It’s minus 35 celsius outside, but Oleg is packing his swimming trunks, shorts and a short sleeved shirt. Oleg, who lives in Surgut in northern Siberia, is lucky. Yamal-Neftegaz, the oil and gas corporation he works for, is paying for him to celebrate New Year at a grand company party to be held at Tuapse, on the Black Sea coast. At the beginning of December, President Vladimir Putin asked public sector employers to make their staff pay for their New Year parties, but Oleg’s company is part of the private sector so Putin’s strictures don’t apply to it.
Yelena also lives in Surgut. She works at a large store that sells construction materials, and for her the run up to New Year means longer hours, as she is in charge of organising the staff celebration dinner. The company’s owners don’t have the money to fly their employees to the Black Sea, but the evening will be more lavish and expensive than all the other dinners held during the year put together. In Russia nobody stints on New Year festivities.
In a time of increased austerity in Russia, President Vladimir Putin has announced that state employees should pay for their own New Years frivolities. Photo Kremlin.ru
Grandfather Frost v. Father Christmas
The custom of celebrating the New Year with a decorated fir tree and celebratory meal appeared in Russia relatively recently – less than a century ago. Up until the reign of Peter the Great, three hundred years ago, the Russian calendar was based on the supposed date of the Creation of the Earth and the year began in September. Peter reformed the calendar and moved the beginning of the year to Christmas, as in Europe, with 1 January as its first day. But despite the Tsar’s command that the new holiday be marked by fireworks and free food and drink, most of his subjects ignored it and just celebrated Christmas, and it was left to foreigners, mostly Germans, to hang decorations on trees.
By the beginning of the 20th century the main features of the celebration - a tree, a Father Christmas, presents and sentimental greetings cards with angels - had spread to all the towns and cities of Russia, although the main celebration was still Christmas, a week earlier.
The Communist authorities quickly realised that a decorated tree and slap-up meal would do no ideological harm and indeed would make a good substitute for Christmas.
In the first years after the 1917 Revolution, the new Soviet government attempted to stop the population decorating trees for either Christmas or New Year. The whole thing was complicated by the fact that although Russia had finally adopted the Gregorian calendar, the Orthodox Church still followed the Julian calendar, which was thirteen days behind, so New Year was happening before Christmas. But the Communist authorities quickly realised that a decorated tree and slap-up meal would do no ideological harm and indeed would make a good substitute for Christmas, which of course could no longer be openly celebrated. 1936 saw the beginning of a new annual tradition that continues to this day, when over the New Year period thousands of children are invited to parties at the Kremlin, centred on an enormous tree decked out in hundreds of lights, with games and entertainers and a present from Grandfather Frost at the end. And in 1947, 1 January became a public holiday in the USSR – the only one not connected with Communist ideology.
Grandfather Frost (Ded Moroz), a modernised version of a character found in folk tales, became the central figure of New Year, and, despite his external resemblance to Father Christmas, it was made clear that he had no religious connotations. To stress the difference, he was given a granddaughter, the Snow Maiden (Snegurochka, who first appeared in a literary folk tale by the 19th century dramatist Alexander Ostrovsky), as his helper. In the story the Snow Maiden was actually made of snow, and melted in summer, but the Soviet version didn’t melt and instead handed out presents with her grandfather. In the Soviet period children also began to have a ten day school holiday at New Year, and their parents also tried to spend this time at home, on the pretext that they wanted to spend time with their children.
Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter Snow Maiden quickly filled the void left by the official banning of Christmas celebrations.
A holiday for adults too
After the fall of Communism in 1991, New Year became over a few years Russia’s most important public holiday, to a large extent because of the devaluation of all the others. 7 November, which had marked the anniversary of the October Revolution, was first renamed the Day of Accord and Reconciliation, and then changed name again, to National Unity Day. On 1 May most Russians take the opportunity of newly warm spring weather to get out of town into the countryside, and 9 May, Victory Day, isn’t considered an occasion for unmixed joy: as the song that has become its unofficial hymn runs: ’There’s joy, but tears in our eyes’. 8 March, International Women’s Day, hasn’t lost any of its significance, and like New Year is marked by lavish eating and drinking at work which is then continued at home. But this is just a one day celebration (and hardly a holiday for women, who still have to cook a suitably festive dinner), and on 9 March everyone is back at work. So effectively New Year has become most Russians’ second holiday break.
