MOSCOW, April 11, 2004 -- Easter Sunday, in Russia and America.
Although cold and rain were forecast, it turned out to be a beautiful day in Moscow: sunny, bright, and – in the mid-50s – unseasonably warm.
Despite 70 years of atheism, Easter – or Pascha, as it is called in Russia -- still has a strong hold on the Russian psyche. Perhaps the urgency of the celebration, here and elsewhere, is as much a remnant of the pagan spring reveling as it is the observance of the alleged resurrection of Christ. The Venerable Bede, the Anglo-Saxon priest of the 8th century, must have assumed such a link, because he specifically linked the English “Easter” to the pagan spring goddess Eostre.
Religious or not, most Russians observe it as a time for families to gather and celebrate their familiness – “A lot like your Thanksgiving,” one of my students observed.
And like Thanksgiving, food is involved. But the Easter comestibles are much simpler: a sweet, raisin-filled curdless cottage-cheese conglomeration called “pascha,” just like the day; dyed eggs; a rather dry and tasteless Easter cake called “kulitsch,” and – of course – vodka.
For many, the Easter celebration took place last night. Andrei Y. called to say he couldn’t come by because he would celebrate with his family at midnight. For nonbelievers like him, “celebration” consists of the family gathering and munching up the pascha, kulitsch, and eggs, and downing a few shots of vodka.
For believers, the eggs involve a ritual: two people kiss each other three times on the cheek; one says “Christ is risen,” to which the other replies, “truly he is risen.” Then they both hit their eggs together. Whosever egg cracks first, loses.
“Loses what?” I asked. “Nothing. He just loses.”
The non-believers leave out the “Christ is risen” when they crack the eggs, but they still use it as a way of saying “Happy Easter.” Kostya, for example, when his wife (he still calls her his “girlfriend”) woke him “early” (9 a.m.) on Easter because her parents were coming by to celebrate, she greeted him with “Khristos voskres.” He however, didn’t return the “truly…” He just got up.
True believers go to the Orthodox equivalent of midnight Mass, where they go through the egg-cracking ritual with other true believers, have prayers, and then file out to march one time around the church. They then return to listen to Orthodox mumbo-jumbo till 2 or so in the morning. If true believers don’t make the service, they at least take the Easter goodies on Saturday to be blessed by a priest.
Anton went yesterday to visit his aunt and her husband and their two children, who are all true believers, partially to join in their observance, but mostly to celebrate his cousin Masha’s 15th birthday. He just returned, bearing eggs, “pascha,” and pictures of our ex-bunny, who is now an entrenched member of their family. “Krolik” has matured into quite a beautiful beast. She’s still confined to the same prison, but their house is big enough that they can’t hear her still-virgin paws digging her fantasy nest in the plastic floor at night.
Since they don’t have Easter egg hunts, there’s no call in the Russian Easter ritual for the Easter Bunny! Consequently, seasonal unemployment for white bunnies is very high here.
Many Russians have their family reunions in the cemetery, where they gather to pay their respects to their dead relatives, and – according to Yuri – get drunk. Vodka is, after all, an entrenched sine qua non of virtually every Russian celebration, even the most sacred. For better or for worse, the Orthodox Church doesn’t treat booze with the abhorrence of its Western counterparts. So apparently it’s not unusual to see a bunch of drunks staggering around the cemetery on Easter Sunday shouting “Christ is risen.”
Where is the “Hallelujah Chorus” when we need it?
Yuri said some of his derelict cronies took their bottles and headed to the cemetery as a good cover to get shit-faced, but the non-believer cops tossed them out. Is nothing sacred?
One of my students told me that the Church actually denounces going to the cemetery on Easter Sunday. It seems that’s the one day of the year that the dead spirits can commune directly with God, and if you’re there to distract them, then they have to spend their time with you and not with God lobbying to get into heaven. So it’s better if you come the day before Easter or on Palm Sunday.
Or rather Willow Sunday.
Last Sunday, of course, was Willow Sunday. The New Testament passage describing the palms laid before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem sitting on his ass (on his donkey, not his posterior, though presumably he was also sitting on that) notwithstanding, the Russians have chosen the willow as the symbol of that holy occasion. And for two or three weeks before Willow Sunday, there were lots of venders on the streets of Moscow selling willow branches full of delicate white buds. Their exquisite beauty alone is almost enough to make you shout, “Christ is risen”; but samo-gon, the Russian equivalent of “moonshine,” is still more effective – especially in the cemetery.
I asked one of my students what Russians usually eat for Easter Sunday lunch after the pascha, eggs, and kuchil. “Everything they haven’t eaten for the last six weeks,” she answered.
The true believers have, after all, been on a Lenten diet that is more severe than its Catholic counterpart. Not only can they not eat meat – except fish on Friday – they also can’t eat any milk products or eggs, and of course no alcohol. Only veggies and fruit – not too different from my own diet right now except that they also can’t have sex. So by Easter Sunday they’re not only starving to death, they’re also horny as hell.
The resumption of sex on Easter probably explains why so many of my Russian friends’ birthdays are in January and February. I could probably ascertain when Easter was the year they before they were born by simply counting back nine months.
In response to my students’ queries, I explained that most Americans go to church on Sunday and then come home to look for hidden Easter eggs – some from the hen and some from the chocolate factory, but all hidden by the Easter bunny -- and chow down on an Easter feast in which ham, for some reason, plays the main role, though lamb often gets equal billing. I also described the American penchant for buying new clothes to parade at church on Easter Sunday.
