Curating Culture: The Modern Russian Renaissance

By: Natalia Bertuol

February 23, 2018

Contemporary Russia grapples with a unique challenge: it is a country born anew, from the ashes of the Bolshevik Communist experiment that systematically overturned imperial culture, re-forging the empire from its very roots. Russian Slavic identity is ancient, building on centuries of history and tradition. The Russian Federation, however, is quite new, and it is seeking to reinstate popular, pre-Soviet traditions into contemporary Russia and thus cultivate an inclusive yet modern culture that celebrates its Slavic Russian roots. The dramatic loss of prestige felt following the fall of the Soviet Union left many feeling humiliated, and the government has worked hard to re-instill pride and patriotism in its people. As can be expected, the Russian Orthodox Church has played an essential role in this process, steadily regaining influence and standing in post-Soviet Russia, returning to its historical position as a bastion of national pride and unity. The examination of two vastly different holidays sheds light on how the preservation and promotion of historical identity have influenced the curation of contemporary Russian culture.

The example of Valentine’s Day may appear frivolous at first, but it reveals how modern Russia interacts with increasingly popular elements of different cultures. Some young people celebrate the holiday, and shopping centers often promote it in an effort to boost sales. But in general, Valentine’s Day in Russia is perceived through a religious lens: Saint Valentine is a Roman Catholic saint. While many view the holiday as commercially oriented and foreign, the Russian perception of its Catholic origins should not be understated. The government has proposed an alternative holiday that upholds its Slavic and religious ideals. The Day of Family, Love and Faithfulness purposely coincides with Peter and Fevronia Day, a traditional celebration of the Orthodox patron saints of family and marriage: both are on July 8. Authorities have continued to promote the event as a Russian, Orthodox alternative to Western, consumer-driven Valentine’s Day. As the day draws closer, television channels air segments reminding people of the impending holiday. Every morning, people walking near the Saint Petersburg Polytechnic Institute can see the statue commemorating Peter and Fevronia. 

The Russian Federation has extended its gaze far beyond its Soviet and imperial days through the popularization of the Maslenitsa festival. Comparable to Western Shrovetide, contemporary Maslenitsa conceals its pagan roots by its celebration immediately before Great Lent. The final day of Maslenitsa is called “Forgiveness Sunday” as it is traditional for people to formally forgive each other for their wrongdoings in order to begin Great Lent with a clean soul. It is also the last day that dairy products may be consumed for Orthodox Christians before Easter. Nonetheless, certain traditional pagan elements remain: the centerpiece food, blini, are pale yellow like the spring sun. Additionally, a female straw figure is burnt in symbolic celebration of the end of winter and the start of a new season of harvest, hearkening fertility. Maslenitsa has become increasingly popular, with celebrations taking place all over the country, culminating on Sunday. Many view it as a celebration of Slavic, particularly Russian, culture, and traditional wares are sold next to the classic blini and other Russian/Slavic food. 

For this young country with its ancient roots, the preservation of national and Slavic identities and culture is of utmost importance. Reaching into the past to curate the present also allows Russia to resurrect only its most glorious elements, relying on historical prestige to promote a contemporary renaissance of national pride and unity. Religious traditions, once repudiated in the Soviet Union, are regaining popular appeal and can serve as useful mechanisms to promote national Russian identity. But the indigenous cultural concepts drawn from pre-Soviet history are not necessarily catching on across modern-day Russia. The Day of Petra and Fevronia/the Day of Family, Love and Faithfulness is not widely celebrated, in contrast to Valentine’s Day, particularly as younger generations increasingly embrace Western culture. As the church’s power grows, so are societal divisions revealed: debates about which churches and cathedrals to re-sanctify embroil public discussion, as well as questions about the relations between the secular state and the church. But the cheerfulness ushered in by the Maslenitsa celebrations somewhat offsets this undercurrent of unease and showcases the best of this Russian renaissance. With the Russian Federation relying largely on a patchwork of history and tradition to inform its modern culture, it will be undoubtedly be interesting to see the emergence of new elements that are unique to contemporary Russian identity.

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Curating Culture: The Modern Russian Renaissance