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Russia: Muscovites Enjoy May Day Holiday, Don't Miss Soviet Celebrations

  • Francesca Mereu

The first of May is celebrated around the world as International Workers' Day, and Russia is no exception. Large rallies were held in the capital, Moscow, and many ordinary Muscovites also celebrated the holiday. But does May Day still mean as much to Russians today as it did during Soviet times, when people were forced to demonstrate their solidarity with the working class? RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu hit the streets of the capital and filed this report.

Moscow, 1 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Communists and trade unionists held parades and rallies in the Russian capital, Moscow, today to celebrate May Day, which they continue to call the Day of International Workers' Solidarity, according to the old Soviet tradition.

Police and rally organizers say some 140,000 trade unionists marched in central Moscow near St. Basil's Cathedral, while the Communist Party claims 100,000 people showed up for a separate rally in Revolution Square. Police, however, estimated that crowd at only 10,000 to 20,000.

Authorities ordered more than 4,000 police officers to patrol the capital's streets, and no major incidents were reported. Hundreds of May Day rallies were also planned across the country.

At the Moscow demonstration, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov called on the Russian government to resign, accusing it of what he called "crimes against the nation."

"Our main demand is for the government to resign, because this government is playing the role of a colonial administration, which strangles the economy, hurries to pay off debts to its masters but, at the same time, does not pay decent salaries."

Apart from the organized rallies, Moscow's city center today was full of people taking leisurely walks, and the streets of the Russian capital were empty of the usual chaotic traffic.

If during Soviet times ordinary Russians were encouraged to publicly demonstrate solidarity with the working class on May Day, most Russians today -- according to a poll by the public opinion center VTsIOM -- prefer to go to their dachas or spend time with family and friends.

Twenty-one-year-old Konstantin Italyev is a singer. He was walking with his younger brother Vitaly along the garden paths near central Tveskoy Bulvar. Italyev says Muscovites his age have forgotten the old Communist meaning of the holiday and simply welcome 1 May as a day off.

"[1 May] is just one of the spring days. That's all. If we talk about May 1 in the context of the Communist era, [for me] this is just a symbol of the time gone. That's all. Now, communism is over. I don't understand this day as a holiday. Of course, it is fine that today I got a day off, but I can't see any other meaning."

Sixty-two-year-old Taissi Kotova was sitting in central Pushkinskaya Square, enjoying one of the capital's rare sunny days.

"I really like this holiday. I didn't go to the dacha because I wanted to stay in Moscow and enjoy this atmosphere. I went a bit to the demonstration [organized by] the Communist Party, but I didn't like the demonstration since -- I'm sorry to say so -- people weren't speaking correctly (they were saying silly things)."

Kotova, a pensioner, says that in the days of the Soviet Union, the factory where she used to work required its workers to attend the May Day rallies organized by the Communist Party. Every factory was given a spot where its workers had to stand and wave red flags.

Kotova says she has pleasant memories of that time but that she doesn't really miss it:

"[During the Soviet time,] we had more fun. The demonstration was big and accompanied with music and dances. We used to go there with the families, with [our colleagues] from the factories. It was, of course, more interesting than it is now. [But] I don't miss it. I just have good memories of it. I'm very happy with my present life. I like it."

Lev Yegorov is 76 years old and was heading toward the central Mayakovskaya Square to "stretch his legs a bit." Yegorov recalls how he used to celebrate May Day under communism.

"[1 May for me means] a spring day, the beginning of the summer. That's all, and now I'll take a walk in the Moscow city center. During the days of Socialism, everything was different. Then, we were sent to the demonstrations from our working place. We sang and danced in columns. We looked at [Lenin's] mausoleum. We remembered [Soviet leader Josef] Stalin, Molotov, and many other [Communist] leaders. But that time is over. Now we are different. Now we look at all that in a different way."

The origins of the May Day holiday go back hundreds of years. It originated in pagan Europe as a festive day to celebrate the first spring planting. The Saxons began their May Day celebrations on the evening of 30 April, when they played games and feasted to celebrate the end of winter and the return of the sun. The Catholic Church eventually outlawed the celebrations in the 17th century.

The modern celebration of May Day as a working class holiday evolved following events in the 19th century in the United States.

On 7 October 1884, U.S. workers united to demand better treatment and more reasonable working hours, effective 1 May 1886. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions rallied some 200,000 workers for a general strike in Chicago on that date.

A few days later, police in the city attacked a crowd of striking workers, killing four. The next day, at a demonstration to protest police brutality, a bomb exploded, killing seven policemen. Police in the following weeks carried out raids on strikers and trade unionists. Eight anarchists were found guilty of the bombing. Four were hanged.