С Новым годом! (Happy New Year!)

Perhaps there is no better time to experience the mood and pulse of the Russian people’s devotion to family, their culture, and to their Motherland than over the New Year’s holiday celebration.  Just to hear the Russian national anthem on this solitary moment can be the experience of a lifetime:  Come to Moscow and spend New Year’s Eve in Russia.  Gather with extended family and friends in a compact apartment crowded to the walls with those you love and cherish. 

At about 8pm the salads begin to appear on the table, then soon followed by a never-ending stream of food as favourite Russian culinary delights make their way from the kitchen to the living room table over the next several hours. 

Sometime during the evening the music starts and lively dancing and toasts begin.  The finest champagne is held in reserve for after the midnight bells toll from the clock at the Kremlin.  Across Russia all eyes and hearts turn toward Moscow.  Just before midnight every television station switches to the Kremlin whose distinct red walls are dressed in a dramatic display of lights bathed in falling snow from Red Square.

President Medvedev appears on the screen and in his solemn style delivers the traditional greeting to the Russian people.  It is usually a very short speech and all across Russia the music has stopped.  Dancing feet become still.  It seems as even the sounds of the streets and the hissing steam from the heat radiators also grow silent.

Traditionally the president offers words of best wishes to the people and afterward comes the announcement for which everyone has been waiting:  The President announces the length of the government holiday.  His pronouncement will affect everyone from government office workers to school children and their teachers to policemen and to many private business workers.  And at the end of his one minute speech the Kremlin clock tolls midnight and the President ends his address with the familiar С Новым годом (sno-vim godom), Happy New Year!

Those in the apartment, especially the elders and war veterans, stand at attention, glasses in hand, waiting for the playing of the Russian national anthem.  Immediately it begins and afterward the glasses are raised heavenward in toasts to health, wealth, and happiness for the coming new years.  Kisses, three times on alternating checks, are offered around the room.

Quickly New Year cakes appear on the table.  And fruit.  And more champagne.  Dancing begins again and now the sound of fireworks can be heard across the land.  The night sky is charged with colours so vivid, so bright, and so promising. 

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Children are bundled in heavy winter coats and carried outside to watch the dazzling displays as the cascading lights arch across the normally dark and brooding Russian skies.  The celebration of fireworks outside, and parties indoors, will continue until 3 or 4 in the morning. 

For many, sleep will come eventually but usually on a crowded sofa or even a blanket on the floor depending on the number of guests.  Others will wait out the night, often it is the men who sit in the kitchen or in a hallway and chain-smoke away the remaining hours until dawn begins to belatedly peer across the Russian horizon.

For those who managed to sleep even for a little while, morning comes quickly on January first and the winter snows have created a new white landscape across the Motherland. 

Oh there is nowhere like Russia for breakfast!  In a land where there are no designated foods for specific mealtimes, any Russian breakfast can be an exciting adventure.  But on New Years morning it is very special:  Leftover New Years cake, champagne, sausage and cabbage from the night before, marinated beet/potatoe salad, and a spoonful of red or black caviar on thick black bread with butter.  Who needs an egg when you’re having champagne and caviar for breakfast at 8am!

Most families have a tradition of walking to an important square or park in their city on New Years morning.  Naturally for Muscovites that traditional walk is on or around Red Square.  The tomb of the Unknown Soldier is passed reverently with memories of past conflicts from invading neighbors. 

Once on Red Square, typically teeming with folks dressed up like Eskimos and with the usual aloofness forgotten for just a day, greetings of С Новым годом, even to perfect strangers punctuate the brisk morning air.  Surrounded by churches many step inside briefly to pray before continuing the annual tradition.

Happy New Year!  С Новым годом, from the Mendeleyev family in Moscow, Russia.

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Will there be riots?

That question has already been answered.  Riots have been taking place in eastern Russia for going on 3 weeks.  As Nikolaus von Twickel of the Moscow Times wrote in a commentary last week, Russian Sociologist Yevgeny Gontmakher has painted a disturbing picture of what might emerge from the financial crisis.

According to von Twickel, “as Gontmakher sees it, a provincial industrial town will see huge protests after massive layoffs at its main factory next year. The authorities scramble haphazardly to contain the unrest. Violence will spread, ultimately reaching Moscow.”

“The scenario, published under the headline “Novocherkassk 2009″ in Vedomosti last month, is purely fictitious. But it triggered a very real reaction from the authorities. The government’s media watchdog fired off a warning to Vedomosti that it was inciting extremism. Vedomosti is part of Independent Media Sanoma Magazines, the parent company of The Moscow Times.”

Now to understand why the Kremlin in angered by this “fictional” account one needs to understand two things:  First, Prime Minister Putin has ordered to State security services to put down and protests, including arresting anyone or any organization which fans the flames of “disorder.” 

Secondly, Novocherkassk just happens to be the town in the southern Rostov region where Soviet police brutally quashed rioting workers in 1962. That hits close to home, well so to speak because just this past February Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev visited Novocherkassk to lay flowers in memory of those killed in 1962.

