A renewed passion for holidays


Celebrations: Russia has six to choose from next month alone. Once days of purpose and devotion, they are being transformed into times of feast and friendship honoring whatever's at hand.

April 30, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Suddenly, spring has broken out here, as it does only in Russia, with weeks and weeks of pent-up expectation finally giving way in all places at once, with flowers and verdant grasses and green growth erupting everywhere, with darkness in full retreat before ever-lengthening hours of daylight, with sunbathers and lovers on every bench.

Just in time, Russians have before them the chance to celebrate not one, not two -- but six holidays between now and May 9.

Head to the dacha, head to the lake, head to the park; turn the soil, plant potatoes, fix the car. Forget about work -- just forget about it. But one thing, please: no more ideology.

The Russian holiday has undergone a sparkling transformation. From a not-always-so-solemn religious festival in centuries past to a satiric carnival under the Bolsheviks to a parade of slogans and banners under Stalin to a time of bitter debate under perestroika, it has become simply a celebration of whatever happens to be at hand.

The Russian holiday has less content than ever, and all the more reason for enjoying it.

"May Day," says a young mother named Alla Koryagina, referring to the second of the holidays, "is just a tradition now, a pretext to lay out a feast, invite your friends and rejoice."

Today, by coincidence, is Orthodox Easter, growing rapidly in prominence but associated in most people's minds with dyeing eggs and eating a cake called kulich. May Day comes tomorrow. Tuesday is May Day, Part II, a holiday that's supposed to be about sobering up from the day before; but if the weather stays fair, it could be a good excuse for extending the bash.

A few paltry days of work follow.

Then, May 7, which Vladimir V. Putin has chosen for his inauguration as president, is the Day of the Russian Army (not to be confused with the Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland, Feb. 23, or with the Day of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, a holiday Putin is reported to be planning to propose for celebration Oct. 1, which this year is the 450th anniversary of the founding of Russia's regular fighting force by Ivan the Terrible).

May 8 is Eve of Victory Day (as in the victory over Nazi Germany), and May 9 is Victory Day proper. May 10 is the first day back at any kind of serious work, but no one is scheduling anything significant until the 11th at the earliest.

It's not fair to say that these holidays are meaningless. For believers, Easter is the most important holiday of the year. And the three holidays over the second weekend have a certain martial tinge to them -- but not so much that most people would let it get between them and a picnic in the countryside.

No one pretends otherwise. That's why Yasina Ugryumova is strolling around Moscow, commemorating her days in a textile factory during World War II, when she repaired machinery that turned out socks for officers and "partyanki" -- traditional foot wraps -- for soldiers. Her factory has invited all the war-era veterans in for an early Victory Day celebration, because, come May 9, everyone is going to be out at the dacha.

There are speeches and congratulations and toasts, and then everyone sings popular songs from the war years. Ugryumova, who has come in on the suburban train from her daughter's home in Klyazma, declares it a joyful day.

She is 82. Her grandfather was Lenin's cousin (she has a government document to prove it), and she joined the Communist Party in 1952. She enjoys and appreciates Victory Day, but of all the holidays at this time of year, none is more important for her than the First of May.

This was the great day of socialism, celebrated not just in the Soviet Union but in countries around the world. The date was chosen to commemorate a bloody confrontation between strikers and police in, of all places, Chicago, in 1886. In Soviet days, it meant massed legions of workers parading through Red Square and through central squares throughout the huge nation, holding banners aloft while bands played, followed by feasts in the afternoon and fireworks in the evening.

Ugryumova marched through Red Square on some of those May Days and stood as a guest in front of Lenin's Mausoleum on others.

"Our feeling was that we were the masters of our country," she says, when asked what it had been like to sweep information into the great dramatic space before the Kremlin. "We went across the square with great enthusiasm. We were proud to demonstrate our approval of what was happening in this country, even though in reality maybe it wasn't always that good. But we took part with delight and with great pleasure."

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