Defenders of the Fatherland Day

February 23

Today Russia celebrates Defenders of the Fatherland Day.

Russian Federation Flag

On February 23 (Julian Calendar) 1917, Russian women in Petrograd celebrated the 7th International Women’s Day. In response to food shortages caused by the war with Germany, the women of Russia’s capital city “poured onto the streets,” demanding “bread for our children” and “the return of our husbands from the trenches.”

The protests gained momentum the following days when workers’ strikes forced the closure of hundreds of factories. On February 26 the Tsar, who was away conducting the war, ordered his general to disperse the demonstrators, now numbering in the hundreds of thousands, saying such disturbances were “impermissible at a time when the fatherland is carrying on a difficult war with Germany.”
(Tony Cliff Lenin: All Power to the Soviets)

Russian troops fired on the crowds, killing dozens of protesters. But the real problem for the Tsar was that many of the Tsar’s troops refused to fire on crowds and sided with the strikers. The clashes of February 24-27 claimed about 1500 lives on both sides. In the end the Tsar lost the support of his own troops, was forced to abdicate his throne.

But that’s not why the Russians celebrate on February 23.

Nope, it’s because of what happened on February 23 the following year.

Nicholas II’s abdication gave way to a Russian Provisional Government, led by Social Revolutionary Alexander Kerensky. Under Kerensky the government declared Russia a republic, pronounced freedom of speech, made steps to encourage democracy, and released thousands of political prisoners.

But Kerensky, perhaps because he was the former Defense Minister, continued to keep the Russians engaged in the disastrous war against Germany. Bad move. Like the Tsar before him, the war would be his downfall.

Alexander Kerensky

How Russia got its Soviet:

The Russian word soviet meant “council.” Soviets were workers’ councils with little power, set up in the wake of 1905’s Bloody Sunday.

The Bolsheviks were an extremist minority party and as such could not hold much sway in a democratic assembly. Instead Lenin and the Bolsheviks bypassed the Provisional Government entirely and consolidated their power in these urban workers’ councils known as soviets, the most prominent one being the soviet in Petrogad.

In 1917 their platform called for the seizure of land, property and industry by the peasantry and workers, for the transfer of power to the local workers’ councils, and for the immediate end of war with Germany.

In April few took the Bolsheviks seriously.

By November they ruled the country.

What happened in 7 months?

Under Kerensky’s Provisional Government food and supply shortages worsened. Mass numbers of Russian soldiers continued to defect. And the drain of resources for the war effort strangled the economy. Even though most people were against the war, political parties would not withdraw. Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ opposition to the war bought them enough support to pull off the armed uprising later called the “October Revolution,” which occurred in—you guessed it—November. (Gregorian)

After the uprising the Bolsheviks put forth a resolution before the Provisional Government to transfer political power to the soviets.When the Provisional Government voted it down (What a surprise) the Bolsheviks walked out. The next day the Bolsheviks, with the support of 5,000 members of the Russian Navy in Petrograd, issued a decree dissolving the Provisional Government.

Lenin with Sunglasses
Lenin: Future's so bright, gotta wear shades

Lenin believed a standing army was a bourgeois institution and would not be necessary in a communist society; he was proved wrong. In order to ensure beneficial terms in an armistice with Germany, and facing a massive civil war, the Bolsheviks called for the establishment of a standing Workers’ and Peasants’ “Red” Army to replace the disintegrated Imperial Army.

The decree was issued on January 28. Ten days later on February 23* assemblies were held across the country to recruit soldiers for the new army. The “mass meetings brought 60,000 men into the Red Army in Petrograd, 20,000 in Moscow and thousands more in other places around the country.”

*(On February 1, 1918 Russia switched from the old Julian Calendar, abandoned by the West in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the Gregorian Calendar. As a result, the date February 1, 1918 in Russia was followed by February 14, 1918.)

February 23 was declared Red Army Day. It was changed to Soviet Army Day by Stalin. And to Defenders of the Fatherland Day following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Recently, according to

“the long reaching poisonous arms of capitalism have found a new virgin field to exploit and made this day a “Men’s Day” where the women gives (or should give) gifts to their fathers, brothers, boyfriends and male colleagues.”

So, ironically, the date on which the Russians once celebrated women, February 23, is now a holiday extolling men.

