The New Year in Eastern Europe is upon us!

Today, 31 December, ushers in the most important holiday of the year: the New Year celebration! For those interested, Easter is the second most celebrated holiday.

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Generalization warning: The Eastern world is very large, and so naturally some practices will vary from region to region and even from family to family. But, in general this is a fairly representative look at how the holiday is celebrated.

Today shoppers are making last minute gift purchases, heading to the supermarket for special foods, and cleaning the home before guests begin to arrive.

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The family New Year Tree, if not already up, is being decorated. There will be no presents under the tree because that is the job of Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden. Magically, when children awake in the morning they will see that Grandfather Frost came in the middle of the night to deliver presents.

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All this is somewhat close to Western traditions, except gifts are given on New Years Day instead of Christmas Day which is still to come on the 7th of January.

Now, what is somewhat different?

Tonight, for example. About 5 or 6pm homes will start to fill. Those small apartments will host family members and friends from out of town. Most Russians and Ukrainians prefer a home celebration as opposed to “going out” as is popular in the West. Still, restaurants will be booked and hotel ballrooms filled.

There will be a special meal, and that meal will go on for eternity as new dishes replace the old. If your stomach can hold it, one could eat from 8 or 9 pm right up into the early morning hours.  Tea will flow like water. Some families will have brought out an old family samovar from a closet and will serve hot water for tea for this special night. Champagne toasts will be held until the clock strikes the near year at midnight, but vodka toasts will give the hot tea some stiff competition.

Lets talk about the samovar for a moment. It is not a “tea urn” or “coffee urn” or any other similar name. It is a hot water generator on steroids. It does only water, but it does it very, very well. Really old samovars were wood, coal, or charcoal fired, but it is unlikely that you would see one used indoors on a winter holiday. Most used inside the home will be electric, and some of those are quite old, too.

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The hostess of the home will brew tea in a teapot, usually one of her nicest for this occasion, and for special holidays she will most likely use the finest tea leaves. As in loose tea leaves, so do not fret if you find some in your cup. That is a good thing–an indication that she used her very best on this holiday.

When it comes time to serve you tea, she will first pour about a third of a cup of her loose tea brew into your serving cup. That will be some pretty strong tea, so then she will fill the bulk of your cup with steaming hot water from the samovar, diluting the mixture into a very pleasant cup of her finest tea. She will not make tea inside the samovar itself.

Some teapots have inserts that hold the loose leaves, and sure, tea bags are common all over the FSU, but many families revert to this time honoured tradition for special holidays.

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Culinary delights will highlight salads and the Russian style of open-faced “sandwiches” which to most Westerners are too small to be considered a sandwich. Bread with butter and caviar, crackers with cheese and caviar, bread with thin cucumber slices and meats will be found, among a host of other delights, naturally.

Expect to see a lot of salmon, blini, caviar, and various salads on most New Year tables. And borsch–we have already made our family borsch and it is ready to be served tonight!

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Near midnight we will watch the president’s New Year greeting which will be on all the TV and radio channels. We will also join millions of other to watch the movie referenced earlier in this thread: “The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath!”

Here are links to both part one and part two for those interested.

Be a good host as your guest will not be going home–they’re staying overnight at your place so make sure to find room for bodies on every sofa, and if needed, a corner or two on the floor (for you, adult guests should never be asked to sleep on the floor).

Finally, the fire works!

It has been said that Napoleon and Hitler never really understood Russian culture, as the love for fireworks, both professionally in city plazas and informally on almost every residential street by neighbors, would have been the perfect cover. There is so much noise, so many sounds of explosions at midnight, so many bursts of light in the sky that Hitler could have marched in likely unnoticed on New Year’s Eve, not that we would encourage such a thing ever happening again. Needless to say, city fire departments will be busy all night.

On the New Year morning, there is a tradition to walk along the town plazas and squares. In Moscow you will see thousands of folk who venture out to Red Square and other famous parks and plazas. This is the one time of the year when it is polite to greet strangers with a smile.

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Most everyone you meet will say С новым годом!

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New Year Gifts to the Ukrainian Army

С Новым годом, армия!

In this part of the world, gifts are presented at the New Year. It is no different for the Ukrainian Army as gifts have just arrived for the forces at the front lines. Today the Ukrainian Army received more new tanks, armoured vehicles, transport trucks, and much needed supplies for soldiers.

Army new equip Jan 2015 b

During the Yanukovich administration and previous Ukrainian governments, little to no funding was provided for updating equipment and regular troop training exercises. Much needed reforms were never initiated, and so the aging Soviet equipment handed down to Ukraine was in a state of severe stagnation.