In 1992, 2 January also became a public holiday, and in 2005 the holiday was officially extended till 5 January. Since 7 January is Christmas Day in the Julian calendar and so also a public holiday, Russians have almost a week free and usually only go back to work on 9 or 10 January.
Between December 25th and 31st work doesn’t stop completely, but it takes up valuable time that could be spent getting ready for a party.
And in fact the holiday is even longer. Some Russians start celebrating on 25 December, in solidarity with their European neighbours, and from then until 31 December there is an endless round of office parties, normally in the shape of a slap-up meal. It’s not that work stops completely, but it becomes an irritation because it takes up valuable time that could be spent getting ready for a party.
This is followed by a week when the TV is always on and the vodka glasses are never cleared away. New Year celebrations take up the first six days of January, and on the seventh day there’s Christmas. Another day or two are spent recovering from the accumulated excesses, then it’s off to work again.
Some hardy folk lift a glass of champagne again on the night of 13-14 January, New Year according to the Julian calendar, and known in Russia as Old New Year. But by that time most Russian men are on medication for their overworked livers.
Some political analysts believe that the New Year holiday period in 2011-12 seriously damaged the anti-Putin protest movement.
The two weeks spent preparing for New Year, the celebration itself and the recovery period have even taken their toll on Russia’s economic and political life. January production figures are low in many industrial sectors, not surprising since for a third of the month factories and businesses were either shut completely or not working to full capacity. Some political analysts also believe that the New Year holiday period in 2011-12 seriously damaged the anti-Putin protest movement. Instead of consolidating their forces and coordinating further action in late December and early January, opposition leaders disappeared on holiday, many of them abroad, and it turned out that it is just as difficult to get back to a political struggle after a break as it is to an office job.
Away from the cold - and Putin
It’s not just opposition leaders who like to get away at New Year: many ordinary Russians try to spend their ad hoc winter holiday far from home. Where they go depends on their wallets: the least well off head for Moscow or, more often, St Petersburg, which they see as the next best thing to Europe. Those with a bit more cash aim to go to neighbouring European countries like Finland, Sweden or the Baltic states. Prague is also a popular destination; on New Year’s Eve its restaurants are packed with Russian tourists. This can lead to unpleasant incidents, as, even if meals are included in a package, there may not be a free table. New Year package deals sell out in May, and by autumn it can be impossible to buy a plane ticket to popular destinations like the Czech Republic, Spain and Greece.
The wealthiest Russians celebrate New Year on remote islands or their own yachts, and for the rest of January the tabloids regale their readers with speculations about which pop singer or actor graced the table of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov or Roman Abramovich.
How Russians like to celebrate New Year abroad varies dramatically. Some like to stick to traditional Russian fare: whether they are in a Stockholm hotel or an Egyptian resort, there has to be vodka and champagne on the table, as well as Russian salad and the colourful starter known as ‘herring in a fur coat’: salted herring under layers of grated boiled vegetables topped with grated beetroot and mayonnaise. And at five minutes to midnight Vladimir Putin must appear on the TV screen and wish them all a Happy New Year. ‘We’re just thankful we don’t have to lay on snowdrifts for them’, joke the tour reps.
Other Russians, on the other hand, leave Russia in order to forget Russian realities for a week. ‘Anywhere, as long as it’s far away from the cold and Putin’, they say.
'Herring in a Fur Coat,' a traditional Russian new years starter, is accompanied by vodka and 'Soviet Champagne', a cheap sparking wine. Photo CC Zserghei.
Office parties funded out of the KGB budget…
As New Year approaches, Russian pop stars get as excited and impatient as children awaiting their presents from Santa Claus. Not every singer can celebrate with Abramovich on his island, but from 25 December invitations to big office parties arrive from major publicly-owned companies, and the fees for performing at them can make up a quarter, or even more, of a star’s annual income.
