Showing posts with label Holidays and celebrations. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Holidays and celebrations. Show all posts

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Victory Day (День Победы) - Part 2

Everyone assured me that it never, EVER rained on Victory Day, that the government took steps to ensure that the Sun shone, and that any other outcome was totally impossible. So naturally, when I woke up on Victory Day and it was raining, I was unsurprised. But the rain didn't last long, and in the afternoon I wandered down to Victory Park, where huge numbers of people had gathered under the watchful eyes of equally huge numbers of police. It was a good opportunity to play spot-the-different-types-of-police, of which there are many, but I don't know all of their names. The ones who wear grey camouflage outfits had formed a continuous line along the edge of the road around a kilometre long, and then there were mounted police, police surrounding all the fountains (and there are a lot of fountains), police separating the area in front of the stage into sections and manning the barricades, and then a whole lot more police to make sure everyone went through the metal detectors and had their bags searched. All of this seemed to me to be completely pointless, since no one appeared to be the slightest bit inclined to make trouble.

If you don't know Victory Park, it basically is a very long walkway with fountains on either side leading up to a massive obelisk with a woman and two cherubs stuck on top. Along the centre of the walkway are stones that represent each year of the fighting (starting in 1941). And on each stone, but especially on the first, which was the most terrible part of the war for Russia, people had left flowers.

1941 stone
1941 stone
This is remarkable when you consider that many of those flowers were laid down individually - many people brought a small number of flowers and either put them on these memorials or gave them to one of the veterans who were walking around the park wearing their medals. This was extremely touching - most of the veterans were carrying armfuls of flowers. And of course, the financial services industry wanted to express its thanks too:

Advert for Sberbank. It says, "Thank you for the victory!"
There were food stands along the edges of the park, and under the obelisk a stage had been constructed, from which performers recited war poetry and sang old songs about the war. Everyone in the crowd appeared to know the words, but like people the world over were reluctant to be seen to be getting too into anything in public and so only half-heartedly joined in. People waved Russian or USSR flags, some of the veterans danced with each other, and huge television screens showed footage of the war and the first victory celebrations in Moscow, 67 years ago. Note Stalin's cameo in the video.

After a few of hours of old songs I needed a change of scenery, so we headed off to the main building of Moscow State University to wait for the fireworks, which were due to start at ten. Most of the people in the city appeared to have had the same idea, and as a result when we all got out of the metro at Боробьёвы горы (borobyovy gori) no one could be bothered to walk up the path because that was the long way round and all the best spots would have been gone, so we all tried to climb the incredibly steep hill instead. It was so steep that this could only be done by forming a human chain and dragging up people after you, which is what happened. It was really bizarre - the hillside was swarming with people holding onto trees trunks to stop themselves falling whilst offering their hands to the people below. It was also really, really fun. I don't get to climb up muddy hills nearly enough anymore. When people got to the top everyone cheered, and then, since all the roads had been shut, we meandered down to the river and waited for the fireworks. Many people decided now was a good time for a sandwich, and Subway probably made more money that evening than they normally do in a month.

Waiting for the fireworks to begin
Fireworks, one of my favourite things about life
I ended up right next to where the fireworks were launched from (the top of a ski jump), and I think they have more powerful fireworks in Russia, because they were much, much louder than I am used to. When the rockets took off, you could feel the ground shake under you.

Walking back towards the main building. It looks like something Batman would perch on, but I like it
There were probably 15 minutes of fireworks, and then we all walked back to the subway. The path had so many bottles strewn on it I kept kicking them at people accidentally, but although by this time all the police had disappeared, everyone was happy-and-peaceful drunk, rather than violent-and-angry drunk. It was a really great holiday - we should really think about importing it into the UK. Not necessarily the whole war thing, but a four-day weekend with outdoor concerts, fairs and fireworks at the beginning of May would be nice.

