear necessities of life

RUSSIA. Misha, a hard-nosed bear who trades honey, nuts and berries with other forest creatures, is the hero of a book that teaches young children the ways of the capitalist world.

Economics for Little Ones, or How Misha Became a Businessman, published in Moscow by Pedagogika Press, with a print run of 15,000, aims to inculcate a firm grasp of capitalist economics in children barely out of pre-school.

With the capital and other cities abounding with leather-jacketed, mobile phone-toting types who swish around in the latest Mercedes, Russian youngsters have no shortage of role models for what the fruits of capitalist success can bring.

But authors Tatyana Popova, Olga Meshikova and Larisa Knyshova, members of the Reforma international fund for economic and social reforms in Moscow, leave nothing to chance.

"One of our aims was to help women to cope with the transition to the market economy, but we soon realised that we would be better off teaching children how the market works," said Mrs Popova.

The colourfully illustrated story, told in the best tradition of Russian fairy-tales, follows the adventures of Misha the bear, who awakes from hibernation determined to make his fortune. The enterprising Misha enlists the help of feathered and furry friends to gather nuts and honey for sale and to spread the word about his new shop through advertising. And like many real inhabitants of Russia's urban jungles, Misha enjoys a rapid rise to riches and power, ending up as the forest's finance minister.

Misha's experiences offer a wealth of tips for little ones with their sights set on material success: "Imagine yourself a smart trader and try to sell old worn-out shoes, an empty ballpoint pen, a dried-out market or an ice-cream stick," is one typical exercise found in the book.

Sales are strong, says Pedagogika's marketing head, Vera Alexeyevna, with schools and parents chief among customers.

The apparent promotion of exploitation and sharp business practices, however, has not found universal favour. Leonid Abalkin, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and director of Moscow's Institute of Economics, says that children are best taught the rudiments of economics through such simple tasks as buying sweets and handling small amounts of money.

Many of the lessons in Misha's world seem more reflective of the rampant exploitation and disregard for legal niceties evident in today's Russia than of textbook economics.

Perhaps it is precisely the mixed blessing of the free market that is the key feature of Economics for Little Ones. Misha's rise to power and prominence follows a fierce commercial war with Winnie the Pooh's shop, The Golden Hive, which is vanquished when Misha ruthlessly undercuts the rival bear's prices.

He also raises money through a 120 per cent interest rate on his bank deposits, a figure only witnessed in the real world in such disastrous pyramid scams as Russia's Triple M three years ago, or this year's Albanian money-go-round schemes.

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