HOLY DAYS, HOLIDAYS AND HISTORY IN RUSSIA

I find Russian history fascinating. During the 20th century the government collapsed twice. What emerged from the rubble both times was something very different from what preceded it. For most of its history Russia was a monarchy and a self-proclaimed Christian nation. The Tsar had complete authority and officially answered to no one. God had put him on the throne. Amid growing unrest in 1905 the Tsar finally agreed to having a constitution. Ultimately, however, the constitution was not enough to calm the troubled waters. In 1917 the followers of Vladimir Lenin drove the Tsar out of power and eventually murdered him and his family. What eventually developed was The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, which was officially atheist. Then in December of 1991 the USSR either collapsed or was dismantled, depending on your perspective. What emerged was a democracy (of sorts). I have written about the decade of the 1990s in Russia before, so I won’t go over that horrible decade again. In the 2018 elections Russians again went to the polls to vote on their leaders with teams of international observers on hand. In its long history, Russia has had only three men who were elected by the people as heads of state. Russia now has no officially state sponsored religion, although Orthodox Christianity clearly has the most adherents and the most influence on public policy.

This varied history has left holidays a difficult thing for some of us outsiders to understand. In fact, I think even some Russians are confused about their own holidays. It’s the interplay between national and religious observances that makes things confusing. In one sense it is similar to America where most holidays originated either as religious observances, e.g., Christmas, or from significant national events, e.g., July 4. It’s just in Russia things are way more complicated.

The first weekend in November demonstrated my difficulties. As we prepared to go to Liturgy on Nov. 4, my wife reminded me it was the day of observance for the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God. This harks back to Russia’s Tsarist past when religion and politics were wrapped together. (I’ll address the basic issue of icons in Orthodoxy in my next blog.) Kazan had been conquered in 1552 by Ivan IV (aka Ivan the Terrible), but it was not culturally Russian. The Kazan Khanate was predominantly Muslim, and they were not happy about the Russian/Christian takeover, especially when the Church established a Diocese there the next year. Further, in 1559 there was a terrible fire in the city, and the Muslims blamed the Christians. When the Rurik dynasty came to an end in 1605, however, the “time of troubles” began in Rus. There was no Tsar, and the aristocratic families battled intensely with each other. It was practically a civil war. The Polish aristocrats thought this would be a good time for an invasion. Patriarch Hermogenes was taken into custody. He was able to send out messages to the Russian public, however. In those messages he told the Russian populace they must stop fighting each other and defend the land and the Orthodox faith.

A little girl in Kazan kept insisting she had visions from God, and the Icon of the Holy Theotokos (Virgin Mary) was in the ashes somewhere in the city. Church leaders dismissed the “dreams” as meaningless. The situation further deteriorated, however, so at the continued insistence of the little girl, a search was done and the icon was found. A copy of the icon was taken to Moscow where the Poles were inside the Kremlin. Upon its arrival, the soldiers, heeding the messages of the Patriarch, fasted and prayed for three days, after which the Poles were easily driven out. November 4 is the day when all the Russian Orthodox Churches join together to venerate this icon.

I’ll blame the fact that I’m American for forgetting just how important this day is in the Russian Orthodox Church. When we arrived for Liturgy on that Sunday, I was quickly “educated” on its importance, however. We did not arrive on time for the beginning of the Liturgy. When I opened the door to enter the church, I could not get in. It was packed. I don’t mean crowded; I mean there were so many people we could not get inside the door. In the Russian Orthodox Church we stand during the Liturgy. There are a couple of benches over by one wall for those who, because of age or infirmity, cannot stand, but everyone else stands. They were standing literally up to the door. We retreated to the Sunday School building until a few people left, and we were able to enter. (In the Russian Orthodox Church the Liturgy is formal, but there is an informality about people entering and leaving at various times. The Liturgy lasts about 3 hours.) We remained for the completion of the Liturgy and enjoyed a wonderful Trapeza (meal) afterwards.

It was interesting for me to be a part of that Liturgy. I noticed several young ladies who were wearing the traditional dress of ancient Rus. I find those bright long dresses and head coverings fascinating and beautiful. As we were leaving I heard them discussing a concert in the village that afternoon. Back in Luga, my father-in-law later told me when he drove through town there was a Procession of the Cross. He had to wait quite some time because the police had stopped traffic in the center of town for those participating in the long procession.

That evening we were invited to Oksana’s parents for the observance of “Unity Day,” another component of this complex holiday. After the Bolsheviks took over, they obviously could not allow a holy day commemorating an Icon of the Holy Theotokos, which supposedly brought victory to Russia. Yet people hate having a holiday taken from them. So in 1918 they made November 7 a national holiday celebrating the anniversary of the October Revolution. It was actually October 25, but that was back when Russia was still on the Julian calendar. When the change was made to the Gregorian calendar, October 25 on the Julian calendar is Nov. 7 on the Gregorian calendar. (The Russian Orthodox Church is still on the Julian calendar since that was the calendar used at the time of Jesus.) So every year on November 7 there would be military parades and performances to commemorate the beginning of what became a Communist nation made up not only of Russia but of all the Republics. They were all now united as one—at least politically.