Finally, here is a link to a very touching Soviet film (with English subtitles) about a young soldier in the war - Баллада о солдате (Ballade o soldate - ballad of a soldier) made in 1959. It is worth watching just to get an impression of the total confusion in Russia during the war. Even if the hero had survived, how on earth would he have found the girl? [This isn't a spoiler because a) it's a Russian film so there is a 99% chance the hero will die, b) it's a war film, so that percentage rises to 100%, and c) they tell you in the first minute of the film that he doesn't make it.] Normal society was so broken-down, and the movement of people around the country so large-scale, that they never would have found each other again.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Victory Day (День Победы) - Part 1

As you may know, Hitler lost World War II. This result is celebrated every year in Russia on May 9th, and Wednesday was Victory Day +67 years in the Great Patriotic War. So Happy Victory Day for Wednesday. If you are thinking, "That was a really long time ago - they need to get over it," I advise you not to voice those thoughts to a Russian - it is a really big deal here. Thousands of people turned out for the parade down Тверская (Tverskaya), and all over town people were wearing orange-and-black striped ribbons, which is the symbol of victory (it represents the Order of Saint George, the patron saint of Russia). Russians mark this day because the Soviet Union lost around 25 million people in the war. If the total number of people killed in the war was 60 million (usual estimates 50-70 million), this means over 40% of the dead were Soviet citizens. 14% of the entire population of the USSR was killed, compared with less than 1% of the UK population and 0.3% of the US population (although some countries lost almost as high a percentage, amongst them Greece and the Baltic Republics, and Poland lost an even higher percentage of its people). In some towns taken by the Germans, literally every single inhabitant died. Over one and a half million people starved to death in St Petersburg. The Soviet Union sacrificed possibly more than any other country to defeat Hitler, and they don't think that the rest of the world appreciates that enough. 

One the other hand, it is slightly weird to see banners around Moscow proclaiming "USSR Victory", or hear the defeat of Hitler described as "a gift we gave the whole world" - victory in WWII was kind-of a joint effort. Once, when we were discussing what foreigners think about Russia in my English conversation class, one of the women came out with the statement that "British people think that there have only been three people to rule Russia well - Peter I, Catherine II and Stalin." I almost choked on my biscuit. Apart from the fact that I doubt most British people have even heard of either Peter I or Catherine II, let alone hold considered opinions about their leaderships skills, I am pretty much certain that people in the UK don't, in general, have a favourable opinion of Stalin. When I explained this, as tactfully as I could, she responded with, "But Stalin won WWII". So maybe there is just a general lack of appreciation amongst all the old Allied powers about what the others did.

Regardless of the historical rights and wrongs, in mood the day is a lot like Independence day in the States, with a bit of Memorial day thrown in. People give speeches about how great the country is, and there are concerts and fireworks displays.

It all starts with a huge military parade, 1.5km long, with 14,000 soldiers and 100 units of heavy equipment. It was invitation-only - at least in Red Square, and we were advised to stay away from the whole thing, as the centre of town is currently hell, what with all the soldiers, police, barriers everywhere and the protests going on. I was in the centre on Sunday (for the final parade rehearsal), and Monday (to generally wander around), and it took an age to get anywhere. Every street you started down turned out to be blocked at the end, and if you think walking past policemen makes you feel guilty, try walking past large groups of soldiers. I had the permanent feeling I was about to be arrested and/or shot.

The final rehearsal on Sunday should have been just like the parade, only with a lower probability of being crushed by swarms of people. The noise was incredible, as was the clouds of black smoke these things give off as they move. I suppose being environmentally friendly isn't a priority for tanks.

Everyone getting bored waiting for the rehearsal to begin. We were two hours early, so it was a long wait.


Despite having a Master's with a focus on Strategic Studies, I know nothing about military equipment. Some sort of amoured vehicle?

Big missiles

Very big missiles, normally with nuclear payloads according to the people standing behind me, who said they needed them to shoot at the US. They were joking (I hope)
One of the helicopters that flew overhead in formation. The flag weighs 1.8 tonnes
This was only the second military parade of my life - the first being last November, also in Moscow. That one was to commemorate 70 years since the parade of 1941, and used only equipment from that time. Tanks were an awful lot smaller then.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

On the edges of the midnight Easter service

Happy Russian/Orthodox Easter! Orthodox communities, unlike Catholics and Protestants, use the old Julian calendar to calculate moveable feast dates such as Easter, in order to comply with Canon Seven of the Holy Apostles and various other decrees that state Easter should never coincide with Jewish Passover, which it does sometimes in the Gregorian calendar used in the West. This means that Orthodox Easter is anything from 1-5 weeks after Catholic/Protestant Easter. [Somewhat confusingly, fixed feast days are calculated according to either the new (Gregorian) or old (Julian) calendar, depending on the country - hence Christmas in Greece is on the 25th of December (Gregorian), whereas in Russia it is on the 7th of January (Julian), despite the fact that both are Orthodox countries. Still, it is simpler than pre-1918, when the whole of Russia was permanently thirteen days behind the rest of the world for everything.]