Defenders of the Motherland Day

Lyubov Tsarevskaya has a more traditional, patriotic view of the holiday:

“This is the ultimate reflection of one’s devotion and patriotism. As Jesus Christ said, Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13) The history of the army in Imperial, Soviet, and now, Russian times is replete in stirring examples of self-sacrifice and heroism.”

The Chechens regard February 23 in a remarkably different manner:

On Army Day Chechens Quietly Remember Mass Deportation

It Has Been 63 Years Since the Deporation of the Chechens and Ingush

Army Day blunder
A 2006 poster proclaiming “Congrats to the Russian Soldiers” mistakingly shows the USS Missouri.

Pancake Week

Date varies. February 20-26, 2012

There’s no Mardi Gras or Carnival in Russia. Lent doesn’t descend on Orthodox Christians in one big swoop as in Catholicism, but in a series of events with increasingly strict regulations.

Triodion begins a full month before Lent.

Two weeks later, Meatfare Sunday marks the last day Orthodox Christians can eat meat until after Easter, aka Pascha.

The Sunday after Meatfare is Cheesefare Sunday, the last day for eating dairy products.

In Catholic communities the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is sometimes called Pancake Day, while in Orthodox Russia the whole week before Lent is known as Maslenitsa (Butter Week) or Blini Week (Pancake Week). [Blini has the same root as ‘blintz’.] During Pancake Week Russians empty their pantry of milk, eggs, butter, and other Lent no-no’s, by throwing them into a bowl and mixing them to make pancakes. Russian pancakes are closer to what we would call crepes.

Maslenitsa, by Boris Kustodiev, 1919

The late-Februay/early-March celebration combines Christian theology with an ancient pagan tradition of welcoming the spring.

Maslenitsa comes to a close with Vespers on the evening of Cheesefare Sunday.

In Orthodox communities this is also known as Forgiveness Sunday. During the evening ceremonies church-goers face and verbally forgive one another for anything the year before.

The Orthodox Great Lent begins on a Monday rather than a Wednesday, and is called Clean Monday.

Sunday Bloody Sunday

January 22

“We, workers and inhabitants of the city of St. Petersburg, members of various sosloviia, our wives, children, and helpless aged parents, have come to you, Sovereign, to seek justice and protection…”

Thus began a petition to Nicholas II, Czar of Russia, protesting the working and living conditions in St. Petersburg.

It didn’t work.

The peaceful protest was led by a Russian Orthodox priest named Father George Gapon, a “simple-hearted priest, with a rather childlike faith in God and Tsar,” according to Henry Woodd Nevison (The Dawn in Russia, 1906)

A massive December strike at 174 factories, including the electricity plant, had paralyzed the city. Gapon led approximately 15,000 workers and their families to the Tsar’s Winter Palace with their list of grievances.

According to Nevinson, “Father Gapon organized a dutiful appeal of the Russian workmen to the tender-hearted autocrat whose benevolence was only thwarted by evil counsellors and his ignorance of the truth.”

Father Gapon was the chief scribe of the petition to the Czar. It asked for an 8-hour work day, freedom of assembly to unionize, improved working conditions, medical aid, higher wages for women, freedom of speech, press and religion, and an end to the Japanese war.

The petition ended:

“If you do not respond to our prayer, then we shall die here, on this square, in front of your palace. We have nowhere else to go and no reason to. There are only two roads for us, one to freedom and happiness, the other to the grave. Let our lives be sacrificed for suffering Russia. We do not regret that sacrifice, we embrace it eagerly.”

Despite this claim, the workers and their families did not seem so willing to embrace their fate after 200 of their number had been slaughtered via bayonet and bullet by the Czar’s guards as they approached the palace. (Nevinson claims 1500 dead. The government’s official count was 100.) Hundreds more were injured.

Depiction of Bloody Sunday
Depiction of Bloody Sunday

The Czar didn’t get the petition.

Having been warned of the Sunday march Nicholas had skipped town.

Word circulated about the country, and the numbers of the dead increased with each telling. In Moscow and other cities angry workers rioted, demonstrations turned violent, and thus began the Russian Revolution of 1905.

Father Gapon was not killed in the massacre, though many  around him were. He sneaked out of the country, making his way to Western capitals such as Paris, London and Geneva, to garner international support for the cause.

Gapon was announced as a hero by both Leon Trotsky and the New York Times

Strangely enough, word leaked that Gapon was not only a friend of labor, but also a double agent working for the Okhrana, the Czar’s secret police. The Okhrana clandestinely created or infiltrated union assemblies in order to snuff out the agitators and arrest them.

