March 01, 2015

Sprouting Spring Celebrations

Back in Soviet times, holidays were a time for the entire country to come together in common celebration. At the top of the list were New Year’s Eve and Victory Day (May 9). Next in importance came the anniversary of the October Revolution (absurdly celebrated on November 7). There may not have been much genuine enthusiasm for that holiday, but at least it was a day off.

The spring holidays were more or less straightforward: International Women’s Day, March 8, when mimosas appeared and people bought them for the ladies in their lives; the idiotic April 1, when people were supposed to play pranks on one another; and the strange holiday of May 1, when people were forced to march in honor of “Worker Solidarity.” For some reason we had May 2 off as well, even though the slogan of the holiday was “Peace! Labor! May!” City people often took an additional couple of days off so they could head out of town and help their relatives plant potatoes.

Another distinctly Soviet spring holiday was April 12, commemorating the day in 1919 when workers at a railway maintenance depot known as Moskva-Sortirovochnaya (Moscow-Classification Yard) staged the first subbotnik, which was basically an event when people worked on Saturday without getting paid (see Russian Life, March/April 2014). Some Saturday in April was always chosen for Soviet citizens to continue this tradition, usually timed to coincide either with Lenin’s birthday on April 22, or, out of spite (as in 1919), with Easter. Replacing Easter with a subbotnik was of course quite unpleasant for the devout, but most people took it in stride. Not much work was actually performed at these subbotniks – a bit of raking and sweeping in the fresh air, followed by comradely shots of vodka “to celebrate.”

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