Journalist von Twickel goes on to write “Gontmakher, a deputy social protection minister and Kremlin official in the 1990s, said he had not expected such a response from the government, but the threat is real and growing daily as the crisis takes it toll. ‘Of course they are worried, and they should be,’ he said of the government.”

Now it should be pointed out that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who readily blames America every chance he can, spouts the official line that Russia should be able to weather the crisis with minimal problems. The Prime Minister is quick to say that the economic downturn spread from the United States and has infected “all the economies of the world.”

The Russian people, proud of Russia’s political stability, in the past have believed that this stability to be a major achievement of Putin’s eight-year presidency.  However that view is wearing thin as the crisis has already led to a wave of layoffs and slashed wages across the country.

In previous year the annual televised question-and-answer session has been nothing short of a love fest.  Last week however was a new chapter in these talks.  Callers were more on edge, some were even bordering on rude, and Mr Putin was on the hot seat for the first time one can recall in his time as leading Russia.

The figures for the future aren’t good either.  Mr Putin was forced to admit that the number of unemployed workers was expected to increase next year to “a little over 2 million” from the current 1.7 million.

Make no mistake, the Kremlin is worried about the protests speading west of Siberia. President Dmitry Medvedev last month ordered law enforcement agencies to quickly stamp out any sign of social unrest linked to the crisis. “If someone tries to exploit the consequences of the financial crisis … they should intervene, bring criminal charges. Otherwise, there won’t be order,” the President advised senior police officials at a public briefing in St. Petersburg.

The tiger may be out of the cage however.  Protests are spreading and will continue.  Regions outside of Moscow have been hit hard and the unhappiness with the government is growing.

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Maybe instead of stamping out protests, the Kremlin should work on stamping out unemployment and corruption instead.  But that would be risky–the Kremlin finds it much more comfortable when the security forces are looking outward.  No one in power would feel very comfortable should those same forces ever turn around and look at the problems from a different angle.

Explosion in Evpatoria

An explosion in a Ukrainian block of flats killed at least 27 people and left dozens buried. The blast happened around 10pm local time on Wednesday evening in a Soviet-era five- story prefabricated concrete building in Evpatoria, a small city on the Black Sea shore of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

More dead are likely to be discovered as rescue workers continue to carefully pick through the top floors of the fallen building, and debris from remains of other floors remained to be inspected, according to Eduard Hrivovsky, of Ukraine’s Ministry for Emergency Situations.

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Two staircases that led to some 30 flats completely collapsed in the blast. So far over 20 survivors have been pulled to safety, including two children. According to the Zhitomir Journal, “on 24 December at around 10pm the евпаторийском (in Evpatoria) five-floor apartment house along the street Nekrasov, number 67 has crumbled from a thundering explosion. 35 apartments (the first and second entrances of the house) in which 62 persons are registered are destroyed, and also apartments of the third entrance are damaged (translated).”

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Under darkness rescuers brought in lights to work thru another night and said that cries for help were still coming from underneath the rubble.  Rescue operations engineers calculate that the 3rd, 4th, and 5th floor imploded upon the bottom two floors after a loud gas explosion.

Eleven cylinders were discovered in the cellar of the destroyed building according to Ukraine’s UNIAN news agency. As of mid afternoon of December 26 rescuers had discovered four 5-liter cylinders with propane, two 50-liter cylinders with propane, one of them being empty and another leaking, two 22-liter cylinders with oxygen, two 10-liter cylinders with oxygen, and a 2-liter cylinder with oxygen.

By Friday morning the death toll had risen to 27. Three children are among the casualties. Rescuers believe more people remain under the rubble; the search and rescue operation is continuing.

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Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko broke off a normal work day to travel to Evpatoria to supervise the rescue and victim support effort, traveling together to the site with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The Prime Minister said that all survivors would receive food and shelter provided by the government, and financial help from a 10 million dollar emergency fund set up for disaster.  She added that relatives of dead would receive 13 thousand dollars per victim.

According to Tymoshenko, residents of the building had complained in the past that canisters of highly explosive oxygen had been stored illegally in a basement workshop.

The President declared Friday a day of mourning for the victims of the Evpatoria tragedy.

Has Mr Putin’s Teflon worn thin?

“Take Demons Alive” screamed the wording on the sign.  No, this wasn’t a billboard in Appalachia’s Bible belt or on the side of a rural Florida barn.

The demon had a photo, belonging to none other than Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  In case you haven’t heard, protests are erupting all over Russia, especially in the Far East where foreign factory contracts are often the single lifeblood of many small to medium sized cities and with contract orders in retreat, the lifestyles of ordinary Russians are in a freefall.

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With salaries late, hours cut, and pensions threatened, Russians are not in the usual holiday mood to wish the Prime Minister a happy New Year.  Even the media, from radio talk hosts to print and television political commentators, are on the attack against the man who was was considered like the American Bill Clinton, a Teflon leader.