Gapon’s intentions before the massacre, whether he had any idea of the outcome, will never be know for sure. Nor will we know if, horrified by the events of Bloody Sunday, Gapon’s newfound anger toward the Czar was sincere. It may well have been.

What is known is that soon after his return to Russia, his dead body was found with a rope around his neck in an empty cottage outside the village of Ozerki, Finland.

And an unsigned letter published in a St. Petersburg newspaper read:

George Gapon had been tried by a workmen’s secret tribunal and had been found guilty of having acted as an agent provocateur, of having squandered the money of the workmen, and of having defiled the honor and memory of the comrades who fell on the “Red Sunday.” In consequence of these acts, of which he was said to have made a full confession to the tribunal, he was condemned to death, and the sentence had been duly carried out.

(The Fall of the Russian Empire, Edmund Walsh)

Some say Bloody Sunday is still going on.

The Russian Revolution: through the Eyes of a Factory Worker
Russian Police Kill Four Militants in Chechen Capital<
Russia Police Block Anti-Putin March, Detain Leaders

[Originally published January 2008]

Happy (Old) New Year!

January 14

Happy New Year!

It’s January 1 in the Orthodox Calendar, observed by Orthodox Churches in Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, and many of the former Soviet Republics, including Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, and the one that’s all consonants. (Kryrrrgyztyrgystan)

So is Russia two weeks behind the times? Do they feel the need to have the last word on New Year’s Eve parties? Or does being torn between two New Year’s dates simply give them the chance to party for two full weeks?…(which the Russian winter could definitely use.)

Russian New Year

The story goes that up until the late tenth century, much of Russia and Byzantium celebrated the New Year during the spring equinox. That changed in 988 AD when Basil the “Bulgar-slayer” Porphyrogenitus* introduced the Byzantine Calendar to the Eastern Roman Empire.

Basil II
Basil II

The Byzantine Calendar was like the Julian Calendar except it began on September 1, and its “Year One” was 5509 BC—the year historians calculated as the creation of the world (Anno Mundi) according to genealogies of the Bible, from Adam to Jesus.

It took roughly four centuries for the “September 1st” New Year to make its way into the heart of Russia. And just when the Russians were getting used to that, Peter the Great switched to the Julian Calendar, moving New Year’s to January 1 in 1700 AD.

It was only a matter of 50 years until all of Protestant Europe stopped using the Julian Calendar altogether, in favor of the Catholic Europe’s Gregorian Calendar, leaving Russia and the Orthodox Church out in the cold.

So for the next two-hundred years, even though Russia celebrated New Year’s on January 1st according to their calendar, their entire calendar was about 11-13 days behind the rest of the West. (Which is why the Russian October Revolution took place in November.)

It wasn’t until 1918 that Lenin finally moved Russia to the Gregorian calendar.

But the Soviet Union couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. During the 1930s they declared war on the number 7, dividing months into five six-day weeks. Fortunately, this decade-long practical joke on the Russian people ended in June 1940.

Soviet Calendar of 1933
Soviet Calendar of 1933

These days, when it comes to the Old Calendar vs. the New Calendar, the Russians have tossed aside their austere ways and say, “Why choose? Have both!”

Most New Year celebrations happen on December 31st, but the holiday season continues until January 14. It’s a day of nostalgia, called Old New Year, a more sedate version of New New Year, often spent with family and watching the 1975 classic “Irony of Fate”, the Russian “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

"Irony of Fate" poster
"Irony of Fate" poster

Julian Day

Today we also celebrate day 2,454,846 in the Julian Day system—the number of days that have passed since noon, Greenwich Mean Time, January 1, 4713 BC. The Julian Day system was developed by Joseph Scalizer in 1582, and is used mainly by astronomers and people with way too much time on their hands.

*Basil’s title Porphyrogenitus means “born in the purple”. The title was bestowed at birth upon children who were (1) born to a reigning Emperor and Empress of the Byzantine Empire, and (2) born in the free-standing Porphyry (purple) Chamber in the Great Palace of Constantinople. (That’s why there’s less Porphygenituses than Smiths.)

Russian New Year

Happy Old New Year

Russian Orthodox Calendar

Day of Accord and Reconciliation – Russia

November 7


November 7 is (or was) Day or Accord and Reconciliation in Russia. The holiday celebrates the anniversary of the October Revolution in 1917.

