In the Soviet Union, the big winter holiday was New Year’s. The idea was to replace Christmas, which the authorities outlawed because it was a religious holiday, with a secular version. The basic traditions and symbols (Santa Claus, gifts, and, yes, the New Year’s tree) carried over with only minor changes. I have very nice memories of New Year’s trees, both from the Soviet Union, where I lived until age 7, and after, in Boston, where for many years my parents would take me to festive New Year’s Eve gatherings complete with Russian food and drink, marathons of top 40 music videos while you waited for midnight to arrive, and the smell of the tree.
Now that I have kids, we’ve revived the idea of a Russian-themed gathering celebrating the New Year. We mostly stick to traditional Russian food, though sometimes we have to improvise a bit to accommodate gluten-free diets, as well as current events:
Oh right, Putin. So much for holiday cheer: his government came up with its own twist on the traditional New Year’s celebrations. As the Russian opposition planned large rallies to protest the trial of anti-corruption crusader and dissident Alexey Navalny, as well as his brother Oleg, on trumped-up charges, the authorities moved up the Navalnys’ sentencing date at the last minute. Instead of waiting till the scheduled date of January 15th, already targeted for demonstrations by the opposition, the court rushed to read the verdict just a couple days before New Year’s, so that the least number of people possible would be paying attention. Recalling the Stalinist tradition of sending relatives of imagined opponents to labor camps, the government’s version of a Solomonic decision was to give Alexey Navalny, the actual dissident, a suspended sentence (let’s not risk turning him into a martyr), but to throw his brother Oleg in jail for three and a half years. Happy New Year to all.
You can and should read all about this in the Times. But, like Dostoyevsky, it’s even more powerful in the original Russian, in this case Navalny’s excellent Twitter feed and blog, where it feels like you’re watching and feeling events unfold in real time. To give you a feel for it even if you don’t speak Russian, I’ve translated Navalny’s New Year’s Eve post (published a day after he watched his brother carted away to Butyrka prison in the morning, and tried and failed to reach a rally supporting both brothers in the evening) into English below. It is a message of keeping hope alive and doing the right thing during what feels like a dark time, which is a good way to start the New Year. Best wishes to all, and now here’s Navalny in his own words:
Happy New Year
Participating in these kinds of actions, each of which usually looks hopeless at the time, is an important moral choice for anyone. And our moral choices are more important right now than ideological or political ones.
After all, what criteria can guide how we live our lives, which today are being turned into a dystopia based, literally, on the principle “lies = truth”? Only right and wrong.
It’s even worth it, if you’ll forgive my primitive understanding of philosophy, to follow our countryman (born in Kaliningrad!), old Immanuel Kant, and ask, “Am I acting in a way that can become a universal law for everyone?”
“The categorical imperative is ours.” There’s the right slogan for modern times.
Returning to yesterday: without morally right but hopeless actions, there can be no triumphant and invigorating ones. Without the few who are desperate, those who are more cautious, and can only walk an already cleared path, won’t turn up. Without individuals there can be no masses, and I’m glad that yesterday I could be one of those individuals, however briefly.
I think our next step has to be organizing and executing a set of truly large, simultaneous actions in Moscow and five or ten other large Russian cities. Definitely in St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg, which were both magnificent yesterday. This has to be planned and organized diligently and well, so we have tens of thousands people participating.
The organizing themes should be fighting corruption, the justice system, the right to vote, and direct elections of governors and mayors across the country. That is, those issues on which 85% of the population supports us.
Yesterday I was riding in a police van by fighters from the 2nd regiment, and we talked about the same things as always. I tell them about Suchin’s salary and theft at Russian Railways, and they say, “Sure, and I’m stuck with my family and two kids in 200 square feet in Lyubertsy.
We’ll have to wait and see who ends up with more percentage points.
I wish everyone a Happy New Year, and wish for us to never lose faith that Russia isn’t a deficient country, and that people who live in Russia aren’t deficient people. They don’t need a king. They too can build a society where power changes through elections, and monarchs, Boyars, feudal lords, attendants, and serfs are encountered only in history books.
There has been no contact with Oleg so far (though MK News somehow already managed to interview him in Butyrka), but I’m sure that he also sends everyone his regards, thanks, and best wishes for the New Year.