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Itís a Holiday Time of the Year ... Or Is It?
11.07.2005 14:55

holliday And a happy holiday to you. Go to the dacha, sleep in, get drunk, be happy. What holiday is it? Itís a Friday ó thatís all most Russians can tell you.

In the last 15 years, Russia has acquired some new holidays, such as Constitution Day, on Dec. 12, and another day, June 12, which is sometimes known as Independence Day, which begs the question: Independence from what? Hard to say. But now November offers a possible answer. It must be independence from Poland that we never tire of celebrating.

Once upon a time, we celebrated the anniversary of Great October, the 1917 Bolshevik coup that established the state later known as the Soviet Union. Great October was celebrated in November, but this stemmed from the gap between the Julian and the Gregorian calendars.

In 1991, communist rule and the Soviet Union collapsed, but Russia kept celebrating Great October for a number of years. The Communist Party, naturally, used the day to rally its troops. Finally, Boris Yeltsin renamed the holiday, calling it the Day of Accord and Reconciliation. The idea was that it would stop being a day of confrontation and would come to symbolize Russiaís coming to terms with its bloody and shameful past.

This was one of the very, very few things that the Yeltsin government ever did to help Russia come to terms with its past. Unsurprisingly, it was not successful. Communists and other left-wingers continued to rally, and the rest of us continued to try to ignore them.

Last year, President Vladimir Putinís administration took up the problem of the November holiday. Literal-minded as these people can sometimes be, that is precisely how they seemed to conceptualize the issue: There was a November holiday that was wrong, and they needed a November holiday that was right. So they looked for something that happened in November. Unfortunately, the year comprises 12 months, and the great milestones of Russian history are more or less evenly spread throughout the year, so the pickings for November were slim.

They found Nov. 4, the day the Poles were kicked out of the Kremlin. Or not. The events of the period resisted simple demarcation, and continue to do so today. Letís put it this way: Fasten your seatbelts, and I will try to summarize briefly what some people choose to believe happened on Nov. 4, 1612.

Russia was in chaos back then. The period known as The Time of Troubles had begun with the death of Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich in 1598. This member of the Ryurik dynasty had died intestate, which is to say, it was unclear who should take the throne. (It is perhaps testament to the presence of some historical memory that contemporary Russian leaders always aim to appoint successors.) Fyodorís brother-in-law and closest adviser, Boris Godunov, was then elected to the throne by the boyars. His seven-year reign was more or less a disaster: Famines and plagues devastated the country while in Moscow the oligarchs conspired constantly against him.

In 1603, a man calling himself Dmitry and claiming to be the surviving younger son of Ivan the Terrible ó and Fyodorís younger brother ó appeared in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, where he gathered an army of Russian emigres, Cossacks and other mercenaries, and Poles, and with them crossed into Russia. When Boris died in 1605, False Dmitry, as he is known to history, ascended to the throne.

The impostor stayed in power for less than a year, replaced by a Ryurik-line prince called Vasily Shuisky, who was in short order brought down by another False Dmitry, who then failed to seize the throne because the Polish Prince Wladyslaw wanted it too. Some Muscovites swore allegiance to Wladyslaw, who promised to preserve Orthodoxy for the Russians ó but it seems he was lying because in fact his father, Sigismund III, wanted the throne for himself and Roman Catholicism for Russia.

There were also the Swedes, but we will leave them out. Things were a mess. The throne was vacant.

Polish troops were in the Kremlin. A Nizhny Novgorod butcher named Kuzma Minin formed an alliance with Ryurik-descendant prince Dmitry Pozharsky, and together they led an uprising that put an end to the chaos in the Kremlin ó although not to the Dmitriad Wars, which went on until 1619. Ultimately, Mikhail Romanov was installed as tsar, beginning a dynasty that ruled Russia until 1917.

The Minin and Pozharsky uprising is not a bad event to celebrate. If the people in the Putin administration actually thought about anything other than the calendar proximity to the old holiday, what must have appealed to them is the fact that the uprising made what appeared to be order out of chaos. There is also the enticing fact that the uprising brought a simple butcher and a prince together with the people ó which lends some legitimacy to the name of Peopleís Unity Day.

The problem is, it would still take a lot more than the designation of a single day to bring people together ó just as it would have taken a lot more than the old designation to help Russia come to terms with its past. And just as with the Day of Accord and Reconciliation, there will be people and political parties that will use the day, and the publicís exceedingly vague recollection of history, to their own ends. A number of Russian nationalist organizations are planning to stage a march on Friday, appealing to the current (and never entirely dormant) anti-Polish and generally xenophobic sentiment. Now how is this better, exactly, than the communists who used to march on Nov. 7?

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