Publication: Prism Volume: 8 Issue: 5

By Elena Chinyaeva

With half of May in Russia constituting one long holiday, Russian national holidays are perhaps the best illustration of how the ideological foundations on which the modern Russian state is being built remain controversial. The only hope is that common sense will succeed in giving the old celebrations a new content, thereby patching up the holes in the ideological linen of national consciousness.

If you think about the most appropriate time to work in Russia, forget about May. First, there is a two-day celebration of May 1, which under the Soviets used to be the International Day of Workers’ Solidarity and now is the Day of Labor and Spring. Then, there is May 9, Victory Day, marking the Russian victory in World War II. With a weekend in between and a couple of days taken off to round it out, many Russians do not appear at their work places for about a fortnight.

Apart from being an impressive loss of working hours for the national economy, Russian holidays are also remarkably contradictory, ideologically speaking. On June 12, a relatively new holiday, Russian Federation Day, is celebrated to mark the day in 1990 that Russia adopted a declaration of sovereignty. (For some obscure reason, it is also called the Independence Day.). The event contributed to the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union. Yet, on November 7 and 8 the country still celebrates what under the Soviets was the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, which led to the creation of the USSR. Officially, it was called the Great October Socialist Revolution and as it was the main national holiday in "the country of victorious socialism," nobody questioned why an October event was celebrated in November. (It was, in fact, due to the adoption the Western calendar, which is thirteen days ahead of the old Russian one.) Nowadays, the anniversary of the revolution that led to a destructive civil war, a totalitarian regime and the death or exile of millions of people is called, surprisingly, the Day of Reconciliation and Unity.

December 12, Constitution Day, marks the adoption of the 1993 constitution, which legitimized the end of the Soviet era. Then the change of calendar plays a bizarre trick on the Russian public holidays. In the strictly secular Soviet state it did not matter that the Russian Orthodox Church did not follow the change of calendar. The only winter celebration for the whole population regardless of confessional differences was the New Year. Nowadays, the New Year remains the biggest and the most popular winter holiday in Russia: Indeed, it is the New Year and not Christmas that is preceded by a frenzy of gift hunting. However, following the collapse of the atheist regime, Russia started to celebrate Orthodox Christmas, which, according to the old Church calendar, comes after the secular New Year–on January 7. To counterbalance the lack of logic in the official calendar, people also celebrate, though unofficially, the so-called "old New Year," on the evening of January 13-14.

While Orthodox Russians, who comprise 80 percent of the population, celebrate their Christmas, Russians of other confessions do not have religious festivities designated as public holidays. Needless to say, whatever their religious allegiances, the majority of the population does not miss an opportunity to take off a few days in between the New Year, Christmas and the "old New Year," giving them a vacation lasting up to a fortnight.

Hardly a month passes by before there is another holiday, which this year was celebrated for the first time as a public holiday–February 23, Army Day. Historically this holiday has nothing to do with the creation either of the Soviet or the Russian armies. Rather, on that day in 1918, the Bolshevik leaders called on workers to take up arms to defend St. Petersburg from the White Guards, who were closing in on the city. Less than two weeks after Army Day comes the first spring public holiday: On March 8, the country celebrates the Women’s Day, another Soviet holdover. The May 8 holiday originated with the German socialist Klara Zetkin, who began International Women’s Day (IWD) in 1911. The Bolsheviks adopted it after they came to power. Yet it was on that day that Soviet women expected to be presented with flowers, be taken care of and generally be treated gallantly, in defiance of all feminist principles.

If national holidays reflect the ideological foundations of society, no wonder that Russia has had difficulty finding a new national ideology. It has become a commonplace to assert that Russian society, following the collapse of the Communist regime, found itself in an ideological vacuum. Logically enough, observers have attributed the ascent of numerous ideological concepts–from liberal to nationalistic–to the attempts of the present-day political gurus to fill a yawning ideological gap. Following his re-election as president in 1996, Boris Yeltsin proposed that a new national ideology be worked out to unite the whole of Russia on one platform.

Yeltsin’s announcement sparked controversy. While some commentators agreed that a new national ideology was long overdue, others charged that he was flouting the constitution, which rules out the adoption or enforcement of any state ideology. Supporters of the presidential initiative responded by saying that a "national idea" was something different–not a political doctrine promulgated by the state, but a common vision for the nation based on the shared values of its people. Four years later, with Yeltsin gone, and Vladimir Putin the new president, the soul-searching has not yet ended. When Putin chose to revive the old Soviet national anthem with new lyrics, the debate over the Russian national idea boiled up again.

Perhaps the most important factor that has hindered Russia’s attempts to find its modern self-identity has been the diversity of its present. Indeed, where to start in building a new ideology for a country that has first-rate space and military technologies but cannot provide many of its people with basic living standards? A country that in June celebrates Independence Day, which is still perceived by people with bewilderment (independence from whom?), in November the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and in December the anniversary of the anti-Soviet constitution’s adoption?

Given that official attempts to build a new ideology would hardly succeed, there is a hope that life itself will put everything right. While the new legislation reflecting the change in the economic and political foundations of the new order has been relatively easy to adopt, the changes in the collective consciousness justifying such changes have been difficult to come by. Yet, with its tremendous power to adapt, Russian society has learned to give the official symbols, often alien to its traditional culture, another meaning.

Even under the Soviets, official holidays were filled with an unofficial content. Thus Soviet Army Day and the International Women’s Day were transformed by popular common sense into a kind of "Men’s Day" and "Women’s Day," the latter also being an analogue of the Mother’s Day celebrated in many cultures. It has by now become a tradition that women give presents to men on February 23, and men to women on March 8, regardless of age, profession or world views. Interestingly enough, the tradition has recently become part of corporate culture, with companies arranging presents for their employees of both sexes on the respective dates.

The most official Soviet public holidays, May 1 and November 7, were used in the old days as a state-given opportunity to get together, in the morning at a compulsory demonstration and in the evening at a party with friends. Nowadays, with the May demonstrations having become a Communist Party venue, most people still see these holidays as a pretext to organize a party or use the free time to work at their country land plots. In a post-Soviet fashion statement, many more well-off Russians go for a week’s holiday abroad. Neither Independence Day nor Constitution Day is given much thought.

Only two public holidays in Russia retain their original meaning and are equally loved by everyone in the country–New Year’s and Victory Day. Within Soviet officialdom, the New Year celebration was a family occasion, a rare manifestation of privacy in a state that defied the individual. It has remained a family event. And since the Second World War affected every family in Russia, Victory Day remains a sacred day for all, truly uniting the country.

Thus Russian society is adapting its holidays to its present needs and to common sense, with the content and rituals changing in the process. The people themselves will do what the state ideologists cannot–arrive at an ideological consensus that will provide the foundation for the modern Russian state. Then the Russian holidays will cease being a controversial set of the state symbols and become truly public holidays.

Elena Chinyaeva, who holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University, is a writer with the leading Russian political weekly Kommersant-Vlast.