In contrast, across the border Russia was using oil revenues for modernization of Russia’s military.

Army new equip Jan 2015 d

Upgrading Ukraine’s military capabilities might well have prevented the illegal and immoral annexation of Crimea by Russia in early 2014.

Army new equip Jan 2015 c

Significantly, Ukrainian defense forces say that American targeting systems have arrived. Until now, the Ukrainian Army had no modern system to detect the location from where rockets were being fired. Knowing this, Russian and pro-Russian troops would hide behind apartment buildings, thus forcing the Ukrainian forces to guess range and direction of in-coming fire.

Now they hope to be able to more accurately pin-point the location of enemy fire, and exercise greater precision when returning fire.

Court declares Navalny guilty!

Someone is afraid. In a case where the supposed defrauded doesn’t know that they were defrauded, Navalny was still found guilty. Hi brother Oleg will spend 3.5 years in a prison colony. However, Alexei received a 3.5 year suspended sentence.

Our translation: Someone is afraid to stir the public, but still sent the message that “see what I can do to your family. Learn this lesson and law low, or else we’ll be back with more trumped up charges and your brother will spend a lot longer in prison than 3.5 years.”

The government is warning that tonight’s protest march will be suppressed. A very large police presence has been on the scene all day in anticipation of the rally. After the verdict was read, Navalny attempted to join protestors who were gathering at Manezhnaya Square, near the Kremlin. He was detained and not allowed to attend the rally.

Now, at night time, there is a large protest in the centre of Moscow and police are periodically arresting participants, although the protest (allowed by the Constitution, but prohibited by the government) is peaceful. Those who would like to watch how such things work in a police state can watch live streaming here: http://openrussia.org/

Government advances Alexi Navalny verdict to today

What happens when prosecutors charge a man with stealing more lumber than the timber company actually produces annually? In Russia, you find the person guilty.

Observers point out that the criminal conviction rate in Russia is over 97%–slim chances for anyone arrested eventually being found innocent.

Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg.
Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg.

Alexei Navalny was back in court, charged along with his brother Oleg for supposedly stealing over $500,000 from French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher.

There is only one small problem: Yves Rocher has no knowledge of the theft and has refused to cooperate with Russian prosecutors in the case.

After a very brief trial, and defense lawyers are very limited in how they can participate in Russian criminal trials, the verdict was expected to be announced on 15 January. Expecting the all-too-usual guilty finding for those who refuse to toe the Kremlin line, opposition forces began to circulate plans via social media for mass street protests after the verdict.

The Russian government moved in and forced Internet services to remove the protest notices, on the grounds of public security. Facebook and others complied, but some say the announcement by Google that it was pulling units out of Russia was an indication of the heavy handed style of dealing with the Kremlin. Just this week the top Russian social media site, Vkontake, fired its founder who was replaced by a Kremlin backed successor. The founder, Pavel Durov, fled Russia this week.

Late Monday afternoon a message appeared on Navalny’s website that read, “Five minutes ago we were informed that the verdict will be tomorrow, Dec. 30 at 9 a.m.”

Navalny has been under house arrest since earlier this spring. One ominous note, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was also sentenced on secondary charges on the same date: 30 December.

Opposition organizers say that have moved the protest up to 7pm on Tuesday at the Manezh Square. The Manezh Square (Манежная площадь) is located just steps from the Kremlin in the centre of Moscow. Manezhnaya connects the areas of the State Historical Museum, the Aleksandr Gardens, and the Tverskoy district to the Iberian Gates entrance at Red Square.

Latest Russian News

In Russian culture there is supposed to be lull regarding news during the holiday period. In fact, some publications even go on “holiday” during the season between the end of the year and just past Christmas on 07 January. Somebody forgot to remind the news-makers it would seem.


The funny: there is always an aspect of news in Russia that lends itself to hilarity. The country just cannot help itself apparently. So, it was not that big of a surprise when last week the interior ministry declared that miniskirts were no longer appropriate for female police officers. It is true that miniskirts have never been part of the officially approved uniform, however there is something about seeing a young female officer in a very short skirt, while wearing high heels, that just makes you want to be chased–and caught.

Interior Ministry officials have watched, literally we can only assume, as hemlines have become shorter and shorter on the skirts of female officers. Heels have inched higher, too. Having seen enough, officials have decided to lower those hemlines and heels, back to something more representative of a respectable police force. Commanders across Russia have been issued guidelines on daily uniform inspections. To keep it equal, male officers will no longer be allowed to wear sleeveless shirts in summer–something that had become somewhat of a trend in more recent years.


