A daily bulletin of news & opinion

7 January 2010

I’m writing this from a hot and sweaty Mumbai because, like pretty much everyone else in Russia who can afford a plane ticket, I saw little point in being in the country for the first 10 days of the New Year. In much of the world, the period at the end of December and beginning of January is quiet economically; many people take days off work. But Russia takes things to extremes. In Russia, since 2004, the first 10 days of January are a time when the entire country comes to a complete standstill in a seemingly endless row of public holidays.

The 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 January are all official state holidays, and this means that once weekend days are added on, there are no working days until 11 January. Economists and some politicians have suggested snipping off a few of these holidays and sprinkling them into other parts of the calendar, to get rid of a New Year’s period that is economically and spiritually draining for the country. When the long holidays were introduced, the rationale was that parents would get to spend more time with their children and the nuclear family unit would be strengthened. Cynical voices suggested that MPs were just as keen to get the extra days so that they could party on the slopes of Courchevel or the beaches of Thailand without having to take any days off work. Indeed, Russian airports in the days leading up to 31 December are a whirlwind of well-to-do Russians taking off for exotic jaunts. This leaves the majority of the population stuck at home or at the dacha during a time of year when it’s often far too cold to do anything… except drink.

New Year’s Eve is by far the biggest holiday in the Russian calendar. Orthodox Christmas, on 7 January, is only celebrated by those who are ardently religious, and holidays at other times of the year are mostly new inventions, dreamt up over the past two decades to replace the Communist holidays that once fell on the same date. So it is that New Year is the one holiday in the calendar that was acceptable to celebrate during the Soviet period and still inspires excitement now. With New Year’s Eve the biggest night of the year for most Russians, many will take at least one day off in preparation before the long break; add the collective hangovers that accompany its end, and it’s basically a fortnight for which the whole country is shut down.

In the run up to this New Year, one Russian think-tank estimated that the Russian economy loses over 700bn roubles (well in excess of €15bn) because of the holidays. But I would wager that another even grimmer downside of the extended break is the effect it has on Russia’s already notorious alcohol problem. So many days off in a row is basically an invitation to go on zapoi – a uniquely Russian word that basically means a planned, multi-day bender of ruthless intensity.

There is no doubt that the economy suffers from such a long holiday. The damage to livers, minds and families across the country from this kind of encouraged drinking binge is harder to quantify, but possibly even worse.


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