The cost of lavish parties where lowly office workers have the chance of wining and dining with top management can top 100 million roubles (£2 million).
Some of these jollies take place on the outskirts of Moscow, in upmarket restaurants along the Rublyov Highway or at country clubs, and the menus feature the most recherché ingredients, accompanied by the most select wines and spirits. Catering companies are used to receiving incredibly detailed descriptions and requirements for each dish, half of them so exotic that even the most comprehensive culinary dictionaries of Soviet times wouldn’t have listed them.
The cost of these lavish parties, where lowly office workers have the chance of wining and dining with top management, can top 100 million roubles (£2 million). At the beginning of December 2013 Vladimir Putin took a look at these figures and announced that public sector employees could spend as much as they liked on New Year parties but only if they paid for them out of their own pockets. ‘Office parties being funded out of the KGB budget – what kind of bullshit is that?’ said the president, with a nod to his previous career.
Duma Deputies will have to pay for their own dinner, and pop stars will perform for free and consider it an honour to be asked.
But any joke or emphatic statement by Putin is just as much an order as a presidential decree or Parliamentary Act. By the next day, half the pop stars had their contracts rescinded, and both Rostelecom, Russia’s largest telecommunications company and Rostec, which produces hi-tech industrial products for the civil and defence sectors, had cancelled their parties. RZD, which runs Russia’s freight and passenger train services and is one of the three largest transport companies in the world, has announced that its board members will pay for its New Year party, as has oil giant Rosneft. Duma Deputies have not been so lucky – Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin has said they will have to pay for their own dinner; pop stars will perform for free and consider it an honour to be asked.
But Gazprom, Russia’s richest and most criticised monopoly and the world’s largest extractor of natural gas, will hold its usual New Year extravaganza regardless. This year it will be happening in Sochi at Galactica, a just opened ‘cultural centre’ built by the company for the coming Winter Olympics.
Putin in the snow
Oleg, the Yamal-Neftegaz employee, is lucky. His company isn’t publicly owned. Its management has listened to Putin and reduced its New Year budget, but a chartered plane carrying oilmen and their wives will still take off from Surgut on 30 December and fly them to the Black Sea. For four days they can forget about the polar frosts back in Siberia, enjoy the palm trees and the sea and swim in an open air pool.
Yelena has never celebrated New Year on a beach. For her, like many Russian women, festive occasions are as much a hassle as a joy. She is faced with a number of trips to wholesalers to buy fruit, wine, meat and cheese for her company’s New Year party at the best possible price. In the run up to New Year this isn’t easy: the queues at wholesalers and supermarkets are no shorter than they were in Soviet times. And after the New Year buffet at work, she’ll have to spend 31 December cooking a festive dinner for her own family.
On the other hand, New Year is the only chance many Russian women have to wear their best dress, buy a new pair of shoes and pay a visit to the beauty parlour (the beauty parlour, like flights to Prague, gets booked up by September or October).
At five minutes to midnight Oleg, Yelena and millions of other Russians will turn on their TVs to hear Vladimir Putin wish them a Happy New Year. Each year the President appears to be standing on Red Square, although in fact he is in a studio. And each year it has to look as though snow is falling on him, even if it last fell in Moscow a week earlier. Then, as soon as Putin’s speech ends, there is a rush to open the champagne (in fact sparkling white wine, known as Soviet Champagne and costing just a couple of pounds), fill the glasses before the clock on the Kremlin’s Spassky Tower chimes the midnight hour, and make a wish while it does so (these wishes always come true).
New Year is the only chance many Russian women have to wear their best dress, buy a new pair of shoes and pay a visit to the beauty parlour.
The chimes are followed by the National Anthem, but nobody is listening. Everyone is busy wishing everyone else a Happy New Year, drinking their ‘champagne’ and phoning friends and relations – there are so many calls that the lines go down after only a few minutes, but you have to send your best wishes to everyone, whether they are on the other side of town, at the other end of the country or on the other side of the world.