#8 - JRL 7175
May 8, 2003
May Holidays Are a Mixed Bag
By Michele A. Berdy
Pervomai: May Day, Labor Day.
Dvoyeveriye (dual beliefs, dual belief system) is a concept that is particularly apt in times of change like now: Old rituals and beliefs get mated with the new, and you have a lovely hybrid that satisfies everyone and no one. Pervoye Maya, or Pervomai (May Day) is an extreme example of this -- it's not dvoyeveriye, but something like pyativeriye. For some people, the first set of maiskiye prazdniki (May holidays) are a nostalgic last gasp to unite the working class; for others, a good time to clear the dacha garden; and for still others, a good chance to zip down to the Canaries for some diving.
In Europe, May Day started out as a nice pagan holiday to celebrate the spring planting, then turned into a holiday of love (complete with twirling ribbons around a Maypole). It began its metamorphosis into a working class holiday at the end of the 19th century -- in memory of a workers' demonstration in Chicago (calling, among other things, for an eight-hour working day), which ended in bloodshed. The idea of decent working conditions caught on with the Russian comrades. Da zdravstvuyet vosem-chasovoi pabochy den! (Here's to the eight-hour working day), an early Leninist May Day pamphlet read.
In Soviet times, May 1 wasn't as much a show of military might as Nov. 7, so this was definitely a demonstratsiya (demonstration, rally) and not a parad (which means a "military parade" in Russian). Khodili na demonstratsii, podnimali plakat "Proletarii vsekh stran, soyedinyaites" (We took part in the demonstration, holding a placard that said "Workers of the world, unite"). There were lots of paper flowers and urgent pleas for the working people of the world to throw off the shackles of oppression, mostly in the form of a demonic and well-armed Uncle Sam. Net amerikanskomu imperializmu! (No to American imperialism!); Doloi amerikanskuyu voenshchinu! (Down with American militarism Ruki proch ot Ostrova Svobody! (Hands off Cuba, the Island of Freedom); Dogonim i peregonim Ameriku! (We'll catch up and surpass America!).
And then quietly: Poyedim skoreye na dacha -- kartoshku sazhat (Let's get out to the dacha as fast as we can to plant potatoes).
This year there is the same America-bashing, although not on Red Square, and couched in slightly different terms. "Ruki proch" is gone, and no one cares much about Cuba except as a tourist destination. Instead it's "My reshitelno vystupayem protiv amerikanskoi agresii v Irake" (We strongly oppose American aggression in Iraq). And the UN is more important than Haymarket Square and working class solidarity Nado soblyudat mezhdunarodnoye pravo (International law must be upheld).
The second May holiday, Den Pobedy (Victory Day) is another matter entirely. There's no duality or irony here at all -- it's a somber and touching celebration of those who fought, and those who fell, in World War II -- which Russians call Velikaya Otchestvennaya voina (the Great Patriotic War). It's a time for veterans to dust off and don their uniforms and pin on their medals (from neck to waist, on some) and sit on park benches with their old friends reminiscing. The slogans are so high toned, one can't call them slogans at all -- they are almost religious in their fervor. Slava Voinam! (Glory to the fighting men); Vechnaya pamyat pavshim geroiyam (Our fallen heroes shall stay in our memories forever); Nizky poklon pobedivshemu narodu (We bow down before the victorious nation); Nikto ne zabyt , nichto ne zabyto (No one is forgotten, no deed is forgotten).
This is the true prazdnik in the maiskiye prazdniki .
Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.