MOSCOW–Reeling from economic chaos, political instability, and a bitter conflict in Chechnya, Russian leaders announced plans Monday to seek the aid and advice of "Baba Mat," the Wise Old Woman Who Lives In The Land Of Many Tall Trees Beyond The Black Mountains.
"We seek the counsel of Baba Mat only as a last resort," Russian president Vladimir Putin said. "As everyone in the land knows, Baba Mat can be both benign and malevolent. She can make the lowliest peasant mightier than a czar and crush a king like a mayfly. But this fearsome sorceress is our only hope: The people have no bread on their trenchers, bandits run wild in the streets, and our foreign debt exceeds $40 billion."
Putin said he hopes to acquire from Baba Mat the Legendary Enchanted Cod, which can produce a roe of pure gold. He added that his economic advisers recommended the plan, arguing that the gold would do much to reduce Russia's hard-currency shortage and outstanding foreign debt, as well as make Putin the most beloved hero in the land.
Putin's announcement was met with criticism from those familiar with the wily old hag.
"[The move] shows the extent of Russia's desperation in this post-Communist era," said Nadine Halberstadt, a professor of Russian history at Stanford University. "Until now, only children lost in the forest or exiled princes found an audience with Baba Mat, and it was certainly not by choice. For all dread Baba Mat, with her hair of blazing straw, her lanky limbs which she uses to cut the thickest timbers, her teeth the color of brimstone, and her love of eating little blond-haired children."
Over the years, Russo-Wise Old Woman relations have been shaky at best. In the summer of 1968, Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev asked Baba Mat to supply him with a magic goose egg that would help Soviet troops invade Czechoslovakia and put down its fledgling reform movement. Baba Mat would only consent if the Soviet government stopped cutting timber in the Land Of Many Tall Trees. Brezhnev agreed, the goose egg was transferred, and Czechoslovakia was successfully invaded.
In the fall of the same year, however, Brezhnev ordered loggers back to work in the area containing Baba Mat's forest home. An infuriated Baba Mat avenged the broken deal by locking up the Mystical Rooster Who Beckons The Rosy-Fingered Dawn in her root cellar for 12 months. The rooster's imprisonment prevented the sun from rising in the Soviet Union, destroying the harvest and bringing the nation to a virtual standstill.
Baba Mat has also been known to dispense punishment in a manner that can only be seen as arbitrary. In 1985, for reasons that still elude many Russian experts, she turned Soviet premier Konstantin Chernenko into a decrepit yak and made him plow her turnip fields until he collapsed and died. Ten days later, she drank the entire Caspian Sea, a vital body of water prized for its fisheries and salt deposits and as a waterway for oil tankers bound northward up the Volga River.
"Put bluntly, Baba Mat is not to be trusted," Halberstadt said. "It is questionable whether she has ever had Russia's best interests in mind. And even now, it is widely rumored that the reason Chechnya has been able to hold off a ferocious Russian attack for months is because the old woman permitted Chechen rebel leaders to touch the Sacred Talisman Of Invincibility guarded by the Great Triple-Tusked Boar Of The Forest."
Particularly critical of Putin is Gennadiy Zyuganov, current leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.
"Given what has happened in the past, Putin is no less than a traitor for seeking out the double-crossing Baba Mat," Zyuganov said. "It is beneath a head of state's dignity to consort with a witch. When the great Lenin formulated his New Economic Policy, he sought the advice and aid of no less a personage than Jack Frost himself."
As befitting her status as a power broker, Baba Mat frequently exacts a high price for her assistance. Yuri Suslov, a kindly old woodcutter who lives at the edge of The Land Of Many Tall Trees, has long been familiar with the sinister virago's ways.
"I do not envy the Russian president, for Baba Mat will demand of him a great many things," Suslov said. "For use of the Enchanted Cod, she may ask of him a feather of the awesome Fire Bird, the Golden Apron of the Princess Of The Five Steppes, or, most daunting of all, the fabled Matryoshka Doll Of No Known End. Perhaps all three. She often works in threes."
When asked for comment by reporters gathered outside her woodland cottage, Baba Mat said: "Russian, Russian, who dares approach my door; I'll make your bones rattle to the core! Bring me ambrosia, bring me mead; then I may give you what you need!"
She then turned the reporters into magpies and flew off into the sky in her magical black cauldron.