Holidays and their real, deeper meaning help in understanding Russian culture, Russian character and Russian mindset. It also reveals how ordinary Russian people live their daily lives.
Some foreigners residing in Russia have no idea of how ordinary Russians live. Not everyone, but many expats spend their time (contract, business assignment, whatever brought them here) in Russia between corporate office in one of those high rise buildings in “Delovoi Centr” area and their expensive apartment on Patriarshie Prudy. Inside Sadovoe Kolzo, is all they know and believe this is how all Russians live.
May 1st in soviet times was propaganda holiday as communist doctrine proclaimed labor as one of its cornerstones. Each year there was big parade on May 1st, with a must attendance. There were lots of street decorations, large billboards with communist mottos, typed in bold white letters on solid red background, organized crowds of people dressed up, holding flowers.
After ussr collapse, Russian government decided to keep May 1st a public holiday. Now it is two days of the holiday observation, May 1st and May 2nd.
Now, many years away from all that ussr nonsense, there still will be meetings and parades on streets, here and there, very local and not as massive as it used to be in CCCP. Very few politically engaged people would join those events. Some people will come because they truly believe in whatever political idea that makes them join those events. Some will come because they are stuck in the past and firmly believe in celebrating May 1st the soviet way. Some will come because their boss tells them to attend those events, or he will not pay their bonus. Political regimes come and go, bot some things just never change here.
Nowadays many people will take those few working days between May 1st and May 9th as vacation and fly far away. Majority of Russians however, will go to their dachas. May 1st is a massive exodus from Moscow and larger cities. Here comes the true meaning of May 1st holiday.
Contrary to what most expats know, dacha is not a summerhouse for fun and leisure, at least not for majority of dacha owners. Dacha is a source of basic food for people, who cannot afford buying it on those expensive pseudo “farmers markets” or grocery stores. Dacha also is a source of produce for those who can’t afford paying with their health for that crappy food that many retailers sell. Many consumers simply don’t know any better; for them what “azbuka” stocks is a standard of quality.
When you walk on Moscow streets in spring, raise you head and look at apartment windows. In some windows you will see arrays of powerful lamps stationed on windowsills, always on. Those lamps produce white, sometimes purplish light. This is a setup for growing sprouts. Later, in the beginning of May, those sprouts will be transferred to open soil on dachas. Tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, cucumbers, other vegetables will grow faster in an open soil from sprouts, opposed to growing from seeds.
On May 1st holidays Russians will go to their dachas to do spring cleaning, prepare patches for planting. They will plant potatoes, variety of vegetables, flowers. This all — planting, doing patches is a very hard work and this is what Labor Day is all about.
Unlike other holidays that have rather historical or symbolic meaning, May 1st dacha activities manifest hard labour in its most simple and primitive form that’s been around as long as human kind exists — cultivating soil to grow food.
Communist revolution of 1917 brought people from suburbs and villages to cities, mixing and replacing its original habitats. Russia has always been an agrarian country throughout most of its pre-revolution history. Ancestors of many, if not most Russians cultivated soil in the past and this is how they fed their families and made their living. Working on the soil is in Russian DNA. It is also in Russian DNA living in a hostile environment, feeding and supporting themselves and not relying on anything else. Even soviet propaganda and oppression machine could not reverse this part of Russian DNA.
Cultivating soil, a piece of land that will grow produce and supply food for the entire year is a very Russian thing. This is how people survived before communist revolution. Growing own food is how Russians went through decades of slowly degrading soviet union and disastrous nineties. Growing own food is how many people continue surviving now.
It is interesting, when Russians move to other countries for permanent residence, many want to have their own patches on the backyard to grow berries, fruits and vegetables.
May 1st being a Labour Day is a reminder, that Russians will sustain, no matter the circumstances. If tomorrow the whole world turns against Russia and the iron curtain sets in again, there will be dachas with simple, but quality food. It will be weekend trips to dacha, spring through the summer, canning and making pickles in the fall.
Self-reliance is one of things, foreigners don’t really get about Russia. It is deeply rooted in Russian culture and manifests in many different ways, be it response to external challenges or just supporting own family in tough times. This is what dacha primarily is all about, leisure, shashlik and banya come second.
Practicalities of May 1st holidays.
Moscow and most larger cities get spring cleaning in April. For May 1st Moscow and most large cities will be polished and decorated to the upcoming holidays. Normally, beginning of May is when warm weather sets in. All gardens and parks will be in bloom. There will be less people on streets and in public transportation. Moscow will have events on streets, squares and other public places. Business will be slower, because many decision makers will leave country. This is probably one the best period season for a short visit to Moscow.