Jan 27, 2008

С праздником! (On holidays)

You know what's funny about Russians? They barely speak English.

But that has nothing to do with today's topic. Did you know that, statistically speaking, Russians are the most festive people on the planet? Don't believe me? There are millions of blogs on the internet, you don't have to read mine. Besides, I'm not making this up - before the revolution, there were 251 official government holidays a year. Alright, I did make up the number, but I know there were more holidays than normal-days. See, in pre-revolutionary Holy Russia, the tsars reaffirmed their Holiness by tacking on a million Holy-days to the calendar.

Then everything changed, right? Not quite - Just because the Bolsheviks stabbed and shot the tsar, his wife and children, all his relatives, and all their close associates, and then threw their bodies in a mine, which they then tried to blow up, but failed and instead poured acid all over them (all true), doesn't mean they didn't have a festive side, too. They were, after all, Russians. They just changed Christmas trees into New Years trees, Saint God-knows-who's Day into Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution, Easter into Casimir Pulaski Day, etc etc. That last part may also not be true. To discover new blogs that may be more up your alley, use the Google Blog Search at http://blogsearch.google.com/.

For the hangers-on, and those of you who skipped the text for the pictures, today's theme is the Russian holiday.


New Year's is the Tsar of all Russian holidays - They decorate the entire country with ice-sculptures and lights, and the entire week afterwards is a state holiday - nobody works, not even my señora's friend Galina Ivanovna, who is the director of the city's only children's hospital. Sound a little bit irresponsible? I thought so too, but she assured me she was home, every day, without a care in the world. Maybe the patients got the holiday off, too, who knows. It is the biggest of the year, after all.

If New Year's is the Tsar of all holidays, Epiphany is the guy who tortured all of the Tsar's dissidents. I don't know anything about religion, or other countries, or holidays for that matter, but I can say with a degree of certainty that only Russians celebrate by swimming in holes in frozen rivers in the middle of January. As we know, Russians are all terrible sinners, and so this ritual is necessary, to freeze off sin like the doctor freezes off warts with liquid nitrogen. Just for you, I photographed the entire process:

In Irkutsk, the whole city gathered at the frozen river, around this really impressive ice-church they'd built. This was early, while they were preparing.

I'm not here to critique any one religion, but it's worth noting that all the guys in the pretty white outfits never got in the water, they just watched and said lots of stuff in Old Church Slavonic so people assumed they were too busy. I know you can't tell from the picture, but it was negative 30 celsius (translation: fahrenheit) that day, and windy on the river like always.

Everybody gathered holy water in bottles to keep for the year, and washed their faces and hands. I did that part, seemed easy enough.

This was on Baikal. It's just to make the blog look nice.

And finally, the swimming. See the hand poking out over the water? It's the only part of the guy that didn't sin all year. I'd have gone, but I've been really good. Plus I'm not sure that I am, in fact, Russian Orthodox, so i figured maybe it wouldn't even work.


Most of the major Soviet holidays carried over, though like I said, some have new names. May Day, Victory Day (1945), and Cosmonautics Day (not made up) are still standards, though with the exception of Victory Day, not as big a deal. Some of the names changed only slightly - for instance, Day of the Soviet Police in November is now Day of the Russian Police, and Russians still celebrate the same exact way - they sit at home, watch a police parade and a police chorus on TV, and quietly laugh to themselves.

Day of the Glorious Great October Socialist Worker's People's etc etc became Constitution Day. Then for good measure they tacked on Independence Day, which marks the independence attained in 1991 from a larger version of themselves.

On top of all of these, they still celebrate "occupational" holidays, also leftovers from the worker's state. All the favorite Soviet professions are recognized - Just this month we've celebrated Typist Day, Secretary Day, Genius Chess Player Day, Hulking, Hairy Olympic Gold-Medalist Day; Evil and Slightly Less Capable Spy Day, Apathetic Bureaucrat Day, and so on and so forth. We recently had Student's Day, too, on which most of the students I knew "congratulated" me on it being Student's Day.  International Forest Workers' Day is right around the corner, my friend Susanna saw a sign for it in town.

As in that example, the Soviet Union had a habit of creating "international" holidays that only they celebrated. The most important is International Women's Day - this one is serious. Men shower every woman they know with flowers and chocolate, or get scolded mercilessly, in my own personal experience. It makes up for the other 364 days of the year, which are more or less official Men's Days. Also, so things remained fair, there's also an official Men's Day, celebrated in less than a week.

Why, you might ask, did I choose holidays this week? Well as we know, a favorite American holiday just passed - St. Valentine's Day. This one has made it to Russia too, albeit in a slightly different form. Here, they celebrate Valentine's day 9 days later, on the 23rd, and it's not called Valentine's day. Instead, it's Day of the Defender of the Fatherland, and it's about a very different kind of love - that of military hardware.


This might shock you as much as it has shocked me... but life here does seem more or less normal at this point. It's getting harder to write blog entries, because what seemed bizarre back
in September really isn't so shocking anymore. For instance, I just exchanged text messages with a Russian acquaintance, with whom I'm going to a museum on friday. Her directions were as follows:
"The museum is a bit hard to find, but we can meet in front of the tank, and walk together from there."

I wrote back, "Which tank? The one on First Soviet, or the one on Karl Marx near the movie theater?" It took a full forty minutes for that to strike me as funny. You see a few huge tanks lying around the city so many times, and at some point, they become part of the scenery.

Our program pamphlet said there would be a period of culture shock, then a long euphoric period afterwards, during which we feel comfortable and capable. I feel both of those things, but the euphoria seems to have come and gone without notifying me. I'm not having a bad time, really... but my mind does wander home pretty often, or to any number of other warm places. At this point, I think I'll make it without the period of desperation at the end (also in the pamphlet), but we'll see. All told, I still love it here and am glad to have so much time ahead, but sometimes it may be hard to tell just by looking at me.

I'm also extremely busy, without much time to take in the experience. That will pass, but at the moment it's no fun.

"Does this mean the end of the blog," you ask? Alright, nobody asked, but the answer is no. Like I've promised, the next terrible twist is right around the corner. I need to get some vaccinations soon, so I'll finally get to see the inside of a Russian hospital, which was high on my list of non-goals for the semester, along with the inside of a police station, and the inside of a prison. I've already been to the police station a few times, so after this week, that only leaves one! Also, I'm going to add tons and tons of pretty pictures soon, as insurance against thieves. So please don't leave me - your comments are the only way I know America still exists.


beth said...
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Annabelle said...
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Annie said...

Mom, I can only hope they do not desecrate the holy water with speedos.

Topher said...

I wish I could think of adjectives to describe how I think Russia sounds other than "bleak". After reading your post, I came to "fairly bleak". You'll notice that still involves "bleak", but at least there is a modifier involved.

beth said...
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Natasha said...

ося, хорошо что ты так привык к виликой россий! А когда вернешся в америку, все сново будет казаться смешным!