In early 1917, the February Revolution overthrew the centuries-old tsarist regime and established a provisional parliamentary government, of which Alexander Kerensky became the head.

Kerensky and the provisional government supported the continuation of the war against Germany, a position that proved unpopular with starving Russians. The Bolsheviks—the farthest left-reaching political party—under Vladimir Lenin supported immediate withdrawal. Lenin and the Bolsheviks gained momentum and power over the course of the year. After Kerensky declared Russia a republic, the Bolsheviks led a revolt and stormed the Winter Palace in Petrograd, ending the provisional government.

Civil War raged through Russia over the next five years, during which the Bolsheviks established themselves as the sole government of the Soviet Union.

The revolution took place on October 24/25 according to the old calendar in Russia. The date translates to November 7.

Known as Revolution Day throughout the history of the Soviet Union, the holiday lost its importance after the U.S.S.R.’s dissolution in 1991.

In 1996, Boris Yeltsin changed the name to Day of Accord and Reconciliation in order to emphasize the unity of the Russian people rather than its divisions.

In recent years the holiday has merged in the Russia psyche with November 4’s Unity Day, a pre-Soviet holiday rechristened by Vladimir Putin. Unity Day commemorates the Russian victory over Polish invaders in 1612.

Whether November 7 or November 4 will emerge as the big November holiday in years to come has yet to be reconciled.


Update: According to Russian sources, November 4 has supplanted November 7 as the national holiday.

Russian Unity Day

November 4


Russia’s current incarnation of Unity Day dates all the way back to the early 21st century. Yep, it’s fairly new in that respect, but the reason for the celebration goes back to 1612.

In the early 17th century Russia faced full-scale invasion from its Polish-Lithuanian neighbors to the West. These days it’s hard to think of Russia as threatened by Poland and Lithuania, but in 1569 the latter two formed a mighty union known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The Polish army got as far east as Moscow, and surprisingly 5000 Polish cavalry defeated a force of 35,000 Russian soldiers outside the city, a devastating loss to the Russian army and public morale.

This was known as the Time of Troubles in Russia, referring to the period when Russia lacked a Tsar. Tsar Feodor Ivanovich died in 1598 without heir. The Romonov dynasty would not emerge as the clear leader of the country and reestablish the Tsardom until 1613.

In 1612 a local merchant named Kuzma Minin gathered a ragtag volunteer “national militia” to fight against the Poles. Led by Knyaz Dmitry Pozharsky, the group laid siege to the city and finally ousted the the Poles from Moscow in October (Old Calendar) that year.

The Russians began celebrating the anniversary of the ouster on October 22 (Oct. 22 O.S./Nov. 4 New) in the generations thereafter.

After the formation of the Soviet Union the celebration lost popularity in favor of the anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution.

In 2005 Russia re-established November 4 (October 22 Old School) as Russia’s Unity Day.

Today the main square of the Kremlin is named for Minin and Pozharsky, though Pozharsky gets the short end of the deal, as it’s known colloquially as Minin Square.

"Appeal of Minin", Makovsky, 1896
"Appeal of Minin", Makovsky, 1896

Flag Day – Russia

August 22

They’re waving the red, white and blue over in Russia today, though not necessarily in that order. The white-blue-red Russian tri-color flag dates back to the 1660s when Czar Alexei Mikhailovich ordered ships to fly a similar banner for identification. Historians speculate it may have been inspired by the Dutch flag, the oldest remaining tri-color national flag.

Dutch flag
Dutch flag

In the 1880s Czar Alexander III declared the tri-color flag the official flag of Russia. After the October Revolution of 1917, the tri-color was replaced by the red Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag.

The Soviet flag flies over the Berlin Reichstag at the end of WWII
The Soviet flag flies over the Berlin Reichstag at the end of WWII

Flag Day marks the anniversary of the end of the failed 1991 “August Putsch”, a coup which attempted to stem Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist policies of the 1980s, but which led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union instead.

Subject 110 and The Gang of Eight

In early to mid-1991, Gorbachev–one of the two most powerful men in the world–was placed under surveillance, not by a foreign power, but by his own KGB.

The head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, was fearful of the liberal Russian president’s attempts to modernize the country through the decentralization of power. Gorby was working with leaders of the separate Soviet republics on a treaty that would increase the sovereignty of the republics, a move he deemed necessary to sustain the unity of the whole. Hard-liners opposed the treaty.

