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Long Holiday Bad for Russia, Say Experts
01.11.2007 15:45

new_year_russia By Steven Lee Myers/The New York Times

Photo by Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times

New Year has long been the favored holiday, celebrated with champagne and fireworks and gifts under a New Year tree. Then there was Jan. 2, also traditionally a holiday. And then the 3rd and the 4th and the 5th.

There has been, in fact, no official workday this year until Tuesday, a protracted holiday break that began nine days ago. It seems like a deep breath, a really deep breath, before plunging into 2007.

Russia more or less shut down, the government having ceased all but essential functions. The occasion last year prompted a senior official of the upper house of parliament, Ivan Grachev, to declare, “The less they work, the better it is for the country.”

President Vladimir Putin made his traditional New Year’s greeting on Jan. 1 — an address Boris Yeltsin made famous in the first moments of 2000 by resigning and appointing Putin — and then he disappeared until early Sunday morning, when he attended Orthodox Christmas services at the New Jerusalem Monastery in Istra, a town west of Moscow.

There have been no newspapers published since Dec. 29, the last workday of 2006, while most television networks have drastically pared back news programs in favor of treacly variety shows and movies, among them, all three parts of “The Lord of the Rings.”

Some factories have cut production or halted it altogether. FedEx does not deliver. Gazprom, the state energy giant, struck a two-minutes-to-midnight deal with Belarus on New Year’s Eve to supply natural gas, then canceled plans to hold a New Year’s Day news conference to explain it.

Other countries have long holidays, at least unofficially. August in Europe comes to mind. Russia’s, though, is exceptional, and, in a way, a mirror of the country it has become: confident, indulgent and unforgiving.

Since the January holidays, as they are called, came into being with the arrival of 2005, sociologists, psychologists and economists have chronicled what they call disturbing consequences of an extended period of leisure. They include an economic slowdown and seasonal spikes in fires, domestic abuse and deaths by alcohol poisoning.

“The number of crimes committed during these 10 days increases dramatically,” the newspaper Noviye Izvestiya warned in December. “The country plunges into an unrestrained binge.”

In Moscow, officials have reported more fires than normal so far this year, but a drop in reported crimes. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Emergency Services, reached at home, noted that there were not yet hard statistics since, of course, no one was in the office to collect them.

Sergei Klyuchnikov, a psychologist in Moscow, said his experience with patients proved “the negative effect on people” the holiday has had. He, like others, noted that most Russian cities, even Moscow, offered very little for people to do, at least inexpensively, especially in winter.

The old Soviet department store GUM, unrecognizable from its former days of empty shelves, opened a skating rink on Red Square, for example, but it charged an entrance fee — $11.50 during the day, $19 in the evenings — that is expensive for most Russians. The rink is completely enclosed by grandstands, shutting out even those who might just watch. On New Year’s Eve, when Russians traditionally gather on Red Square, the rink charged 2,007 rubles, about $76.

“After three or four days of holidays, they run out of money,” said Dr. Klyuchnikov, an author whose recent self-help books include “In Search of Silence” and a title unthinkable in Soviet times, “Money in Your Life.” “The problems start after that.”

Inevitably, perhaps, the holiday has become another measure of the widening gap between rich and poor in Russia, one that at times can be jarring.

On New Year’s Eve, the British pop singer George Michael flew into Moscow to perform an hour-long concert at a private party, reportedly given by Vladimir Potanin, the metals and media tycoon.

Michael’s agency, Connie Filippello Publicity, said in a statement that he earned $3 million for the performance, adding that that made him “the highest paid entertainer in modern Russian history” but declining to identify who hired him.

A man who answered the phone at Potanin’s company, Interros — the call having been rerouted to his cellphone — would neither confirm nor deny the reports. He added that no one could until, of course, after the holidays.

Indeed, for many the holidays have become a popular time to escape the Russian winter, making it hard to reach anybody.

The richest Russians have turned resorts like Courchevel, France, into teeming hubs of Russian wealth. Even those whose fortunes are more modest flock to less expensive places like Egypt and Thailand, charter flights and tour packages having come within the grasp of a growing middle class that not long ago could only dream of foreign travel.

Others stay closer to home. Malls, like the glistening new European Shopping Center next to Kiev Station, are full these days, as are cinemas, museums and theaters (though fortunately Moscow’s notorious traffic has disappeared). Consumer spending is skyrocketing, part of the energy-fueled boom that is trickling down, albeit unevenly.

Still, it’s hard to shop for 10 days.

“I have studied this matter,” Dr. Klyuchnikov said. “Most of the couples who visit a big shopping center start quarreling within an hour and a half.”

The holiday on Sunday officially recognizes what became an unofficial practice after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the state resumed official celebrations of Russian Orthodox Christmas, Jan. 7, which is observed far more solemnly than the commercialized Christmas celebrations of the West.

Since Jan. 1 and 2 were already official holidays, few bothered to work in the days in between. Jan. 7 was a Sunday this year, so the end of the official holidays was pushed back to Jan. 8. Unofficially, many keep celebrating to the “old new year” under the Julian calendar, Jan. 14.

“Call me after the 15th,” Andrei Lugovoi, a businessman and former K.G.B. agent at the center of the investigation into the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London, said when reached on Friday and asked about the status of the case. “We expect nothing to happen until after the 15th.”

The legislation that created this annual lull was proposed and approved in an unexplained rush in December 2004, only days before the first holiday took effect. It prompted an unusually vigorous debate.

Valery Fedorov, a member of the upper house of parliament, warned at the time that such a long break would hurt the country’s development, presciently as it turned out. Last January, industrial production dropped 27 percent and investment 71 percent compared with the month before, according official statistics cited by Goldman Sachs.

“I would like to do everything possible, and we shall do everything possible, so that the results which we have achieved in developing our economy will lead to serious positive changes in the life of each specific person,” Putin said in his New Year’s address.

Only, after the holidays.

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