Skip to main content

Bread and Circuses: Russian Holiday Havoc

By November 9, 2010May 22nd, 2017Uncategorized

Public holidays are great…if you know when they happen.

“So,” says my friend Sveta, “If this Tuesday is the actual holiday, that means we get Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday off –“

“No, no,” interrupts Katya, “this Saturday and Sunday are working days – it’s the following Sunday that is off, but the Saturday after that is a work day.”

Another of the Russian holidays is yet again upon us.  A time for merriment, and public celebration, and total time management anarchy, as work weeks surrounding the event are massaged by a truly warped individual sitting in a windowless room in the Kremlin.  A result is a number of six-day working weeks, which somehow results in one four-day break.  This plays havoc with school calendars, business trips, and everyone’s internal clock.  It’s like the calendar equivalent of the Grand Canyon for someone with an ambitious To-Do list: everything from dentist appointments to bi-lateral treaties is postponed until “After the Holiday.”   I wish I knew someone in power — I’d float the groundbreaking concept of “each third Monday in November,” and might just earn myself a well-deserved Order of St. Andrew.

Public holidays in Russia abound: including the traditional New New Year (January 1) and Old New Year (January 13), International Women’s’ Day (March 8th), Labor Day, (May 1) and Victory Day (May 9), as well as more recently-invented Russia Day (celebrating the thirteen year independence from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia – particularly Georgia — Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Stans), Constitution Day – so new that no one remembers when it is, and the newly-minted “Day of Unity and Accord,” a recycled holiday from the traditional early November anniversary of the “Great October Revolution Day,” not now celebrated.  Openly.

“Old New Year?” I hear the annoying kid in the front row say; and  “why do you celebrate an October Revolution in November, huh?”   This confusion has its origin in the fact that Russia didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1923, while the rest of the world had got on board in the mid 18th century.  This resulted in a subsequent thirteen-day discrepancy between Russia and the rest of the world, and left Russia with a different Easter, a very late Christmas (January 7th) and more than one New Year, all of which are excellent excuses to open a vodka bottle.

Russia’s rulers, from Rurik on down, have subscribed enthusiastically to the “circus,” if not the “bread,” part of the “Bread and Circus” school of government, and spare no expense to put on a good show.  If clement weather is called for, storm clouds are seeded, ensuring horrific weather for the ensuing three weeks.    Nice round numbers like the 850th anniversary of the founding of Moscow, or any number ending in “five” or “zero,” having anything to do with World War II considerably up the ante.    Milestones of this magnitude call for massive public partying: fireworks in Red Square, folk dancing demos on the main street, fun runs on the Garden Ring, all designed for the enjoyment of the masses in the common celebration of a national event.

This is, of course, the clarion call to get out of town for the duration.  Public holidays are the only times I advocate a trip to the dacha, or, better still, to Italy for the weekend: shorter travel time and better food.  Actively participating in the epicenter of the national celebration is just not worth the hassle:  this is sadly not Times Square on New Year’s Eve, nor the Champs Élysées on 14th of July.  In Moscow, all the streets are cut off, Metro station exits and entrances you depend on are shut down without warning, crowds are squished up together (and a little of that goes a long way) through re-routed pedestrian routes, and I always have an eerie feeling that the battalions of sullen pimpled crowd control recruits are about to break into a spirited rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me.”

This is what I know about Russian public holidays: they are not for the public, and that includes me.  So, I won’t be in Red Square for the 50th anniversary of some yap-yap dog orbiting the earth in a tin ball, but I’ll see you “After the Holiday!”


This article first appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines and The Washington Post on May 29, 2009, under the title “Holiday Haovc For All Occasions” and a link to the original piece online can be found here.





  • Elizabeth says:

    Halloween? All Saints? All Souls? The various Days of the Dead? Guy Fawkes? Wonderful holidays. Delighted to find out how it all began.

  • I totally enjoy your posts. I lived in Prague for a while years ago and have spent so much time studying Russia that it is quite fun and entertaining to read of your thoughts and experiences.
    Thank you and do keep blogging

  • Potty Mummy says:

    Well I wish someone had TOLD me about this one (looks sternly at her husband) because if I had known about it I wouldn’t have scheduled to arrive back at Domodedovo (sic) Airport yesterday evening at exactly the same time as everyone else. By which I mean EVERYONE ELSE in MOSCOW!!!
    (Takes a deep breath, a sip of diet coke, and continues with the unpacking…)

  • It is clearly time for me to get back to blogging…

  • Dear Exception: Many thanks for your kind words…I often see Prague on my Feedjit thingy and it is nice to put a handle to that little Czech flag. I look forward to reading your work and will add you to my roll! Welcome!

  • I am not sure which of the many Elizabeths this is, but thank you for the encouragement!

  • Turquoise says:

    I was reminiscing of the old times – going to the annual Parade with my parents with huge bows attached to my short hair and holding balloons and red flags:)
    Liked you remark regarding Russian independence – “particularly Georgia”:) The theme of independence is quite a heated topic for many post-Soviets. Each country/ethnic groups within the country have different narratives. The opinion of a Central Asia would differ from the opinion of a Lithuanian.
    “Вдохновение — это строгое рабочее состояние человека,” сказал Паустовский. So keep bloggin’!

  • Vilena says:

    Still, it’s nice to have a long weekend once in a while, isn’t it? And it’s not “several” six-days working week, just one, following the holidays (at least that’s how it works for me).
    As for the crowds on holidays, I actually this time precisely because there are FEW people in the city, as the most part leaves 😉

  • Dear Turquoise: Thank you so much for your comment! Your memories and take on the different narratives gave me much to think about. Will certainly keep blogging, and I hope you will tune in tomorrow for our 1st anniversary!

  • Vilena: It is indeed lovely to have the city to oneself and a short week. I often like to just stay in town as opposed to heading out to a dacha or running the gauntlet of the airport like poor Potty Mommy, who commented earlier on this post. Thank you so much for leaving a comment and reading. I will look forward to more of your comments!

  • Teembuuilder says:

    I hate the six day work week and I have a hair appointment so considering giving either giving the office the day off, or having a “Subbotnik” to clean up the office as we have been cleaning house lately! Of course hair appointment takes precedence to cleaning, but I will be happy to supervise. . .

  • The solution is obvious: have your staff do your toes!!!!

  • MilesN says:

    Hello, Jennifer!
    Want to help a little with the holidays’ theme. You’re surely using some master calendar for The Stunt. Maybe exactly that one:;base=LAW;n=19238;div=LAW
    (Internet Explorer use while opening the link is needed, as far as my experience go)
    But anyway, I felt obliged yo assist, even if it’s already in your use.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.