In July, Khryuchkov overheard a conversation between Subject #110 (Gorbachev) and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in which it was suggested that they replace old school party members like Kryuchnov and his cronies with more liberal ones.

Kryuchkov was not down with this. Nor were his seven cronies, henceforth know as the “Gang of Eight.”

On August 18, some of the Gang of Eight paid Gorbachev a friendly visit while he vacationed at his dacha in the Crimea, during which the concerned visitors ensured the Soviet leader’s rest and privacy by cutting off all channels of communication and placing him under house arrest. The following day they attempted to assume control of the country, due to Gorbachev’s “illness”.

A quarter million handcuffs and arrest forms had been ordered. Prisons were emptied to make room for agitators. Independent newspapers were shut down, and tanks prepared to roll into the capital to seize control of the Russia’s parliament building, the “White House”.

The Russian White House
The Russian "White House" (note the barricades)

Boris Yeltsin and other leaders urged the military not to support the coup. They called for a general strike and demanded that Gorbachev be allowed to address the nation. Citizens surrounded the White House and barricaded it with whatever they could — trolleys, street sweepers, homemade barriers — to prevent the military from attacking.

Boris Yeltsin (left) during the 1991 coup
Boris Yeltsin (left) during the coup

On August 21, at 1 AM, tanks and army vehicles moved in. A pivotal moment was when Spetsgruppa A (Alfa Group), the military unit entrusted with entering the White House and killing Boris Yeltsin and company, analyzed the number of civilian deaths such an action would require, and refused to carry out their mission.

The hard-liners knew they were in deep. They attempted to strike a deal with Gorbachev. He refused to meet with them. That evening communications were restored at the dacha; Gorbachev denounced the actions of the Gang of Eight, ordered their dismissals, and resumed control of the country.

The following day, August 22, the Russian legislature chose to fly Russia’s historic tri-color flag rather than the hammer-and-sickle flag of the Soviet Union.

It was only a piece of cloth, but the symbolic gesture of raising the pre-Soviet flag was tantamount to Russia declaring its own independence from the Soviet Union. And without Russia, there could be no Soviet Union.

Between August 20 and August 30, Estonia, Kyrgyztan, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan declared independence. In September, Uzbekistan, Latvia, Tajikstan, and Armenia did the same.

Ten years later…

“A poll released in July said only 10 percent regarded [August 1991] as a democratic revolution that ended Communist power. Twenty-five percent look back at August 1991 as a tragic event whose aftermath was disastrous for the country.” — NewsHour, August 22, 2001

Russian Apple Spas

August 19

Before you grab your towel and get undressed, no, this has nothing to do saunas or back rubs, so put your pants back on. This is a family blog.

No. Spas in Russian means “savior”. The ‘Spases‘ are three folk holidays celebrated in August, that bring the Russian summer season to a close with style. And food.

August 14 (Gregorian) is mokryi Spas, or “Wet Savior”, but is more commonly referred to as Honey Spas (medovyi Spas), so named because it coincides with the late-summer gathering of honey.

The second, and most important of the three takes place today. Spas na gore/iablochnyi Spas, aka, “Savior on the Hill”/”Apple Spas”.


Apple Spas falls during the Feast of the Transfiguration in the Eastern Orthodox Calendar (August 19, Gregorian; August 6, Julian). Fruits and veggies from orchards and gardens are blessed today, and it’s considered bad luck to eat apples until now. More specifically, children in heaven are said to receive apples to eat this day, only if their living parents have not done so before Apple Spas.

The third Spas is orekhovyi Spas–Nut Savior–which once coincided with–you guessed it–the gathering of nuts at month’s end (August 29, Gregorian; August 16, Julian).

The Spas developed out of agrarian festivals during which the first spoils of the harvest were consecrated in honor of nature deities, in the hopes of a bountiful harvest and mild winter. Over the centuries the folk festivals became inextricably intertwined with Christian traditions.

The Apples Spas coincidentally falls on the anniversary of the start of the 1991 coup in which Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was kidnapped by hard-liners who disagreed with his reformist policies. The coup failed, and within days, five Soviet republics had declared their independence. By the year’s end, the 75 year-old Soviet Union had ceased to exist.

This is not Russian Spas but it looks like theyre having fun.
This is not Russian Spas but it looks like fun.