Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Window on Eurasia: For Orthodox Russians, the New Year Does Not Start Today

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 1 -- Many religions and nations have their own calendars, but few are as tied to one that is so close but not the same as the one the society around them uses as does the Russian Orthodox Church -- a situation that has increasingly serious if entirely unintended consequences for the Russian Federation.
When Pope Gregory XIII reformed the Julian calendar in 1582 in order to correct for the increasing divergence between that man-made calendar and nature’s seasons, many Orthodox and Protestant Christians saw his innovation a Vatican plot intended to re-establish the power of Rome over them.
Over time, however, and recognizing the improved accuracy provided by the new calendar -- which at the time of its launch was almost ten days in advance of the Julian one -- nearly all Protestants and most Orthodox churches, including the Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Macedonian, came around.
But not so the Russian Orthodox Church and the country in which it was the dominant faith. The church insisted on retaining the Julian calendar as the more correct and hence Orthodox one, and the tsarist authorities went along with them, thus giving Russia a single calendar albeit one almost two weeks behind the one used elsewhere.
So things continued until February 1918 when Lenin’s revolutionary government adopted the Julian calendar that almost all Western countries were using. But the Russian Orthodox Church, which was locked in an ideological struggle with the Communists, refused to go along.
Given the cavalier and brutal way in which the Soviet government treated the church, it has often struck many as odd that it did not order the surviving hierarchs to change their favored calendar. But the Bolsheviks had a very good reason for not doing so, according to a new study (www.apn.ru/opinions/print18860.htm).
The Communists clearly calculated, Valeriy Kadzhaya writes, that “the old calendar only distanced the mass of believers and especially the young from the Russian Orthodox Church,” an arrangement that gave the atheist state greater opportunities to wean Russian society from its Christian roots.
To what extent the competing calendars played that role in Soviet times remains a matter of debate, especially since many Orthodox hierarchs after World War II were prepared to mark holidays according to both the Julian and the Gregorian standards. But the impact of the existence of the two in post-Soviet times is beyond doubt.
During most of the last 15 years and especially during the last three, the existence of the two calendars has meant that many Russians begin celebrating the holiday season in advance of “Western” Christmas on December 25 and do not end their partying or time off from work until “Orthodox” New Years on January 14.
That makes the Russian holiday nearly three weeks long, and as Kadzhaya notes, no one has calculated just what the financial and other costs this calendar-driven lengthening of this winter break, although many have pointed to the negative consequences of heavy drinking during this period on the survival of families.
There are only two ways out of this situation that make sense, Kadzhaya continues. Moscow could impose the Julian calendar on the country, something that would leave Russia two weeks behind the rest of the world and thus a step that no one is seriously contemplating.
Or the Russian Orthodox Church could finally switch to the Gregorian calendar, as other Orthodox groups have. But the Church itself is unlikely to take that step on its own -- such a move is inconsistent with its stance that Russia has “a special path” in the world -- and the Kremlin is unlikely to want a conflict with one of its powerful supporters.
Consequently, the current situation, one inherited from the tsarist and Soviet pasts and exacerbated by post-Soviet realities is likely to continue for some time to come, however much almost everyone there would benefit from a change of one or the other calendar in this or some future new year.
In the meantime, however, let me take this opportunity to wish everyone reading this a happy new year whatever calendar you may think best and to thank you for all of your comments over the last year. I have learned so much from them, and I look forward to more in 2008.

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