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Jan 1, 2014

The New Year, a Russian ritual

Russians don’t just love their New Year celebrations – who doesn’t? They also have an anxiety about it, a deep-seated belief that it MUST be properly celebrated. Perfectly cool and cynical people will burst into cheesiest series of congratulations, emails with smilies, and stolen digital art. They cannot help it – it’s the New Year! Otherwise, things may go wrong. Generally anxious about the future, Russians are a somewhat fatalistic bunch. The New Year is like a gulp of hand-made optimism.

It is certainly the biggest carnival in the Russian cultural cycle. A thoroughly secular holiday, it tends to unite various religious communities and subcultures, and takes on an air of universality in otherwise very diverse and divided country. Since 1975, the TV shows the same movie, which many adults swear not to see again, and yet they are drawn to it like zombies. What is so special about the movie – no one can explain, including its creator. The plot involves a guys getting very drunk and flying by mistake from Moscow to Sankt Petersburg, and finding his true love via a series of errors. The movie has eight songs (so it is really a musicle), and about everyone in the country knows them.

But the movie is just one element of highly ritualistic set of actions. It is not just the champagne – it has to be the right champagne, and it has to be opened a few minutes before midnight, and glasses must cling exactly от the chimes of the Kremlin clock, or the world will end. Everyone, including those who passionately hate Putin, will listen to his 5-minute speech right before midnight; just like they watched Yeltsyn and Gorbachev, and Brezhnev before. No one cares what these guys have to say – people just want to make sure we still have a country, and a government, and someone is in charge. In this sense, the New Year is a deeply civic ritual.

Then there is the long TV concert show with whoever are the biggest pop stars of the day, with lame jokes and mostly nostalgically recycled old pop songs. It is not about the new and the experimental (although Russian pop culture is normally fairly robust and inventive). The whole thing is meant to be junk food for the soul. Again, the same woman tends to sing at least something every year since early seventies. She just did it again, plus she hosted most of the show (she is 65). As close as one can get to royalty, Alla assures the same thing – yep, we still have a country, and goddamit, we can afford to eat good food and drink anything we want, even is just once a year.

Emails from Russia dies out on about December 30. Even the workaholics and the insane stop working. It’s the New Year, we must celebrate!

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