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New York Times
February 14, 2003
Russia's Falling in Love, Nuzzling Valentine's Day

MOSCOW, Feb. 13 Roses are red, violets are blue, and Marina G. Zaporozhets will sell 40 times as many of them on Friday as she does on an ordinary day, which is double what she sold last year, which is double what she sold the year before that.

Precisely why is anyone's guess. But after a decade of diffidence, Russia is embracing Valentine's Day with the sort of passion only young love can generate.

"Actually, it's spreading like fire," said Ms. Zaporozhets, 52, the proprietor of the Elita-Flora flower delivery service in Moscow. "It's the Russian mentality. Russians always want a celebration. And our men are the most generous in the world."

The state-run ORT television network broacast a program this morning on how best to celebrate the day of lovers. On the quasi-independent NTV network, the news anchors closed their report this evening with an on-camera exchange of a heart-shaped card and a lollipop.

The police in the Ural Mountains city of Ekaterinburg will celebrate the day by presenting women who break traffic laws with flowers or perfume instead of tickets. And the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion, purveyor of sober data on political allegiances and economic well-being, issued a poll of 1,600 adults today that concluded that 51 percent of Russians are in love, led by unmarried couples who live together.

A third of respondents most of them in love, presumably said they would celebrate Valentine's Day. That leaves the holiday well behind the Soviet-concocted International Women's Day, celebrated on March 8, on which any man who does not bestow flowers or chocolates on wives, the women they work with or teachers is still regarded as a cad.

Indeed, a second poll indicated that a healthy minority of Russians, mostly elderly, believe Valentine's Day is a youth holiday or a celebration of winter's end, and that one in seven has no idea what it means.

Regardless, things have changed immensely from 1990, when Ms. Zaporozhets opened her shop. "It practically wasn't celebrated then," her son and the shop's administrator, Yegor V. Zaporozhets, said.

Russia is a more prosperous place these days, which may account for lovers' increasing willingness to spend a bit on a ritual expression of affection. In late Soviet times, a box of chocolates cost five rubles the equivalent of 39 loaves of bread, a recent article stated.

Today, sidewalk stands are groaning with heart-shaped candies and cards, nicknamed "valentinkis," which are available to anyone for as little as 10 or 15 cents. Even a dozen roses cost as little as $20 including delivery still a princely sum, but affordable to many in increasingly middle-class Moscow.

Prosperity and convenience aside, however, Valentine's Day clearly has begun to fill a Russian emotional vacuum. International Women's Day, a strive-diligently-to-kiss-your-factory-worker-sister sort of celebration, has never had more than a suppressed romantic undercurrent. Girls seeking boys' attention were reduced to sending salutations on Red Army Day, a Feb. 23 holiday now renamed Defenders of the Fatherland Day.

Ms. Zaporozhets said today that virtually all her March 8 flower sales still double those of Valentine's Day were to Russian companies obligated to place a bouquet on the desks of the women among their workers. By contrast, she said, more than one in four bouquets sent out on Friday will be bought by women for their beaus.

"It's just a more intimate holiday," she said.

That is the problem, say some traditionalists. In Ekaterinburg, the Russian Orthodox Church's top cultural official denounced Valentine's Day last week as "a day of fornication, a day of bestiality" foisted on Russia from abroad. "The cultural sewage pipes of Europe have burst and everything is coming up here," the official, the Rev. Andrei Kanev, wrote in the diocese newspaper.

He spoke too late for Russia's Roman Catholic minority, long embroiled in a bitter split with the Orthodox Church. Last month, a Catholic delegation came to Moscow with a peace offering for the top Orthodox Church officials: a collection of relics of the original Saint Valentine from his hometown of Terni, Italy.

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