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How to Celebrate Russia Day

How to Celebrate Russia Day

Russia Day in St. Petersburg, 2007 (photo credit: Spbkinoforum)

 

Friday, June 12, 2015

by Alice E.M. Underwood

It may end with fireworks like a host of other holidays, but there’s plenty of confusion why. So to start with a quiz, complete the sentence: 

June 12th is _____

  1. an occasion for all Russians and Russophiles to wish a happy birthday to their favorite nation.
  2. a cue for nostalgia, with its reminder of the geopolitical tragedy that was the fall of the Soviet Union.
  3. an excuse for nationalistic posturing extending beyond Russian borders.
  4. a good reason to debate all of the above.

Of course, it is all of the above. Let's start with some history.

Happy Birthday, Russian Federation

The history of this holiday is both complicated and controversial, with its origins in the dusk of the Soviet Union. Even its name causes confusion, with only about half the Russian population correctly identifying the holiday observed on June 12.

In short, the date memorializes the adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Russia in 1990. As the move that established the nation’s authority and autonomy – as in, making it a separate entity from the USSR proper – the document was key in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While the official disbanding was December 26, 1991, by that point every individual republic had already seceded.

Which makes June 12 Russia qua Russia’s birthday party. What with the Declaration’s proclamations on rights, government powers, state symbols, and internal territories – not to mention the brand new name of “Russian Federation” – it was a shift that was worth cracking the sovetskoe shampanskoe for. And then buying a bottle of imported champagne to actually celebrate.

The young nation had some eventful early birthdays: 1991 saw the first open elections for president (won, of course, by Boris Yeltsin); in 1992 it gained official holiday status; and in 1994 it was dubbed Day of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Russia. The date was widely known as Independence Day between 1992 and 2002 (and is still referred to as such by 33% of polled Russians), and was bestowed the official moniker of “Russia Day” in 2002.

So does that make it a universally festive day, with vodka all around? Well, maybe, but there’s a bit more to it as well.

It’s My Party and I’ll Debate its Validity if I Want To

That’s right – not everyone breaks out the party hats for this birthday party. Three reasons:

One, some folks have more regret than relief about the end of the Soviet Union. Still (yes, still) reeling from the vast, violent consequences of that occurrence, many older Russians (86% of those over 55, according to a 2013 Levada Center poll) would welcome a return to the Soviet way. For them, the bitter memories and bitterer aftermath of the end of a way of life mean that a day devoted to the new Russia is hardly cause for celebration.

Two, even for folks who don’t long to be back in the USSR, the focus on the new Russia doesn’t pay dues to centuries of pre-revolutionary Russian history. This branch of naysayers doesn’t deny the urge to celebrate that land that stretches from Pacific to Baltic – which has retained autonomy in face of foes ranging from the Mongol Horde, to the Nazis, to NATO (as many Russians would say today). Instead, it is the 25-year-old version of that ancient state that doesn’t merit a day to itself.

Three, some feel it’s become an excuse for exaggerated displays of patriotism and politicking. Sure, your occasional military parade or sudden ubiquity of the tricolor aren’t so bad. But claims that President Putin’s visit to Italy surrounding Russia Day is about exploiting rifts in the European Union hint an undermining of the holiday’s aim to celebrate Russian autonomy from home.

Russia Day 2015

So. How will Russians not in Italy be celebrating?

The holiday will see a gamut of patriotic parades, concerts, art exhibits, sports competitions, air shows, outdoor theater and festivals, fireworks displays, and other festivities across Russia. Plus, Muscovites get free parking all day.

But this year the festivities will spread across the border as well, with musical events sponsored by the international cultural project “Day of Russia in the World – Russian Day” taking place in New York, Paris, Jerusalem, Rio de Janeiro, and Beijing.

At its inception, Russia Day was celebrated with a sigh of relief simply because it was a day off from work. The increasingly elaborate parades, festivals, and other events with a heavy dose of patriotism that have emerged in recent years, have put it on the map as a national holiday – albeit one that is often still marked by confusion.