The odd: Tourism from the West is not exactly on the upswing as of late, due to sanctions and political spats between Russia and the West. However, the folk in Moscow are eternal optimists and just in time for the extended holiday period, the city has introduced a couple hundred “tourist police” on the streets. Think of them as bi-lingual tour guides with a map of the city in one hand and a pair of handcuffs in the other.

They can speak English (at least to a degree), help tourists navigate around the city, and then lock them up at night if the tourists misbehave. What a country!

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin inspects new "kneeling" buses, designed for easier passenger access.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin inspects new “kneeling” buses, designed for easier passenger access.

The vanishing: the brain and talent appears to continue unabated. The latest high profile person to flee the country is Pavel Durov, the founder of Vkontake (known as “vk”), Russia’s answer to Facebook. Durov says that VK had been under pressure to reveal personal information to the Kremlin regarding VK users from Ukraine. That came not long after President Putin had declared that the Internet had been invented as a tool for the CIA. We should note that Mr. Putin makes only scant use of the Internet.

Last week Durov as fired as CEO of the company he had founded and the Kremlin-friendly Igor Sechin, CEO of Russian oil giant Rosneft, was handed the reins. Perhaps Sechin was getting bored at his current job, oil sales are not exactly on the upswing as of late. The Kremlin has made no secret of its mistrust of the evil Internet.

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Durov told technology newsite Techcrunch that he planned to launch another mobile social network. Outside of Russia, naturally. He told the publication that, “I am out of Russia and have no plans to go back.”


 

Echo Radio logoThe continuing crackdown on a free press: Last week the Kremlin moved to install new directors at the single remaining opposition radio network, Echo Radio, headquartered in Moscow. The station has been a thorn in the side of the Kremlin, and apparently a private summons for Chief editor Alexei Venediktov to meet personally with President Putin did little to bring the journalists of Radio Echo into “compliance.” So, Gazprom Media, as in the state controlled Gazprom Oil (one of the largest oil companies in the world), still retains a majority interest in the stock of the station, has moved to tighten control. Gazprom owns 66% and the 89 journalists of Radio Echo own the remaining 34%.

To make sure that Radio Echo tones down the independent rhetoric, the government media watchdog Roskomnadzor slapped the station with a warning after Echo interviewed journalists who detailed direct Russian involvement in the war in Eastern Ukraine. After the broadcast, Roskomnadzor notified the station of the warning, saying that Radio Echo had broadcast “information justifying war crimes.”

Roskomnadzor warnings carry weight–two warnings allows the government to shut down a broadcast facility.


Even more on the continuing crackdown on a free press: Yevgenia Albats, editor-in-chief of The New Times, one of the few remaining print publications independent of the Kremlin, has been accused of disobeying traffic police. Although authorities could not come up with specifics of her disobedience, the editor has been charged. She claims to have been pulled over in a routine traffic stop and handed over the proper paperwork when asked. The officers then charged Albats with disobeying police orders. If convicted she faces up to 15 days in jail.

Already the government-controlled television NTV, the channel that often conducts smear campaigns on those whom the Kremlin has labeled as enemies, has broadcast that the editor was leaving a “party at a Georgian restaurant” in Moscow. The state of relations between the Kremlin and the former Soviet republic of Georgia has remained tense since the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.

New Times Moscow freedom

The Albats case will be heard in court this Tuesday, 30 December.


The very bad: Most Western readers probably have little to no knowledge of the oil spill in the Black Sea last week. Why? Because the Russian media is not exactly racing to cover the story. Last week a large Russian oil pipeline burst a pipeline outside the town of Tuapse. Russian oil giant Rosneft was constructing pipeline in the area for use by Transneft, Russia’s major pipeline transporter.

The local government has declared a state of emergency, and whether intended or not, the declaration has hampered efforts by independent media and world scientific experts to inspect the damage. Severe winter weather has hampered clean-up efforts.

Groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and Inhabit claim that Satellite imagery indicates between 500 to 700 tons of oil were spilled into the Black Sea. If true, that could be almost 100 times more oil than Russian government sources have estimated.


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Ask Sophie and the Key2Moscow

If you want to learn more about Russia or about learning the Russian language, just “Ask Sophie.” This popular feature continues to grow, and host Sophie Tupolev is providing great resources for adding to your knowledge on all things Russian.

We are very pleased that the popular “Ask Sophie” website has added the Mendeleyev Journal to their resources on learning Russian language, and about Russia in general.

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Sophie also writes a regular column for Moscow Expat Life magazine and she is the driving force behind the Key2Moscow blog which is a lively guide to just about everything happening in Russia’s capital city. The Mendeleyev Journal is adding several of her insightful features to our language and cultural resource pages.

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