the word’s worth: United we stand

the word’s worth: United we stand

Published: November 9, 2011 (Issue # 1682)

Единство: unity

The main buzz on the street last week was about Friday’s holiday — as in: Напомни мне, пожалуйста, что это за праздник? (Remind me, what’s this holiday?)

Well, it is a long story. It begins with the Великая Октябрьская социалистическая революция (Great October Socialist Revolution). This “revolution” (read: coup d’etat), which occurred on Oct. 25, 1917, was commonly called Великий Октябрь (Great October) or just Октябрь (October), as in Слава Октябрю! (Glory to October!)

Soon after, the Soviet government switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Oddly, while the government was busy destroying religion, it kept the church tradition of celebrating holidays on the new date, 13 days after the original event. And so, for 74 years, the holiday was celebrated on Nov. 7. This was a bad omen.

I mean, what could you expect from a country that celebrated Great October in November?

By 1992, the Soviet Union was no more, and Great October was an anachronism. But people were used to a holiday in November, and so “в целях смягчения противостояния и примирения различных слоёв российского общества” (to mitigate the level of confrontation and reconcile various strata of Russian society), the name was changed to День согласия и примирения (the Day of Accord and Reconciliation). There was no official parade on Red Square and no sign of accord or reconciliation.

Not a great holiday.

Apparently, the authorities recognized that and started casting around for a replacement holiday. After all, even if a whole generation had no memory of Nov. 7 parades, it’s a long stretch from June 12 to Dec. 31 without a day off.

Lo and behold, they found a pre-revolutionary state holiday on Nov. 4. True, it was a church holiday, Празднование Казанской иконе Божией Матери (the Commemoration of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God). But it had a patriotic element: It was held “в память избавления Москвы и России от поляков в 1612 году” (in memory of the liberation of Moscow and Russia from the Poles in 1612).

The story is that after the Poles invaded Russia during the Time of Troubles (Смутное время), a meat and fish merchant named Kuzma Minin did some fundraising in Nizhny Novgorod for the народное ополчение (voluntary army) and eventually joined up with the commander, Prince Pozharsky. They marched to Moscow. According to one version, on Nov. 4, 1612, holding aloft the miracle-working Kazan icon of the Mother of God, they attacked the invaders in Kitai-Gorod and took back the Kremlin the next day. Exit Poles, stage west.

Enter stage east — a few decades and centuries later — a three-day religious state holiday and a beautiful church for the icon and a grand statue of Minin and Pozharsky on Red Square.

In 2004, the holiday was revived — sort of. It has remained a religious feast day, but now it has been declared a day of народное единство (national unity). Minin and Pozharsky are cited for being образец героизма и сплочённости всего народа вне зависимости от происхождения, вероисповедания и положения в обществе (an example of heroism and unity of the entire nation regardless of origin, religious beliefs or position in society). Russian nationalists don’t buy the bit after “regardless of” and celebrate it as a day to get rid of us pesky non-Russians.

And the people? They do what they’ve always done on the November holiday: Put snow tires on their cars.

Michele A. Berdy, a Moscow-based translator and interpreter, is author of “The Russian Word’s Worth” (Glas), a collection of her columns.

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