The Teflon man, well not any longer.   The stark realities of the financial crisis and Mr Putin’s reputation as the nation’s saviour are finally at odds.  Protesters openly insult Mr Putin and while it was formerly only radical members of the banned National Bolshevik Party who would dare attack Mr Putin in public, today it’s anyone with a piece of cardboard and a black felt tipped pen.

The fact that yesterday Belarussian President Lukashenko used a combination of bluster and harsh words to negotiate a low rate for Russian gas next year signaled to the Kremlin that even old friends can turn when times get tough.  Medvedev folded, Belarus will get it’s gas, and Gazprom probably feels lucky to get something from the deal even at a significant discount.

Stunned by public reaction to the economy, Duma deputies have called for the Prime Minister to be summoned to explain why the country posted a sharp decline in industrial output in November. Such an embarrassing moment was spared, at least for now, by Mr Putin’s United Russia party.

However one thing seems almost certain given the growing unrest within Russia’s borders, Mr Putin may be singing to the tune of that old American southern spiritual, “nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.”

Photo credit: Moscow Times

Patriarch Alexi buried on Tuesday

Patriarch Alexi II has been buried
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.  God grant that the soul of Your servant Alexi will find rest where the just repose.  Lord have Mercy.
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With thousands of mourners lining the streets and after almost 100,000 visitors streamed past his casket lying in the centre of Moscow in the ornately rebuilt Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Alexi II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Ukraine and Belarus was buried Tuesday, 09 December 2008.

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The liturgy was sung by Bishops and Archbishops of the church, including Metropolition Kirill, temporary Patriarch until the Russian Synod meets to elect a new church leader.  Burial was as Alexi had requested in the Cathedral of the Epiphany, not far from the Kremlin.  Alexi joined the ranks of church leaders such as his namesake, Alexi I, and also Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker who are buried in the Cathedral.

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From the Kyiv Post in Ukraine
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II was buried on Tuesday after a long and elaborate funeral ceremony at which he was praised for reviving the nation’s Christian faith after decades of communist rule.

State broadcasters cancelled normal programming to broadcast live the half-day ceremony for Alexiy, who died on Friday aged 79 after 18 years leading the world’s biggest Orthodox church.

Thousands of ordinary Russians lined the streets of Moscow to see the coffin pass as bells tolled. Some mourners wept.

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President Dmitry Medvedev (and wife Svetlana Medvedeva), Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (and wife Ludmila Putina), in black suits and black ties, attended the funeral as did many other regional leaders including Belarussian President Alexandr Lukashenko.  Each kissed Alexiys’ robed body on a catafalque surrounded by white roses in the heart of Moscow’s gold-domed Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

Fellow Orthodox leaders from around the world attended, including Patriarch Ilia II, of Georgia, a close friend of Alexi II.

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Many observers testified to Alexi’s accomplishments since taking the role of Patriarch just before the fall of Communism.  “He spoke in the language of eternity, he understood that only love could unite people,” the church’s interim leader, Metropolitan Kirill, said in a speech delivered beside the coffin, which was draped in a green, red and white shroud.

Kirill, 62, was helped away by aides at one point during the lengthy ceremony. The Church said he was in good health and had not fainted, and he subsequently rejoined the funeral.

Orthodox patriarchs and metropolitans (senior bishops) from Russia and abroad stood in the vast cathedral as priests chanted the liturgy, followed by funeral rites.

From the London Daily Mail
Gold-robed clergy chanted and mourners prayed today at the funeral for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II, who revived the nation’s Christian faith after decades of communist atheism.

Streets in central Moscow came to a halt for the farewell to Alexiy, enthroned in 1990 a year before the demise of the Soviet Union. He died of heart failure on Friday aged 79.

The Estonian-born Patriarch Alexiy II united the nation during Russia’s market reforms, widespread poverty and rampant crime of the 1990s.

President Dmitry Medvedev cancelled all entertainment events and programmes on state television and radio and ordered government-run channels to broadcast full coverage of the event, expected to last at least three hours.

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Alexiy’s coffin lay draped in a green, red and white shroud amid hundreds of white flowers in the centre of the cathedral.

Tens of thousands of mourners waited in cold rain outside the magnificent gold-domed cathedral, whose reconstruction in the 1990s after being demolished under Soviet leader Josef Stalin was one of Alexiy’s trumphs.

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A prayer for the departed:
O God of spirits and all flesh, who has trampled down Death and made powerless the Devil, and given life to the world, do Thou, the same Lord give rest to the soul of Thy departed servant, Alexi, in a place of brightness, a place of virtue a place of repose, whence all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away. Pardon every sin which he hath committed, whether by word, or deed, or thought, for Thou art good and lovest mankind: for there is no man that liveth and sinneth not, for Thou only art without sin, and Thy righeousness is unto eternity, and Thy Law is truth.

Then the choir and the people sing:
Vechnaya Pamyat! Vechnaya Pamyat! Vechnaya Pamyat!
(Memory Eternal! Memory Eternal! Memory Eternal!)