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Russia's Festive Postmodernism

By Vladimir Ryzhkov

We Russians are one of the most festive nations on Earth in the sense that we love our holidays. The meticulous calculations of statisticians reveal that when it comes to the number of official holidays and other sundry days off we take each year, Russia is firmly in the top 10 worldwide. This year we even gained Soviet Fleet and Army Day (renamed as Defender of the Fatherland Day) as an additional day off. If you pause to think about it, we've got a pretty peculiar bunch of holidays.

It all starts with New Year's Day. In Soviet times (and indeed to this day), it was undoubtedly the best-loved holiday, traditionally celebrated with family and close friends.

Next comes Russian Orthodox Christmas, which these days is an official state holiday. The Christmas service is now broadcast on the same television channels that 15 years ago stigmatized "religious prejudices".

Feb. 23 was granted us by the Bolsheviks and personally by Vladimir Lenin and Lev Trotsky. On this day in 1918 the newspapers in Petrograd published a Soviet government decree titled "The Soviet Fatherland Is in Danger!" which launched the formation of the Red Army. It is not entirely clear why this day, associated exclusively with the Soviet period in Russian history, is seen today as the main day for honoring our country's heroes, rather than, say, the anniversary of the Battle of Borodino (Sept. 7, 1812) or the Battle of Kulikovo (Sept. 8, 1380).

March 8 is International Women's Day. Most of us are fond of this holiday to celebrate all our womenfolk. We declare our love for them and pay tribute to the woman's role as mother, sister and beloved. Historically, however, March 8 is closely linked to leftwing ideology. In 1910, Clara Zetkin, a German socialist, proposed an annual holiday dedicated to the "women's rights struggle". Her proposal was accepted by the Women's Socialist International at its meeting in Copenhagen.

May opens with another recently renamed holiday. What we knew as the Red First of May in the Soviet era has now become the Day of Spring and Labor. It misses the actual beginning of spring by quite a stretch, of course. And "labor" sends us back to the Soviet period in our history, with all that that entails. Victory Day, May 9, is loved and revered by absolutely everyone. It's above dispute, just like New Year's Day.

On June 12, we take a day off to remember the adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Federation. I wonder how many people realize that this is in fact the main state holiday in contemporary Russia. The declaration for the first time proclaimed the principles of a multiparty system and the separation of powers, as well as establishing citizens' political and civil rights and freedoms. In other words, it laid new, democratic foundations for the Russian state. In the popular consciousness June 12, however, is usually associated with the declaration of Russian independence, which was soon followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, many people view this holiday negatively, or disregard it entirely.

The situation with Nov. 7 is quite incredible. On this day (Oct. 25 on the Julian calendar then in use) 85 years ago, the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd from the provisional government. For the Soviet state Nov. 7 naturally became the main national holiday -- the Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. On this day, parades with red banners took place across the length and breadth of the country to celebrate the achievements of the Soviet state under the leadership and guidance of the Communist Party.

On Nov. 7 we now celebrate the Day of Reconciliation and Accord. It is hard to imagine a less appropriate date to symbolize reconciliation, not to mention accord. Moreover, in effect we now celebrate the fall of Soviet power in June and its victory in November.

Finally, the Russian Constitution was adopted by national referendum on Dec. 12, 1993. So now we celebrate Constitution Day on that day.

To sum up, we have nine national holidays in all. Six of them are directly inherited from the Soviet Union, and four are fatally linked to the ruling ideology of the Soviet Union. Then we have three new holidays -- Christmas, June 12 and Dec. 12 -- only one of which reflects the founding values of the new democratic Russia.

Somehow we have contrived to celebrate both the victory of Soviet power and its demise, the birth of Christ and the rise to power of the most godless of parties. We celebrate a Constitution adopted after a bloody confrontation in Moscow, and the Day of Reconciliation and Accord on the day that unleashed a bloody Civil War. We have a Petrine flag, a Romanov seal and a Soviet hymn to boot.

Russia is a country of triumphant postmodernism, a thoroughly eclectic state. We honor and celebrate without giving much thought to the meaning of our actions.

Of course, the people are used to their holidays and symbols. These cannot be changed frequently or radically. Time will gradually invest them with new significance, at times probably very distant from their original meaning. But this does not free us from the necessity of doing the hard work of rethinking our history and in particular of highlighting those events that are connected with Russia's progress toward freedom and democracy. Once this has been done, it will seem quite natural and obvious to substitute Oct. 17 -- the day in 1905 that Tsar Nicholas II published the manifesto that first provided for the establishment of democratic freedoms and the pre-revolutionary State Duma -- for Nov. 7.

In the meantime, however, happy holidays!

Vladimir Ryzhkov is an independent State Duma deputy. This comment originally appeared in the magazine Delovye Lyudi (issue No. 132).

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