What is the New Year’s holiday? For many Americans, it is an opportunity to stay up late, to take a day off work, to watch some football, to resolve to do better. And that’s in a good year. It is no surprise that a 2011 poll found that few ranked New Year’s their favorite holiday. Only baby boomers had it in their top five, and even they were more likely to name Halloween, decades after they last trick-or-treated.
It is quite different in Russia, where I have spent the majority of my New Year’s holidays since meeting my wife in 1997. In Russia, Novyi god [New Year, roughly pronounced NO-vee goad] is the big family holiday. Celebration is nearly universal, with some 70 percent of Russians marking the holiday at home with family and close friends. Ded Moroz [Grandfather Frost] brings gifts, which await discovery under the New Year’s tree. Small apartments make room for big tables set with favorite dishes. Beloved New Year’s films play on the television in the background, and just before midnight, the Russian president (every year, the same Russian president) addresses the nation. The bells of the Kremlin ring, glasses are raised, presents are opened, friends are called. This goes on for many a merry hour.
If much of this sounds familiar, that is no coincidence. Novyi god adopts many of the traditions of Orthodox Christmas, but with a twist: It is a secular holiday, enjoyed by nearly all, whatever their religious background. Thus the seeming incongruity of what to Western eyes looks like a giant Christmas tree overshadowing the Ahmad Kadyrov Mosque in central Grozny, the capital of Chechnya:
How all this came about is an interesting story. Nineteenth-century Russia was a multiconfessional empire ruled by Orthodox Christian tsars. Under Nicholas I, the official ideology was formulated as Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality, in that order. It was a classic example of legitimacy bestowed by religious authorities in return for favors and protection—a pattern that my Broadstreet colleague Jared Rubin describes in Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not. This promoted a certain stability in the Russian heartland, where Orthodoxy was predominant, but the western and eastern borderlands were more polarized, with conflict more frequent—anti-Jewish pogroms, of course, and also peasant unrest, as Paul Castañeda Dower, Evgeny Finkel, Steve Nafziger, and I document in “Collective Action and Representation in Autocracies: Evidence from Russia’s Great Reforms.”
The Bolsheviks had little time for religion, which, following Marx, they considered both facilitator and outgrowth of the oppressive conditions which history, through Bolshevik agency, would eliminate. Ded Moroz made a quick exit following the Revolution, when churches were seized and clerics killed, but he was eventually welcomed back as part of a Sovietized New Year’s holiday that served as a functional substitute for, and broader replacement of, the old Christmas celebration. Just as the Catholic Church repurposed pagan gods as Christian saints, the Communists found new use for old rituals, which they believed could turn the masses toward scientific atheism. Beyond Novyi god, Soviet citizens commemorated major life events through birth ceremonies, “red” weddings, and atheist funerals; they learned the “sacred” texts of Lenin and other socialist leaders. It was an accommodation to human nature, a remembrance of old ways even as authorities encouraged Soviet citizens to forget the traditional forms. (Upon entering the Soviet Union for the first and last time in 1987, via train from Helsinki, I was questioned by a border guard: Did I have any Bibles in my possession? Fifteen years later, I shared a conversation over the Atlantic with an American traveling to Moscow to teach Russian Jews the seder ritual.)
Ultimately, the communist experiment in forced secularization was only partially successful. Since the Soviet collapse, an increasing number of Russians have identified as Orthodox Christian, though most only occasionally attend church services. (The Catholic Hapsburgs seem to have been more successful at suppressing religion: a Pew survey in 2015 found that only three out of ten Czechs professed a belief in God.) The Russian state is now fully aligned with the Orthodox Church, which blesses Putin’s rule and receives in return such accommodations as real estate for a cathedral on the Seine and a repressive campaign against Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Yet certain Soviet rituals survive. When I got married in St. Petersburg, it was at Wedding Palace #1 (thankfully, a real palace), with a ceremony led by a schoolmarmish official who must have learned her trade under the old regime—an exercise in anthropology by my bride, who came of age during the Gorbachev era. And now I get to celebrate two family holidays in December: Christmas with my family, and Novyi god with Masha’s (this year via Zoom). It’s an odd thing, that a holiday that brings everybody together could emerge from such a violent and atomizing regime, but history works in interesting ways. S Novym godom, Broadstreet readers. Have a healthy and happy new year.