March 10, 2019

Not Such a Flowering Holiday


Not Such a Flowering Holiday
Mimosa sales outside Moskovskaya Metro Station in St. Petersburg on March 8. Katrina Keegan

Roses, tulips? Those are just the sidekicks. In Russia, the real hero of International Women’s Day is mimosa.

The tree, which is naturalized to the Black Sea region, is fast-growing, outcompetes surrounding plants to the point of becoming a fairly aggressive weed in certain environments, fights off harmful insects, and has a variety of uses from perfume to furniture to erosion control. It is even strong enough to tolerate Russia’s temperamental spring frosts. 

Why is it the flower of choice to gift women on March 8? Because, as you can clearly see from its botanical properties, it is a symbol of tenderness and fragility, shyness and modesty, according to multiple Russian sites. They do admit, secondarily, that the flower is also strong, and it is this duality that characterizes women.

Mimosa and its interpretation is an apt metaphor for the holiday as a whole. 

In current Russian discourse, it is hardly a novel thought that the holiday has come to represent pretty much the opposite of its original meaning. International Women’s Day, which used to be a day for equal labor rights whose protests in 1917 brought down an empire, has become more of a family “femininity day” in Russia – with a light dose of the Women’s Day stuff too sometimes. 

March 8 greeting cards in Dom Knigi, St. Petersburg. / Katrina Keegan
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Pink and yellow greeting cards covered in flowers – and their e-card counterparts shared widely on social media – thrive on the idea that a woman is everything, but mostly “just” a woman, with all her stereotypical responsibilities and caprices. One card offered “coupons” for things like “cleaning up a mess;” another wished the recipient, among other things, “50 types of new creams,” “a ton of delicacies (that do not harm the figure)” and lots of free time to enjoy it all. 

Inside this card:
“Day of the elegant, holiday of the fashionable,
Day of the beautiful, the sweet, the proud.
Day of the entertainer, the businesswoman,
The masters of any conversation.
Away with sadness and aprons today!
We are celebrating March 8!”
/ Katrina Keegan

Judging by greeting cards, President Putin hit the mark in his remarks this year, saying that men are rushing to “say a sincere thank you to their wives, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters… and colleagues.” [The ellipsis reflects an extended pause in Putin’s speech.] He proceeded to speak for 32 seconds about women’s contributions at work and to Russian history, before a smooth transition into comments nearly three times as long about women’s role in the family. His opening statement that “we all love” March 8, though, does not seem to be shared by all members of society.

Some said “flowers for all!” and organized the distribution of free flowers in parks, hospitals, and book stories. Others took to the streets with signs: “respect instead of flowers!” The two groups clashed not only on social media but in real life, when a group of men armed with tulips invaded a women’s-only feminist cafe in St. Petersburg. The smiling men insisted on distributing the flowers, despite angry requests of the women inside to leave, escalating the use of what appears to be pepper spray. 

 

 

In the end, March 8 is a holiday rife with contradictions and dualities: pro- and anti- constituents of society, work and home lives of women, socialist past and traditional-values present. And, of course, the “fragile strength” of the holiday’s icon, the mimosa flower. However, maybe that contradiction only arises when you break off the stem of the mimosa bush and try to make it a symbol of femininity. The tree itself seems to do just fine. 

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