“That wouldn’t work here,” one of my students noted. “Most Russians couldn’t afford that.”
I asked my friend Basil (his name is Vasiliy, but he prefers the English version) how he celebrated Easter. His parents are among the nonbelievers who always visit the cemetery on Easter. Since his marriage a year and a half ago, he has also gone a couple of times. In any case, “We always have Easter eggs and Easter cake at our table.”
The bond between me and Basil is very strong. He was in a summer class I taught when I was going through CELTA, a teacher certification course, in 1999, right after Max and I had returned from our Turkey trip. I was mesmerized by this very serious, very intelligent, reserved 20-year-old with a rich sense of humor. Each CELTA teacher was asked to single out a student to help with a grammar problem they were having special problems with. To the chagrin of a couple of my female colleagues, I got to Basil first.
Our focus was on tenses. We started with the simple tenses, and then slogged through the continuous, and by the time we got to past perfect, we had established a solid rapport. We met a couple of times over a glass of beer, and rapport turned to friendship. Then, that fall, Basil enrolled in my English Exchange Level 3 course, and we spent a lot more time together, and friendship evolved into love. Platonic, unfortunately.
We discovered a mutual interest in writing. We discussed poetry, and wrote several poems to and for each other. I helped him translate a short story into English, which he put on his web site.
One evening early in our friendship, we met at a bistro to chat. During the course of the evening, he said, “I hope when I’m your age I’m as beautiful as you.” I thought he had simply mis-translated “beautiful” from the Russian “krasivwiy,” which has a much broader meaning. “But Basil,” I corrected, “I’m not beautiful!” “Yes you are,” he replied almost angrily. I was a little shocked and very humbled – and very grateful.
He came to my apartment several times, and we occasionally watched movies together. He brought “Saving Private Ryan” one afternoon, and clutching him through my tears at the end of the movies, I kissed him.
I have never seen anyone so radiant as he was at that moment. But, to the everlasting regret of my libido, the love has remained platonic. I tried to seduce him one evening. “I think I’m not gay,” he demurred. But our deep affection and respect continues unabated, and we unabashedly hug and kiss each other and share the joys and snags of our respective love lives.
In an e-mail one time, he wrote: “I've learnt from you a lot. I don't mean English in this case :-). But I mean an ability to feel and show feelings.”
I treasure our relationship as I do few others.
Vanya still has not come to grips with his personal tragedy. I relented after my last e-mail and sent him another one apologizing for being so harsh.
So let me start all over again,” I wrote:
You’ve made some mistakes and done some unwise things. Now you’re at the bottom. That doesn’t mean you’re a loser. You’re only a loser if you quit. If you ‘off’ yourself, THEN you’re a loser because it means you’ve quit. As we say in America, when you’ve reached bottom, there’s no place to go but up.
You have three goals right now: survive, graduate, and get a job. You must do whatever is necessary to survive: give up your apartment, sell your computer, eat potatoes and grechko, give up drinking because you can’t afford it, etc. $ 100 a month should enable you to survive till graduation. You said getting a job would be no problem. You’ll soon find out.
One possibility is to move to Moscow after graduation. It’s possible you could stay here for a month or two until you get a job and can rent a room of your own. I’ll have to discuss that with Yegor and Anton. If they agree, you could live here providing you quit drinking, help with the housework, etc. I’ve also declared no smoking inside the flat, so you’d have to go out in the hall to smoke.
Anyway, don’t sit and feel sorry for yourself and talk about suicide. I don’t believe I’ve invested $ 16,000 and you’ve invested five years of your life for you to throw it all down the drain. I think you have the ability to succeed if you have the will. It’s up to you. I will help you survive in NN and in Moscow, but your goal is to be self sufficient as soon as possible.
I believe in you. Get busy!
After several days of not hearing from him, I got an e-mail this morning:
Without his usual “Hello, Dane,” he wrote: I just got on the internet, and just read your letter. And today is Easter. Today I went with my (girl) friend to the midnight Easter service at the church. I prayed to God to save me. If you recall, the church is located next to my apartment.
Right now, I don’t know how to answer you. Forgive me. Things are very bad for me.
To say he’s “wallowing in self-pity” is a little calloused. But he obviously is feeling like whale shit on the bottom of the ocean at ebb tide.
While I feel sorry for him, self-pity won’t save him. I replied:
Dear Vanya, I can’t save you; God can’t save you. We can help, but only you yourself can save yourself. You are young, intelligent, handsome, and soon you will have a university degree. You only need to add“will.” You can succeed on your own. It won’t be a miracle. It will be brains and hard work. You can do it! I love you, Dane.”
My heart numbs as I hear and read what my country is doing in Iraq. We have liberated the country like Hitler liberated Poland. Except we called the Polish resisters “freedom fighters.” We call the Iraqi who are fighting the enemy occupiers in Falluja, “enemies of democracy.” The parallels between America/Iraq and Russia/Chechnya grow daily more alarming. My sardonic prediction that “I am living in America’s future” is coming true before my eyes. My sadness borders on grief.
The coming economic/environmental/petroleum catastrophe will “teach us a lesson.” Unfortunately, history will not be able to apply those lessons on the next round because there will be no next round. We are on a one-pass-through of the Golden Age of Earth. And we have tragically blown it. My friend Tom Robertson used to say we are just toys of the gods, who are making bets on how long we manage to survive.
I wonder who bet on the short term, and I wonder what she will win. Maybe another game on another planet somewhere?
Or will it be like the Russian Easter Eggs: “Nothing. You just win.”