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RUSSIANS FIND TOLKIEN HOBBIT-FORMING

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It might seem that Russia has had enough battles and plenty of heroes, villains and fools.

But Russian fans of English fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien say they're just getting going. They gather by the dozens each week at twilight in a wooded park called Neskuchny Sad, or Pleasure Gardens, overlooking the Moscow River."We have no sources, few books. We're just starting out, like it probably was in America 20 or 30 years ago," said Konstantin Asmolov, a regular at the gatherings.

"We need dungeons and dragons humanitarian aid," he said, lamenting that the Tolkien-style fantasy game has yet to appear in Russian.

Many of the Tolkien devotees wear capes and daggers, and a handful of those in their teens and 20s lunge at each other with homemade swords and spears, slipping and sliding in the mud.

Other fans stand around the columns of an 18th-century house comparing identities and insights into "The Hobbit," "The Lord of the Rings" and other Tolkien books.

Only occasionally does the real world intrude - the faraway sound of car horns on Lenin Prospect.

Tolkien's imaginary universe, Middle Earth, inspires such dress-up games in many places, but Tolkien is a relatively recent obsession for Russians. "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, published in the West in 1954-55, wasn't published in Russia until 1982.

There are a few groups of "Tolkienisti" in Moscow, centered around Moscow State University. Many prefer to be called "Tolkienuti," which carries a hint of craziness.

The mostly young, long-haired, bookish group at Neskuchny Sad offers some theories about why this brand of mythology-based fantasy has struck a chord.

"A lot of people say it's catching on here because life is so hard and people need to escape to a prettier life," said Andrei Kachanov, a lanky 16-year-old. "But for me it's just an interesting and wild hobby."

Asmolov said Russia is going through another Time of Troubles, referring to a period of anarchy, famine and foreign invasion in the early 17th century.

"In Times of Troubles, a lot of charlatans appear and there's a desire for magic," he said.

The crowd of dreamers in the woods is also protesting the Russian yuppie, said Asmolov, a post-graduate student of ancient warfare. He is an old-timer at the Neskuchny Sad gathering, having attended for about three years.

Two women leafing through a copy of "The Lord of the Rings" weren't interested in theorizing.

"I don't know why people come here," said one, who wore a blue cape over her street clothes, an amulet and a gold ribbon around her forehead. "We're not people. We're hobbits."

She identified herself only as Gollum, Tolkien's warped cave creature.

That added some diversity. As one young man complained, "It's a problem. Everybody wants to be elves."

There are other difficulties as well.

"It's quite impossible here to find a man with good swordsmanship," said Asmolov.