In Russia, Holiday's Just Another Word for Confusion

IN the 1995 Oscar-winning Russian film "Burnt by the Sun," two women are chatting in their elegant prerevolutionary dacha, where the family is enjoying a Sunday in the country.

It is 1936, and the pine trees nearby are decorated with red flags to mark a holiday invented by the Communists: The Day of Stalin's Dirigible-Building.

"What holiday is it today?" one elderly noblewoman asks the other. "I don't know their holidays," comes the response. "Some kind of great Soviet celebration."

More than 50 years later, Russia's multitude of holidays shows a similar mix of old and new. They reveal an identity crisis among Russians, who are unsure how their country's Communist past should be remembered.

Russia marks its independence from Soviet rule for the fifth time today. But June 12 has no meaning for 36 percent of Russians, while 21 percent view it as a tragic date that led to the demise of the Soviet Union, according to the Public Opinion Foundation.

Only 9 percent believe Independence Day is an important day. For most, it is just an extra day off from work. The Rus-sian word for holiday, prazdnik, stems from the word idle, prazdny.

"I have a feeling that the country is living through a period of temporality: temporary leaders, a temporary economy, and a temporary political regime," says popular television personality Dmitri Zakharov. He stars in a nightly program called "The Stream of Time," which explores past historical events worldwide.

HIS only comment on TV about Independence Day will be: "On June 12, 1990, the independence of Russia was declared, or rather, what was left of Russia."

A year later - on June 12, 1991 - Boris Yeltsin became Russia's first democratically elected president, and six months later the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia emerged as the successor to the Communist superpower, but is still struggling to find its new identity.

Russia's parliament has yet to adopt a law defining national holidays, and the current list represents an exotic mixture of Soviet, Russian, and Christian celebrations. At least until the issue is resolved, Russians will be able to take advantage of having more time off.

"Trinity is coming now," says electrician Pavel Mineichev, referring to the Pentacost that in the Orthodox calendar fell yesterday this year, when asked about what holiday he considers most important.

The Communist Party tried hard to wipe out religious holidays. Despite its efforts, most Russian families baked kulichi (Easter cakes) and dyed eggs to mark Easter throughout the 73 years of Communist rule.

Easter is now a public holiday once more, together with Christmas, which is gaining popularity.

Despite this religious rebirth, Revolution Day - commemorating the Revolution of October 1917 - is still holy here. Three generations of Russians marched in parades underneath red banners and portraits of Communist leaders to commemorate that day, as they did on the International Day of Solidarity of the Working People, now renamed the Day of Spring and Labor.

That's why Valentin Aksionov, an engineer, says he still celebrates the old holidays and ignores the new ones. "Their meaning is my life, what I have lived through," he says.

BUT the most sacred day for every Russian family is still Victory Day, commemorating the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. Last month's 50th anniversary celebrations proved this holiday crosses all social and political borders as a true national celebration.

Whether June 12 will have meaning for most Russians depends on reforms. Young people are less negative about the celebration than their older compatriots, according to recent polls.

"It's a good day," says recent high school graduate Stas Bulganin, enjoying the summer sunshine in Moscow.

"I don't want to be a citizen of the USSR," he adds, pointing to his Soviet passport. "I want to exchange it for a Russian one."

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