Russia, together with much of the Orthodox world, celebrates Christmas today 7th January 2017.
This is not due to theological difference. The Russian Orthodox Church retains the Julian Calendar, and by its reckoning today is 25th December 2016 ie. Christmas Day. Russia continued to use the Julian Calendar until February 1918, when the new Bolshevik government switched to West’s Gregorian Calendar, which is why the “October Revolution” which brought the Bolsheviks to power actually took place – according to the West’s calendar and to Russia’s present calendar – in November.
Though I am not in Moscow for Christmas, the New Year and Christmas decorations were already up when I went to Moscow earlier in December for The Duran’s Christmas. The last time I visited Moscow during the Christmas Season was in the crisis year of 1998, so it was interesting to make comparisons.
Physically Moscow is still (mainly) the same city today that it was in 1998, in the sense that the buildings are still there. In every other respect the contrast could not be greater. Indeed the contrast is so great that it is hardly possible to make comparisons. The Moscow of 1998 was very much the Moscow of the “Wild East” – a phantasmagoric place of gangsters, beggars and whores, acting as on a stage as millions of people struggled to get by. It could not be further removed from the stable, orderly and (by world standards) wealthy city it is now.
The other obvious change is the steep decline in cynicism. Westerners still sometimes say they find Russians cynical. To the extent that this is so, it simply bears no comparison with the pervasive and bitter cynicism which I remember.
As to how Moscow celebrates Christmas today, as good as any place to start is the following comment in a recent article by the US investigative journalist Robert Parry
During my trip last week to Europe, which included stops in Brussels and Copenhagen, I decided to take a side trip to Moscow, which I had never visited before. What I encountered was an impressive, surprisingly (to me at least) Westernized city with plenty of American and European franchises, including the ubiquitous McDonald’s and Starbucks. (Russians serve the Starbucks gingerbread latte with a small ginger cookie.)
Though senior Russian officials proved unwilling to meet with me, an American reporter, at this time of tensions, Russia had little appearance of a harshly repressive society. In my years covering U.S. policies in El Salvador in the 1980s and Haiti in the 1990s, I have experienced what police states look and feel like, where death squads dump bodies in the streets. That was not what I sensed in Moscow, just a modern city with people bustling about their business under early December snowfalls.
The police presence in Red Square near the Kremlin was not even as heavy-handed as it is near the government buildings of Washington. Instead, there was a pre-Christmas festive air to the brightly lit Red Square, featuring a large skating rink surrounded by small stands selling hot chocolate, toys, warm clothing and other goods.
Granted, my time and contact with Russians were limited – since I don’t speak Russian and most of them don’t speak English – but I was struck by the contrast between the grim images created by Western media and the Russia that I saw.
Robert Parry’s surprise at finding Moscow so different from what he expected fits in closely with my experience of the reactions of most Westerners when they first come to Moscow. Negative images of Moscow and Russia in the West are so strong and pervasive that as I have previously written even Westerners who are resistant to them find themselves unconsciously influenced by them. Discovering that Moscow is not the impoverished totalitarian hell-hole they are told about but a prosperous and well-run modern city can therefore come as a shock.
On one specific point Robert Parry makes, I too have experience of police states – in my case Greece and Turkey – and I too can say that Moscow is nothing like them.
What then of my own impressions of the city?
On the night of The Duran party the temperature fell to – 17 degrees. The city was blanketed with snow, which because of the cold and the dry atmosphere remained fresh. Combined with the Christmas lights and the Christmas decorations – which are everywhere – it is a hugely attractive picture. Coming from the airport out of the metro station at dusk to reach my hotel across a brightly lit square filled with fir trees, decorations and revellers in fur hats, it felt like I was stepping into a Christmas card.
Russians are keen on Christmas decorations, which though familiar also have a distinctively Russian look (Ded Moroz – the Russian Santa Claus – dresses in blue not red), and they are far more of them, and are far more lavish, than the ones in London. Robert Parry found Moscow more “Westernised” than he expected. My impression from visit to visit is that “Westernisation” peaked some years ago and that Moscow is in fact becoming less Western and more Russian.
The “skating rink surrounded by small stands” in Red Square that Robert Parry talks about was indeed there, with an ice mountain for children to slide down nearby, and a small Christmas market also nearby on Manege and Revolution Squares. The presence of the skating rink and the Christmas market is incidentally a major difference from the Moscow that I first remember. When I first visited Moscow Red Square would have been deemed too ‘sacred’ to allow such things.
One touching – and very Russian – touch, which may be permanent and not Christmas related, is that someone has come up with the idea of placing reproductions of Russian paintings along Tverskaya, which is Moscow’s main thoroughfare. None of them was known to me or struck me as anything remarkable, but they do give a civilising touch to what is otherwise a huge and cavernous street.
The Christmas Season in Russia as everywhere else is a time for parties (there was a massive one at my hotel) and shopping. Despite the ongoing recovery my impression was that the shops are still trading well below their pre-recession levels, showing that the recovery is still very much in its early stages, and still has far to go.
Overall however Moscow at Christmas – like Russia generally – seemed at ease with itself. Despite the great geopolitical storms that rage around it Moscow is calm, and the storms cause there barely a ripple.