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Blair pitches education in Russian soap

British Prime Minister Tony Blair made his debut in a popular Russian soap opera on Tuesday and urged listeners to make education their top priority in words ironically reminiscent of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin.

Blair took time off on Monday from his 24-hour working visit to Moscow to record the improbable scene for the programme "Dom Syem, Podyezd Chetyrye" (House Seven, Entrance Four).In the episode, broadcast on Tuesday by Ekho Moskvy radio, Blair stops his motorcade to help an unemployed seamstress pick up fruit she has dropped and gently lectures her on the value of education.

"In my country we have a saying," Blair tells Varya through an interpreter. Then, in halting Russian, he says: "Education, education and again education."

To Russian listeners the words recall Lenin's injunction to "study, study and study again."

"We've got to do more for our young people, especially those without any work," Blair tells Varya as they discuss their children. Blair has three.

Blair, whose Labor Party swept to power on May 1 in a landslide election victory, has made education a cornerstone of his plans to reform Britain.

Russians traditionally take great pride in their country's educational system, but many schools and universities are suffering an acute lack of funds and teachers, already poorly paid, often have to wait months for their salaries.

On Sunday, which was National Education Day in Russia, Yeltsin paid tribute to the country's teachers and vowed to pay their salary arrears by the end of the year.

In Tuesday's radio drama Varya does not know who Blair is and asks him why he is visiting Moscow.

"I'm on business to meet some of your political leaders. I'm just on my way to a meeting now," replies Blair, who on Monday held talks with President Boris Yeltsin and senior ministers in the Kremlin.

Slightly straining credibility, Blair needed no interpreter to understand what Varya is telling him although the interpreter standing by translates his remarks for her.

Varya complains about the cost of living in Moscow but says her family has a flat and a dacha (country house) and wants for nothing.