Easter is the most important festival in the Russian Orthodox church, so I decided to go to the midnight service at the church next to my общежитие, to see what happened. I was warned beforehand to try and stay close the door so that I could escape if I wanted to, because although no one seemed to know exactly how long the service might last for, the general view was that it could go on all night. In the end I stayed for 2.5 hours and then left, because the whole thing seemed to be going in circles, both literally and figuratively (the same music and chants kept coming up again and again, and the priests and associated people kept rushing round and round the edges of the church carrying staffs and incense whilst crying "Христос воскресе" - Kristos voskrese - Christ is risen). This is not meant to be offensive - I am sure it all had a theological purpose, but since I didn't know what that was, it seemed to me a bit repetitive. Plus the whole thing was in Old Slavonic and not Russian, so I couldn't understand anything. Nevertheless, the service was beautiful, and I been humming the chants from it all day. [And just so you know, it wasn't rude to leave early - Orthodox services are more informal than in the Catholic or Protestant churches, with people entering and leaving as they like throughout the whole service. I checked this both with locals and with books about Orthodox Christianity, and both sets of sources said it was fine to leave early.]

My impressions of the service are naturally going to be very shallow, because I don't really know anything about Christian rites. To start off with, at the gates to the church compound were a collection of people asking to alms, and most people gave them money before fighting their way into the church to buy candles, and then fighting their way out again and trying to find someone with a lighter. Inside the church there was some sort of ceremony going on, complete with chanting, and then at midnight the church bells all rang and the priest, deacons and other related people came down from the altar carrying icons, staffs and such-like, and everyone piled out of the church after them. We all then processed around the church, during which time the priest chanted something, and people periodically joined in, presumably in a call-and-response thing. The procession was very beautiful in the dark, what with everyone carrying candles, and a lot of people had lined up on the fire escapes of the next-door общежитие to take pictures. When we got back to the church, the service continued, but to be honest, it was impossible to see what was happening, there were so many people. Outside the church a small boy kept yelling out "Христос воскресе" (Christ is risen), to which everyone else shouted back "Воистину воскресе" (Truly, He is risen), but I don't think this was part of the service, since the boy in question had a rather bored tone, and in between these declarations spent his time swinging round a metal pole in the courtyard.

There are three main dangers inherent in this kind of service - being crushed, fainting, and being set on fire. The first happens because the service was incredibly popular, and the church wasn't that big. There were probably 500-600 people trying to get into a space really only big enough for 200 or so. A lot of people stood outside in the courtyard in front of the church, but enough people were trying to get into, or out of the church, that at times I could hardly breathe for being squashed between the wall and the crowd. I don't know how popular services are normally, but judging by how happy the priests looked last night, the attendance on non-feast days may be lower.

Related to this crowding is the second problem of fainting. Since there are no seats in Orthodox churches, everyone has to stand, and when the churches are very crowded, the place can get uncomfortably hot and airless. This would be less of a problem if the services were short, but unfortunately Russian services are notoriously lengthy. When Paul of Aleppo arrived in Russian in the 17th century, he wrote in his diary, "And now we are entered on our travail and anguish...God help us for the length of their prayers and chants and Masses". And bear in mind he was still Orthodox, just from Syria. How well people cope with these conditions is a matter of opinion. According to a book I read, one of the amazing things about Orthodox services is that old women and children manage to stand for hours on end without any sign of fatigue, but I think this is a bit optimistic - three people fainted during the Christmas service my room mate went to in January, and last night there was an ambulance waiting outside the church I attended.