After Communism fell in 1991 there was again a problem. It didn’t seem appropriate to celebrate the beginning of what became Communism when Russia was neither any longer Communist nor joined to the other Republics. In 1995 Yeltsin renamed Nov. 7 “Moscow Liberation Day,” which recalled the liberation of Russia from the Polish invasion. Still he kept the date of the October Revolution and did not mention the name of the icon. It had both a military and quasi-religious dimension. The next year he changed the name once more, this time to “The Day of Concord and Reconciliation.” In 2004 Vladimir Putin announced the creation of two holidays. November 4 was named “Unity Day.” It commemorates the joining together of all Russia to drive out the invaders. Churches, of course, focus on the veneration of the Kazan icon. Others, like my in-laws, focus more on the unity of the Russian people–fortunately they included their American son-in-law! November 7 became an exclusively military holiday honoring all those serving in the military without reference to the Revolution. This year November 5 was the 100 year anniversary of the establishment of the Intelligence Division of the military so the focus was more on that. So the five Oksana, the kids and I commemorated the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God in our morning worship service. Then we celebrated unity in Russia with my in-laws, sharing a family meal early that evening. On November 7 Gabriel went with his grandmother to the observances for the Military Intelligence here in Luga. A photographer snapped his photo, and he got his picture in the local paper with a Russian soldier instructing him on the proper use of a military rifle. Pretty heady stuff for a ten-year old boy.

Further, there are a few here who still honor the October (Bolshevik) Revolution on November 7. I saw a picture of a group in St. Petersburg and heard there was a closed party in Moscow. Yet the government and press pretty much ignore it. Neither Putin nor any of his spokespersons even mentioned it to my knowledge. I was surprised I didn’t get any fliers or announcements from members of the local Communist group who are usually outside our building on significant days for Communists. The folks who want to observe it are free to do so without anyone protesting. They don’t protest us going to church either.

As far as the developing political activities now, since being in Russia I’ve been inside the local polling station on election day and read articles by those outsiders from various countries who have been here as official “observers.” All I saw looked very normal, and I never read anything by the observers suggesting that the elections were fraudulent. Several of the actual observers expressed surprise at the order and efficiency of the events they saw. The only accusations I have heard are from American media members or politicians who were not here. This is not to say everyone in Russia is happy, and no one ever complains about the political system. Pensioners are still angry about proposed changes in the retirement, especially moving the age to 65 for males and 60 for females. The last Levada Poll I saw showed Putin’s approval rating had dropped to 67%. That’s far below the 80% he had been getting, but it is still significantly higher than any Western leader.

As I write this there are still strong protests going on in America over who really won in some of the “mid-term” elections. The Georgia’s governor race is still being reviewed, and Florida has become so confused I really can’t follow all that is going on. The Democratic Party regained a majority in the House of Representatives, and their leadership has announced more investigations into Trump, his tax returns, and, of course, the so-called Russian collusion from over two years ago. The Mueller-led investigation of the 2016 presidential election is supposedly going to end soon, but no official announcement has been made. There are those who still firmly believe that election was fraudulent, although I hear many reports saying Mueller has not come up with anything on Trump and the Russians. After the Trump White House recently banned a CNN reporter, the network filed suit against the President. It seems certain the “war” between him and much of the “main stream media” will continue. Neither group trust the other side, and the results will be contested no matter who is declared the winners.

That first Sunday in November is one that stands out because it illustrates one of the things I find so interesting and impressive about Russia. As I’ve admitted before in blogs, I can’t always stay focused during the Liturgy, because I cannot understand Church Slavonic. So sometimes I look around. I look at some of the old folks and have gotten to know a few of them a little better. They lived as believers in a Communist country. They tried to worship and pray and live the life of faith as best they could in a country which—to say the least—strongly disapproved of such things. They sneaked and had their children baptized; they worshiped wherever and whenever they could. They had little opportunity for the public expression of their faith. Some have said the Communist time was a time when their faith was purified and strengthened.

On the other hand, sitting with my in-laws at the meal afterwards I thought of those who, like them, were members of “The Party.” They believed what they had been taught. They worked hard and were loyal to their country. My father-in-law served his career in its Army with honor. Then it all fell apart. They learned about the underside of their history. They found out things of which they had never been aware. Yet they moved on and adjusted their thinking accordingly. They still value hard, honest work and a commitment to family and community. They don’t decry those who were on “the other side” of things. They get along fine with those from church. My father-in-law had no complaints about having to wait for the Procession of the Cross to pass. I think he respected it. In some strange way I sense a mutual appreciation of the others. They look for common ground. Despite the fringe movements (who claim far fewer adherents than the West pretends), I see this virtue being passed on in Russia. They accept the fact that not everyone saw or sees things the way they do. They don’t hold others accountable for what they did not or could not know. They do not spend their lives in regret or shouting and shifting the blame. A traumatic past here has forged this powerful virtue. I am in hopes it is one the citizens of my own country can still yet recover. Before it is too late.