Russia takes an extended New Year holiday

Posted On January 6, 2007

Filed under News Europe

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Unofficially, many Russians keep celebrating to the “old new year” under the Julian calendar, January 14.
 
New Year’s has long been the favored holiday here, celebrated with Champagne and fireworks and gifts under the tree. Then there was January 2, also traditionally a holiday. Now there is the 3rd and the 4th and the 5th. There is, in fact, not another official workday this year until January 9, a protracted holiday break that began December 30. It seems like a deep breath, a really deep breath, before plunging into 2007.

Russia has, more or less, shut down, the government having ceased all but essential functions. The occasion last year prompted a senior official of the upper house of Parliament, Ivan Grachev, to declare: “The less they work, the better it is for the country.” President Vladimir Putin made his traditional New Year’s greeting on January 1, an address Boris Yeltsin made famous in the first moments of 2000 by resigning and appointing Putin, and then he disappeared.

No newspapers have been published since December 29, the last workday of 2006, while most television networks have drastically pared back news programs in favor of treacly variety shows and movies, among them all three parts of “The Lord of the Rings.”

Some factories have cut or halted production. FedEx does not deliver. Gazprom, the state energy giant, struck a two-minutes-to-midnight deal with Belarus on New Year’s Eve to supply natural gas, then canceled plans to hold a New Year’s Day news conference to explain it.

Other countries have long holidays, at least unofficially. August in Western Europe comes to mind. The Russian holidays, though, are a rare thing and, in a way, a reflection of the country Russia has become: confident and indulgent, uncertain and unforgiving.

Since the January holidays, as they are called, came into being in 2005, sociologists, psychologists and economists have chronicled what they call the disturbing consequences of an extended period of leisure. These include an economic slowdown, and seasonal spikes in fires, domestic abuse and deaths by alcohol poisoning.

“The number of crimes committed during these 10 days increases dramatically,” the newspaper Izvestia warned in December. “The country plunges into an unrestrained binge.”

In Moscow, officials did report more fires so far this year than is normal, but also a drop in reported crimes. A spokeswoman for the Emergency Services Ministry, reached at home, noted that there were not yet hard statistics because, of course, no one was in the office to collect them.

Sergei Klyuchnikov, a psychologist in Moscow, said that his own experience with patients proved “the negative effect on people” that the holiday has had. He, like others, noted that most Russian cities, even Moscow, offered very little for people to do, at least cheaply, especially in winter.

The Soviet department store GUM, unrecognizable from its old days of empty shelves, opened a skating rink on Red Square, for example, but it charged an entrance fee, $11.50 during the day, $19 in the evenings, that is dear for most Russians. The rink is completely enclosed by grandstands, shutting out even those who might just watch. On New Year’s Eve, when Russians traditionally gather on Red Square, the rink charged 2,007 rubles, or about $76.

“After three or four days of holidays, they run out of money. The problems start after that,” said Klyuchnikov, an author whose recent self-help books include “In Search of Silence” and a title unthinkable in Soviet times, “Money in Your Life.”

Inevitably, perhaps, the holiday has become another measure of the widening gap between rich and poor in Russia, one that, at times, can be jarring. On New Year’s Eve the British singer George Michael flew into Moscow to perform an hourlong concert at a private party, reportedly thrown by Vladimir Potanin, the metals and media tycoon.

The agency representing Michael, Connie Filippello Publicity, said in a statement that the singer earned $3 million for his performance, adding that it had made him “the highest-paid entertainer in modern Russian history,” but it declined to identify who had hired him. A man who answered the phone at Potanin’s company, Interros, the call having been rerouted to his cellphone, would neither confirm nor deny the reports. He added that no one could confirm nor deny the reports until, of course, after the holidays.

For many, the holidays have become a popular time to escape the Russian winter, which makes it hard to reach anybody these days. The richest Russians have turned resorts like Courchevel, France, into teeming hubs of Russian wealth. Even those whose fortunes are more modest flock to places like Egypt and Thailand, with charter flights and tour packages having come within the grasp of a growing middle class that not long ago could only dream of foreign travel.

Others stay closer to home. Malls, like the glistening new European Shopping Center next to Kiev Station, are full these days, as are cinemas, museums and theaters though, thankfully, the notorious Moscow traffic has disappeared. Consumer spending is skyrocketing, part of the energy-fueled boom that is trickling down, albeit unevenly, to the consumer class. Still, it’s hard to shop for 10 days.

“I have studied this matter,” Klyuchnikov said. “Most of the couples who visit a big shopping center start quarreling within an hour and a half.”

The holiday officially recognizes what became an unofficial practice after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the state resumed official celebrations of Russian Orthodox Christmas, January 7, which is observed far more solemnly than the commercialized celebrations of the West.

Since January 1 and 2 were already official holidays, few bothered to work on the days in between. Since January 7 was a Sunday this year, the end of the official holidays was pushed back to January 8. Unofficially, many keep celebrating to the “old new year” under the Julian calendar, January 14.

“Call me after the 15th,” Andrei Lugovoi, a businessman and former KGB agent at the center of the investigation into the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, the agent for the FSB, successor to the KGB secret police, said when reached on Friday. Asked about the status of the case, he said: “We expect nothing to happen until after the 15th.”

The legislation that created this annual lull was proposed and approved in an unexplained rush in December 2004, only days before the first holiday took effect. It prompted an unusually vigorous debate. Valery Fedorov, a member of the upper house of Parliament, warned at the time that such a long break would hurt the country’s development, presciently, as it turned out. Last January, industrial production dropped 27 percent and investment 71 percent compared to the month before, according official statistics cited by Goldman Sachs.

“I would like to do everything possible, and we shall do everything possible, so that the results which we have achieved in developing our economy would lead to serious positive changes in the life of each specific person,” Putin said in his New Year’s address. Only, after the holidays.

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2 Responses to “Russia takes an extended New Year holiday”

  1. Olivier Beltrami

    Might want to provide a link to yesterday’s International Herald Tribune article (“Russia takes an extended New Year holiday” – http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/01/05/news/russia.php), which provided the content for this post.

  2. grhomeboy

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