Are we Having Fun Yet:
Russian Holidays in the Post Communist Period.
Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow
The importance of the national holiday for reaffirming the ideology and
self-identification of any state has been realized a long time ago. Actually, the rulers
had understood this truth earlier than the scholars. No wonder, then, that having seized
power, communists at once changed the whole system of holidays. However, it took a long
time for this system to take its final shape. The last step in this process took place in
1977 when the Constitution Day was shifted from December 5 to October 7, commemorating the
replacement of the Stalin Constitution by the Brezhnev one.
Indeed, all holidays are meant to serve an ideological purpose. But in the process of
being accepted by the overwhelming majority of the countrys population, they lose a
lot of their ideological luster. As Michel de Certeau showed in his "Practice of
Everyday Life," the weak struggle with the strong by yielding to the demands and
filling dominant structures with their own wishes, feelings and desires. They do it, to
use a phrase coined by Certeau as we use rented apartment, furnishing it with our own acts
and memories. Thus, 23 of February the Red Army Day became the celebration of men, a
Mens Day, complementing the 8th of March, Womens Day. In turn, Womens
Day has mutated from the celebration of international solidarity of women and their
emancipation under the socialist system into a festival of sexual license and a
carnivalesque inversion of traditional sex roles. The Day of International Solidarity of
Working People, the First of May, became the Festival of Spring. Even the most political
of all Holidays, the Founding Day Celebration of November 7 was widely used as a pretext
for a family reunion, accompanied with traditional dishes such as the immutable
"herring under fur coat" ("seliodka pod shuboi") and particular cold
salads. In a way, the October Revolution commemoration of November 7 became a substitute
for the banned Christmas.
But the most exceptional case was definitely the New Years celebration.
However suspect ideologically, it became ultimately the most popular of Soviet-era
holidays. The majority of the population used the traditional address of the General
Secretary of Communist Party as an alarm clock of sorts. The end of his broadcast speech
marked the beginning of drinking.
The new regime had to deal with this system of holidays. Apparently, new holidays
do not work. Among the key reasons are:
|lack of traditional continuity necessary for an effective celebration |
|lack of confidence in the overall political arrangement which the new government has
difficulty generating, and, |
|most important, the absence of a coherent vision of the countrys national identity
to support the holidays. |
In fact, most people in Russia seem to be blissfully unaware what actually happened on
June 12, 1991 the first democratic presidential election in Russia's history --
designated the official Foundation Holiday of the Russian Federation. As for August 19,
1991, when Yeltsin and his supporters defied the attempt to restore the old Soviet Union,
thus clearing the way for the emergence of the truly new Russia, it failed to arouse
popular sympathy and, as a holiday, has fared even more miserably than Russias Day,
Unable to promote its own holidays, the new government borrows old ones, both from the
Imperial Russia (religious holidays) and from the communist period. It is precisely these
holidays that have undergone an interesting inversion. The new authorities have insisted
on the private character of all these holidays while popular protesters on the streets
have tried to recharge them with political ideology and to transform them into a weapon
with which to fight the new regime.
Perhaps the only new holiday with pointed ideological ambitions was the celebration of
the 850th anniversary of the city of Moscow. This totally invented founding event,
notwithstanding its local character, was promoted as a celebration offering a new vision
of Russia, both past and future. In the conceptual paradise of the Moscow celebrations,
Russias very dramatic history was baudlerized into a story of uninterrupted triumphs
and continuous bliss. But perhaps the most important part of these celebrations had to do
with an ambitious effort to blend the notions of imperial might and religious
righteousness with the values of an emerging consumer society.
Russia is still searching for an identity, and celebrations serve, as usual, as the
most acceptable way of reinventing identity. The Pushkin bicentennial in 1999 and the
approach of the new millennium will most definitely provide us with new visions and
And yes, we are already having fun, but the biggest enjoyment is that of a scholar
monitoring first hand all these developments.
Copyright © 1998 by Andrey Zorin