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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Privatization Of A Public Holiday

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 1 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ever fewer Russians view official May Day celebrations as the major feature of the spring holiday, telling pollsters instead that they see the day off as a chance to meet with families and friends.

In 1981, a poll found 59 percent of Russians viewed the government-organized 1 May demonstrations as the main event of May Day, but now only 11 percent do, with the largest fraction -- 37 percent -- saying that they look forward to private activities.

At one level, this shift reflects both changes in state support for the May Day parades and in the willingness of people to speak their minds to polltakers. But at another, it reflects three fundamental shifts in values that are sometimes masked by the reassertion of Soviet-era practices.

First, it reflects the withdrawal into private worlds that is now possible in Russia given declines in official pressures to take part in public activities. In Soviet times, people were under enormous pressure to take part, even when they preferred not to.

Now, the pressure is largely gone, and with the possibility of choice, most Russians are showing that they are focusing first on themselves and only secondarily on larger public themes.

Second, this shift from public to private values is part and parcel of the more general move away from totalitarianism toward the creation of a society in which individuals can carve out a certain amount of space and time for themselves.

By itself, this act of reclaiming time for private matters may only reflect social isolation and alienation. But it does create one of the preconditions for the development of social ties not defined or regulated by the state. As such, it represents a kind of progress.

And third, this privatization of a public holiday is part of something much larger in Russia and other countries as well. Ever fewer people now give holidays, place names, or other public things the content that their founders intended.

In the United States, for example, many people drive on streets named "democracy" or "constitution" without giving much thought to what those street names represent. And they view 4 July not as the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence but as a time for family outings.

That is not to say that these words have no meaning for those involved but rather that outside observers may sometimes ascribe meanings to them that those directly involved do not.

And that in turn provides a cautionary note for interpreting the return of Soviet-era symbols in Russia today. The restoration of a version of the Stalinist national anthem, the celebration of Soviet events, and so on may be intended by some in Russia to send a message, but their audience may not receive the intended message.

For some, keeping Lenin in the mausoleum may be of critical importance as an indication of their commitment to restoring communism or Soviet glory. But for others, it may reflect nothing more than their acceptance of the fact that that is where he has always been.

On this May Day, there will be parades and speeches across Russia as well as elsewhere, and many of these activities will undoubtedly have a resonance with the past for some Russians and for many outside observers.

But the poll showing that most Russians want nothing more than to take the day off with family and friends suggests that even if these nods to the past are a harbinger of the future, that is not what is behind the actions of most Russians or anyone else now.

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