Russia is often called a country with an unpredictable past-certainly not without reason, as even the interpretation of this country's history has undergone wild swings, depending on the ideology of the current government. In particular, Russians for a long time had a peculiar habit of playing with the calendar, and its holidays and special dates. They were the last ones in Europe to switch to the Gregorian calendar, doing this only after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. The switch itself brought considerable confusion, as all dates prior to that needed to be shifted forward by 13 days. The "October Revolution" itself, for example, was celebrated on November 7th.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the new "democratic" government felt the need to "break with the totalitarian past" and reshuffle some holidays. First, Yeltsin introduced "Russia's Independence Day" on June 12 (independence from the Gorbachev's Soviet Union, that is-the day when Yeltsin was first elected to the presidency in 1991). People treat it as just another day off, without any emotional attachment. In addition to the New Year, Christmas also began to be taken seriously. But which one-the "Western," on December 25th, or the "Orthodox" on January 7th, as the Russian Church still clings to the outdated Julian calendar? In fact both of them are marked, even if half-heartedly.
Then another holiday appeared-the "Constitution Day", after the new constitution was adopted on December 12, 1993, following Yeltsin's shelling of the Parliament on October 3rd that year. It also never become popular-just another day off, hardly anybody remembers its exact date.
In fact the most popular holidays remain those left over from Soviet times -in addition to New Year's Day there is Women's Day on March 8th, Worker's Day on May 1st, Victory Day on May 9th, and the renamed "Day of Unity and Reconciliation" on Novemer 7th. It became neither, of course, as the legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution continues to be a very divisive issue to this day.
Putin's government didn't tinker much with the calendar in its first term. To its credit, it was preoccupied with much more pressing problems-from Chechnya to the tax reforms. But its focused approach changed after Putin's reelection in 2004. The regime seemed so secure in its power that it began to occupy itself with ever more ridiculous nonsense-this is especially true of those "android" deputies of the ruling "United Russia" party.
The administration began bizarre games with the holidays and commemoration days-as if there was nothing more important to do. They started by declaring that the whole 10 days after the new year will be an extended vacation-nobody does any work anyway during that time. This affair got off to a particularly bad start earlier this year. Few people can afford to spend two weeks somewhere warm-Egypt or Thailand-or skiing in Alps or the Caucasus mountains. By January 5th most people have finished all the drinks and leftovers from the New Year's party, spent much of the December bonus, and realized they have another five days of nothing to do except more vodka and watching the same trash on TV. And on January 10th they were in for a surprise-that's when the "monetization reform" kicked in, and they had to shell out far more money for transportation and other services. So, after two weeks of a good rest, they began massive demonstrations against the reform that subsided only after the government increased pensions and other payments to compensate for new expenses.
And finally Putin's government decided to do something about that incongruous "Day of Reconciliation and Unity." The new holiday, replacing it, needed to be placed in early November-the social habit was already too strong. The school vacation after the first semester begins around November 4th. This time usually means the final closing of the dacha season-when all the apples are stored in the basement, home-made jams and pickles are prepared and a few good days of eating, drinking and watching old revolutionary-era movies await students.
November holidays are important in other places too. If the U.S. were ever to tinker with Thanksgiving Day, any replacement for it would necessarily fall near the end of November. That's when Americans absolutely have to move their asses, heavy from the prodigious amount of turkey and toppings the night before, to attack shopping malls where the Christmas retail season-the quintessential meaning of existence for this country-commences in earnest.
Thus Putin's entourage wanted to come up with a historical date close to November 7th. They found it in the events of 1613-the end of the twenty year-long "Times of Trouble" and the beginning of the Romanov's dynasty. They chose the particular date of November 4th. That's when the popular militia headed by Minin and Pozharsky-a merchant and a noble -breached the defenses of Moscow, which was occupied by Polish troops and their local collaborators, and took Kitai-Gorod (the Chinatown-there was such a thing even then).
The liberal media opposed the date from the start. Actually they oppose anything at all suggesting Russian pride, especially if it has to do with encounters with Western armies. The popular militia was a truly democratic, up-from-below movement organized by ordinary citizens themselves. It was a moment of truth comparable in American history to the Paul Revere's ride and the march of the Minutemen militia in Concord and Lexington against the British redcoats. This is exactly why it is hated by the liberal and much of the Western media-because it runs counter to their established line that Russian history is nothing but "a thousand years of slavery and autocracy." Some papers bitched that this new holiday would antagonize Poles (big deal, they built their own whole history around antagonizing Russians). The idiocy of political correctness went as far as claiming that it can't be celebrated because apparently some Jewish merchants in the Polish supply line were slaughtered in the ruckus. (Duh, are there any European wars in the last 2000 years when some Jews, caught in the wrong place and the wrong time, weren't killed, just in case?)
In fact, the celebration of this date does make a lot of sense. The figures of Minin and Pozharsky were already well-established in the historical memory-the sculpture group depicting them was the only monument in the middle of Red Square (as opposed to its perimeter, like the Lenin's Mausoleum, or St. Basil's Cathedral). About half a dozen other dates from that year are equally suitable, but that one conveniently fell in early November.
Unlike the usual November 7th military parade of Soviet times, no particular official celebrations were scheduled for this first November 4th celebration. But a bunch of conservative groups organized a "Rightist march," about 3000-strong. There gathered a motley crew of nationalistic organizations-from various clerical groups to the "Movement against illegal immigration" to the "Eurasians," with a rather vague half-mystical ideology. There were a bunch of skinheads and some anti-Semitic slogans; some observers spotted a few swastikas. In the U..S the equivalent would be a march of various Evangelicals, radical pro-lifers, some rednecks with Confederate flags, the Arizona militia that wants to round up all Mexicans, with a few KKK hoods and white supremacists. Not the prettiest of pictures, but nothing extraordinary either.
The Kremlin-controlled TV news programs ignored the demonstration completely. The internet was full of pictures, gossip and heated discussions. The liberal press went wild, screaming, "the rise of fascism." For that I am glad, actually, that the demonstration took place. Let them squeal and tremble a little-these creeps practically had a monopoly on the mass media during Yeltsin's times and managed to alienate and become despised by 90% of the population-they had it coming.
After that, of course, on November 7th there was the usual march of the Communists and other leftist forces, as in the previous 15 years. Instead of eliminating one divisive issue we've just added yet another one. Double the trouble, double the fun. Maybe in a hundred years Russians will gather around the table in early November, toasting some vague memories of both the Revolution and the takeover of Moscow by the militia in 1613, barely distinguishing one from the other. Then again, judging by how much the Russian historical memory itself swings with time from one extremity to another, maybe not.