Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Last of the Soviets

For all my European posturing (for I am neither convincingly Estonian, convincingly Russian, nor convincingly Jewish) - there is that part of me, the part established in the first seven years of my life in the Evil Empire's Switzerland and the confusing, irrational mess of a society it turned into in the early 90s, that will remain Soviet. Hell, I even got to wear a school uniform for a few months in 1st grade!

And the reason I'm saying it is, I've been eating mandarins. English-speakers will know them as tangerines, but for the purpose of this discussion, they're mandarins. And I've been thinking that the Soviet legacy will finally die with the last person on Earth who subconsciously, inevitably equates the taste of mandarins with New Year's Eve.

It's an aspect of the economy of the Soviet Union: citrus, like most other fruits you couldn't grow locally on your allotment, was a rarity. Oranges were even more rare than mandarins, because there were more places in the SU where mandarins could be grown industrially. You couldn't go to a shop at any time of the year and buy some citrus. Such things were sold only occasionally, in batches.

People could get rarities through their jobs, though. The big corporations tried to instill loyalty in their workers by sending out raiding parties, scouring the warehouses and various shady connections for deliciousness. On major holidays, you would get a package from work, with things for your kids.*

And mandarins were one of those things: you'd get them in the packages, and you'd get them in the shops, just before New Year - the technically secular form of the pagan Winter Solstice and imperialist Christmas. Something exotic, and very un-wintery, to put on the celebratory table. Then you'd sit there, watch the Blue Flame show on TV (baby blue was the predominant color of Soviet New Year, for some reason) and wait for the coming of the Näärivana (or Father Frost, if you'd like) - a theatrical school student hired by the trade union that your parents belonged to.** You had to recite a poem for him before he'd give you your present.

The scarcity of the Soviet time, the deficit - which I never really felt in its worst form, because in the late 80s Estonia was a much better place to be than the rest of the Soviet Union - served to curb the consumeristic impulses, to an extent. Western tradition of Christmas involves a pile of stuff under the tree, lots and lots of presents. But for me, it's always been one gift; that one thing, which was usually not so much expensive as unattainable, that I could wait for and finally get, just past midnight. Then I'd go out with my father, and we'd set off the fireworks; actually fireworks are a much later thing, in the Soviet days it was bangers - cardboard tubes with a rope that you'd pull, and it would set off a small powder charge inside, spraying confetti all over, and maybe even a little present that you'd have to search for in the snow.

That said, at least there were a lot of holidays to get one present for. New Year's was the main one, but there were also two Christmases. The Catholic Christmas (as it was always referred to in Russian, despite Estonia being a Lutheran country - for what it's worth) was celebrated along with the rest of the country. This was the true pagan holiday, the Winter Solstice, a time of quiet joy with the family, irrespective of your religious affiliation. Then there was the Russian Christmas; the Orthodox church still used the Julian calendar, where everything was offset by two weeks compared to the official Gregorian one, so Christmas fell on January 7th. And then there was the final triumph of holiday spirit over reason and logic: Old New Year, celebrated on January 14th. All these were worth a present, though not all of the presents were equal. But it's the very fact of a present that counts.

All these holidays were so draining on the population, that they were referred to as simply "the New Year holidays". It was common knowledge that any business transactions, any negotiations or requests, had to be delayed until the end of January. During the New Year holidays, the Soviet Union just stopped.

*This is one of those improbably strong Soviet traditions that is still going on, in Nordic, Western Estonia after nearly two decades. My employer - big enough to actually be a faceless corporation - still distributes gift bags of Kalev candy to employees' children at Christmas time. Along with the informal celebration of March 8th as International Women's Day, and the fact that the Latvian border guards in Valga will still address you in Russian and not English, it's proof positive that the regular people are deep down both willing and able to let go of the insults and injuries of the past, and keep the positive bits.

**It was a lucrative, sought-after job. My former boss told me about his exploits as a Jõuluvana, doing some door-to-door promotions, long after the SU had burned in flames. It was the duty of nearly every head of family to offer him a shot of vodka, and he had no moral right to refuse.


Anonymous said...

What a splendid piece of writing! You've chronicled an entire calendar of events comprising the Christmas/New Year's holidays of an era and evoked a seasonal spirit which burned bright and warmed the bosoms of families perhaps more intensely than the commercialised 'Western' version of Christmas ever could. While religious symbolism and terminology associated with Christmas were suppressed, the system failed to extinguish the substance and feeling of the holiday. It has taken the rush and hurly-burly and awful canned music in the shops of the post-Sov era to do that...

Giustino said...

Society will always annoy people, no matter how it is structured. 'Western' Christmas is annoying to me as well, but I have learned, somewhat, to ignore all that "stuff".
I have also managed to live with George W. Bush being my president. I didn't think I could tune him out too, but, yes, it has been possible.

antyx said...

Yes well, running away to the other side of the globe is kind of cheating. :P

Anonymous said...

My point was was that Flasher's subtext makes clear that the Soviet Grinch was unable to steal Christmas, and in fact ended up paying bribes to Santa Claus. The Free Market Corporate Grinch, sadly, has co-opted Santa and staged a hostile takeover of Santa's workshop.

tank said...

a very nice bit of reading, thanks!

Giustino said...

You know, Flasher, I can imagine you as a small kid in your pajamas, but I have a hard time imagining you without a beard.

So my Soviet childhood image of you is of an exceptionally hairy five year-old.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoying reading your blog! This particular post brings up the memories. Actually Im yet another "mandarin+christmas" guy.

Ain Kendra said...

Nice job.
my memory reminds me, that from army and navy some guys smuggled more pyrotechnics - all the reds and greens etc whatever was their actual meaning, were used for midnight of 31th. where we didn't had the rocket flashers or hunters gun - even these rockets were used with improvised starters from matches...
yes, mandarins were exactly specific good for christmas. Actually, real christmas went in earlier times in very narrow round, officially forbidden. therefore the 31th and 1st were free days. And celebrated strongly. I somehow do not remember any 'orthodox x-mas' celebrations from childhood times, these appeared on the same when the real christmas was again allowed.. but from 1st january till almost end of month the children's christmas-partys were held in theatres

somehow i still do not like all the christmas-fevers - whole month before the events and then two weeks after for hangover...


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