Calendar clash: Candles and sickles and flags, oh my!

As Russians flock to Easter observances this week, the May Day red flags start to look like quaint Soviet folklore.

The streets of Moscow are empty, as they always are in the first week of May. This is the onset of northern spring, and no Russian czar, commissar or president could ever have prevented folks from making for their country gardens to put down the tomatoes, cucumbers, and beets.

But beneath the silence, ideologies are clashing mightily over the soul of this traditional spring holiday.

Millions of Russians marched Sunday with crosses, icons and candles in the ancient Kryostni Khod (Stations of the Cross) processions around to mark the beginning of Easter, which follows a different calendar here than in the West. Confined to a few showplace churches during Soviet years, the celebration is rapidly reconquering Russia's popular consciousness.

Easter masses in the beautiful Orthodox cathedrals of Moscow and St. Petersburg were crammed this year. Famous and powerful people, like President-elect Vladimir Putin, made sure they were prominent among the crowds. During this entire week one believer meeting another offers the salutation: "Khristos Voskres" (Christ has Risen). "Vo Istina" (Truly), comes the response.

On the other hand, tens of thousands of other Russians still took up hammer and sickle emblems, red flags and portraits of the Soviet Union's founder Vladimir Lenin to march in May Day parades in cities across the country. Once a key holiday on the Soviet calendar, the international workers' day of solidarity is still an official day off. It is important to people who resent the changes of the past decade.

"We fought, we worked, we built a great country," said Svetlana Kortunova, a pensioner in her 70s, marching in a Communist-led Moscow parade. "They may have destroyed the Soviet Union, but they will never take away the peoples' holiday...."

Russia's official calendar is a crazy quilt of Soviet-era political commemorations, ancient religious festivals, and holidays grafted-on by former President Boris Yeltsin. The only real tension occurs at moments when the church and the Communists are both vying for attention, like early May.

No one seems to know the significance of the holidays invented by Mr. Yeltsin in a futile bid to create a post-Soviet political tradition. One example is Independence Day on June 12. "Independence from whom?" Russians ask.

A survey conducted last week by the independent VtSIOM agency last week suggests prerevolutionary tradition may be decisively winning the battle for possession of early May. About 84 percent of respondents in the poll said they planned to take part in the week-long celebration of Orthodox Easter. Just 45 percent said they would mark May Day.

Of course, that still means there must be millions who honor both the religious festival, drenched in the Russian church's medieval color, and the secular, militant workers' holiday.

Politicians trying to straddle the fence should beware. Arriving at a workers' rally, a tired-looking Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was greeted by followers who eagerly congratulated him with May Day. Mr. Zyuganov responded, "Vo Istina." Oops.

Optimists say these contradictions will go away by themselves in time.

"Already young people have stopped regarding these Communist marches as some kind of threat," says Olga Zaretskaya, a specialist in Russian cultural studies. "They see it more like an outdoor exhibition of Soviet folklore."

And when Mr. Putin is inaugurated Sunday, it won't just be a dour ceremony. - there will be an elaborate and glittering Kremlin party. Maybe it will become the first of a whole new wave of holidays.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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