To be fair, the ambulance could also have been there in case of the third danger - being set on fire. Candles are a big part of Orthodox services, and 90% of the people at the service were carrying some sort of naked flame - mostly small taper candles stuck through pieces of paper to catch the drips, but occasionally oil lamps, and in the case of one old woman, who was clearly not going to be outdone by anyone, a torch. And no, we're no talking the electric kind, but the Indiana Jones kind. So you have a lot of people carrying naked flames within a small area, and periodically bowing to the can see how this could end badly, even though people were generally very careful about shielding their candles. Perhaps unavoidably, the fur hood of the girl standing next to me was set on fire, but it got swatted out pretty quickly, and only the smell of burnt hair was left to mingle with the incense from the thuribles (although the girl was very unimpressed with the man responsible for the offending candle). The moral of this story is that you shouldn't wear anything flammable to church - concentrating on the service is that much harder when you're trying to remember what medical insurance you have, and debating whether you could get your headscarf off quickly enough to avoid serious burns if it went up in flames.

Obviously on a much grander scale, and it jumps around a lot in time, but here is some video of the service in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, attended by Putin and Medvedev. The thing they're all shouting at around 3mins is "Воистину воскресе" - truly He is risen, at 5mins 30secs the Patriarch is giving Medvedev and Putin Easter eggs (but not chocolate ones, which don't exist here), and at 8mins 15secs the XB on the red decoration stands for Христос воскресе - Christ is risen. I didn't take my camera to the service I went to because I thought it would be disrespectful, but I actually think it was more beautiful there, possibly because it was for ordinary people rather than VIPs and TV cameras.

Sunday, 18 March 2012


This was three weeks ago, but I’ve only just managed to borrow a cable to transfer my photos from my camera to my computer. Maslenitsa is a week long religious and folk festival before the start of Orthodox lent. It may have originally been a festival to celebrate the Sun and the end of winter. Nowadays it is the last week in which Christians are allowed to eat milk, cheese and other dairy products before Lent, so people make pancakes all week long.

I went with my roommate to Suzdal, a town on the Golden Ring. Suzdal is the Russian version of Lacock, in that it has been protected from development and hence is used in all period dramas, with the locals often roped in as extras.

We got there on the Friday night, after an epic journey from Moscow bus station that took us 6 hours and involved passing three car crashes, all to cover the same distance as from London to Nottingham. I suppose this is why the oligarchs have helicopters. On the Saturday morning though, the horrendous journey seemed worth it. Suzdal was covered in snow, and not the way Moscow is where it looks like someone has spray painted the snow deep brown, but snow like in movies, which somehow never gets dirty or slushy.

Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral

Believe it or not there a river in this picture

We traipsed down to the open air architecture museum, where the day began with a parade that involved some people in traditional costume and other people dressed as geese, followed by Round 1 in the Goose Fighting competition. Unfortunately, these geese were lovers not fighters, so it took a lot of coaxing from their keepers before they started biting each other. As I understand it, technically it is supposed to go to First Blood, but the audience got bored way before that and started yelling, so the organisers ended the fight and determined the winner based on points (I have no idea how that works). 

Next came climbing up a pole to grab a prize stuck at the top. Presumably for reasons of increased grip, most participants seemed to think this was best done wearing as few clothes as possible. I should note that it was pretty cold, probably twelve below zero or something, with a biting wind, and it snowed pretty much non-stop. If you made it to the top, apart from the adoration of the crowd, you got a roast goose. 

How to get hypothermia in pursuit of a goose
Throughout the day there was traditional music and dancing, sledging, rides in horse-drawn sleighs, a game which involved hitting your opponent with a pillow until they fell off a log, and a never-ending tug-of-war. There were no teams, passers by just piled in on whichever side looked like losing, and then left when they had had enough, to be replaced immediately by others. And whenever it all got too cold, you could buy hot pancakes and tea, spiced wine or sbiten, a honey-based drink. Alternatively you could go and sit in the wooden church, which was warm (this option was very popular).

Trying to knock your friend off a log with a pillow

Jingle bells

Not sure why there was a sword fight but hey...

Massive snowball fight which resulted in the total destruction of the snowhouse (this was the aim)

The following day was pretty much the same but in a different location, and ended at around 4pm with the burning of the baba, a figure of a woman who personifies winter.  After that, everyone rapidly disappeared, and we were left with another mammoth journey back to Moscow, during which we left one person behind after stopping for a toilet break in the middle of nowhere.  Travelling in Russia is not without risk.

Goodbye, Winter!