Travel makes new friends. I have a correspondence with my tour Russian guide Irina, a mother of three sons, who just converted to Russian Orthodoxy. She has revealed the life of the middle class Russian in Moscow.
“My favorite winter occupation is skiing,” she said. “I do it in the park not far from my home. It has a cultural park with amusements, decorations, cafes etc. and a really big forest with several lakes and hills. At weekend many people come to this park. They go skiing, skating, slide down the hills and make strolls. The volleyball grounds are busy all year round. And there are several open terraces in the park with big tables (or desks) where men can sit and play chess or domino.
Imagine they do it in winter too! Even cold weather doesn’t stop them. One such terrace can place 10-15 men. Some are playing; others are watching and making comments. In the breaks they discuss the latest home and foreign events. They are very excited and loud. Men can spend all day there till it gets very dark. They bring some meals from home or supermarket with them and hot tea or coffee in thermoses.” This is urban Moscow, with no garbage in the parks. A photo of a Moscow avenue shows a freshly plowed street.
Irina said she “prefers to go for skiing on working days when the park is less busy. I went there yesterday and took some pictures. The park was abandoned because it was working day, but I met a few men there. When I was going back it started to get dark and the lights were switched on. I will send you the photos separately from my phone. Besides the park pictures there will be one with the view from the window of a big shopping mall to one of Moscow heating plants. The temperature outdoors was -25 C, that’s why there is steam. One picture of a street on my way to the park after a snowfall which lasted all night.” I don’t go in our New York city parks in daytime because of security issues. This is an amazing lifestyle.
“On the lakes in winter time people cut ice and make little pools for “seals” (people who like to swim in winter), she explained. “At a bigger lake there is a special house where “seals” can change clothes after swimming. This “bath” is also used for Baptism day (the Epiphany).
When I go skiing I sometimes watch people taking winter bath. They are only few people and I can recognize them.”
Irina participated in a “ New Year celebration that was grandiose. Big fireworks in Red Square, concerts and shows on open stages in central streets of Moscow, a lot of lights and decorations and people everywhere. For the first time public transportation was working 24 hours on Jan.1. I was getting home by metro with my middle son at 3 am from my parents. I was surprised to see how busy it was. A lot of men were wearing red Father Frost’s hoods which looked funny. Some cheerful young people were greeting everybody and saying “Happy New Year!” On our carriage there were two drunk men, though friendly. They were offering sweets to passengers and suggested dnking with them. A lot of police everywhere for additional security. Also there were many people in the streets, whole families with children. Many were doing fireworks. Busses were operating frequently than in the working days. So we got home successfully.”
Through Irina’s eyes, I received the impression of January centering around religious holidays. “We celebrated Russian Orthodox Christmas on Jan, 7,” she explained. “On Jan,6-8 it was the coldest weather, about -30 C. On Christmas Eve, my cousin went with us to the night service at my church. It started at 21.30 (9:30 p.m.) on Jan.6 and lasted till 2 am (again the transport was working longer). It was magnificent and the chorus was amazing. The church was so busy that people who came later could hardly fit inside. All churches were doing the service and at 2 in the morning one could hear hundreds of bells ringing. Thousands of people went to different churches on that night. And it was the coldest night, about -33 C. It reminded me of my childhood when winters were much colder than now. Our long winter days finished on Jan.9. But there were more holidays approaching.”
The Russian Orthodox Church follows the Julian or Old New Year calendar. “Traditionally we celebrate it on Jan., 13 -14,” Irina said. “This tradition appeared at the beginning of the 20th century when the calendar shifted two weeks forward. As Russian Orthodox Church continued to celebrate Christmas according to the old style calendar, Russian people got the chance for another New Year holiday after Christmas. It is not an official day off. But all TV channels repeat their New Year concerts for the Old New Year night. Again people have a special late dinner and do fireworks outdoors
“Very soon after that Baptism Day came on Jan.19. Baptism Day (Epiphany), Jan. 19th, is a remarkable church holiday. Thousands of believers all over Russia take winter baths in icy cold water during the midnight service, when priests come to frozen rivers and lakes to bless believers. Local authorities prepare special places for this ceremony. They cut ice on the rivers (sometimes in a cross shape) and make wooden stairs and banisters for safety. Rescue and medical teams are on duty in the night on Jan, 18-19. I don’t dare to participate in this ceremony so far. But my mother’s friend has been doing it regularly. Once it was -25 C and when she got out of water all her hair was immediately covered with ice. This year the Baptism night was not very cold, about -10 -13 C in Moscow. Over 60 thousand people took part in the ceremony. Thousands of people also came to churches for the big and beautiful service on Jan.19.”
Irina enjoyed “the day of St. Tatyana. It is a major student’s holiday. This transition appeared in the 18th century. The Russian empress Elisabeth, daughter of Peter the Great issued the Decree on foundation of the Muscow State University on Jan.25 in 1755. January, 25th is the day of the early Christian martyr Tatyana. In such a way she became the holy patron on all Russian students. They have just started their holidays after winter exams. All over Russia students had parties and concerts and sport competitions. They were held in public parks where people were offered a traditional Russian drink “medovukha” made with honey. The rector of the Moscow State University has invented his own recipe of this drink. Students and also all women called Tatyana (it is a very popular name in Russia) were allowed to visit skating rinks in Moscow free of charge.” An enjoyable world in winter Moscow unfolded through my friend Irina.