The 23rd of February, officially called the Defenders of the Fatherland Day and unofficially Men’s Day, is one of the most special and controversial holidays in Russia. For many years during the Soviet Union it was a holiday with political and military meaning. In the early nineties it finally became just a public holiday, although it still has military overtones. Let’s examine how this Soviet military holiday turned into Men’s Day and what it means for Russians.
Text by Elena Krivovyaz
There is a two-week gap between the 8th of March, Women’s Day, and the 23rd of February. Women’s Day is the older of the two holidays. Many of us have heard about the brave female socialist Klara Zetkin, who founded International Women’s Day in 1910 in Copenhagen. Thus, for many years there was a Women’s Day (it had a strong political sense, as well), but no Men’s Day. The story of the 23rd of February began in 1918, and it was stated later in Soviet archives, this day should “commemorate the victory of the Red Army over the Germans in the fight near Pskov”. But surprisingly, if we look up Soviet newspapers dated 23rd and 24th of February 1918, there is no coverage of any such a victory. Strange. Anyway, the holiday was named as the birthday of the Red Army in 1918, and then renamed in 1922 Red Army Day (Den’ Krasnoi Armii). In 1949 it was renamed into Soviet Army and Navy Day (Den’ Sovetskoi Armii i Voenno-Morskogo Flota). The military and political meaning was explicit.
There was a tradition of greeting military men with this holiday by giving them presents and postcards. Postcards were cheap and readily available, and you could show some individuality by choosing this or that design. The 23rd of February postcards represented young and valiant soldiers, sailors and tankmen, who seem to be very proud of their war exploits. The cards usually bore the slogan: “Glory to the Soviet Army!” Special Soviet eau-de-cologne such as such as Shipr or Troinoi Odekolon (Triple eau-de-Cologne) was also available, sometimes, in the fifties and later on, to give as presents.
Brave members of the Soviet Army adorned the labels of the eau-de-cologne bottles. Men sometimes consumed their perfume in a very direct way: by mouth, as eau-de-cologne usually contained 70% alcohol, not exactly a replacement for vodka, but drinkable when desperate for a drink despite the heavy after-effects.
From the 1960s onwards, the tradition of greeting all men, whether or not they were serving in the armed forces, began. After all, many men complained that Soviet women had their official holiday but the men didn’t have theirs, a complaint that is also heard today. This injustice was sort of fixed and gradually this military holiday turned into a civic one. Soviet citizens celebrated it at school and at work. Certainly, the veterans of the Great Patriotic War and (later in the 1970s and 1980s) participants of Afghanistan War were honoured. As a rule, parades and demonstrations were held on that day.
These demonstrations were not as pompous and massive as those on the 1st and 9th of May, but the majority of citizens had to make their lives fit in with these events. A special military parade was held in Red Square and it was always broadcast on TV. Factory workers and the so-called ‘working class’ were encouraged to take part. The bosses of those who refused to participate sometimes got into trouble. Be that as it may, many former soviet citizens fondly remember this holiday and liked the way it was celebrated. All schoolboys hung a red ribbon on their breast pocket and wore it the whole day. Later, in the 1990s, this tradition was transferred to the 9th of May (Victory Day) celebrations, when yellow-black striped ribbons seemed to be almost everywhere and on everybody, a tradition alive today.
For many years, including the last few decades of the Soviet Union, Soviet Army Day had not been a day-off. In 2002 the Russian President signed a decree making it just that. So the number of days off in the Russian calendar was increased by yet another day.
In 1993, two years after the fall of the Soviet Union, this holiday changed its name once more. Currently it is called Defenders of the Fatherland Day. Though it seems to be a reminder of the Soviet past, this holiday is still celebrated with parades and processions in honour of war veterans. Schoolgirls traditionally give their boyfriends small presents (toys, books, etc) something that their older counterparts do at the work-place. Though eau-de-cologne is almost forgotten, that present has been replaced by shaving appliances and shaving foam. Some people still argue whether they should congratulate civilians on this holiday, or reserve their kind words to military men.
This holiday was celebrated throughout the former Soviet Union, but now it’s up to each CIS government to decide whether to celebrate it or not. In Tajikistan, the holiday is known as Tajik National Army Day. Reportedly, in Chechnya and Ingushetia this holiday is not celebrated, because February 23, 1944 is the date of mass deportations of Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia.
So whether you congratulate your man or not is your choice: it is reasonable to congratulate older men, but you are not obliged to greet teenagers who simply love the holiday because it’s another day off school. Nowadays February 23rd is commonly known as Men’s Day. You can give Russian men shaving accessories or shaving foam. But maybe it would be better to give them after-shave, or deodorant (but for God’s sake, not eau-de-cologne!). It is not prohibited to give flowers to a man on this day, especially if he is a veteran. This is in fact the only day in the year when it is normal to give flowers to males, although not every man will accept them with understanding. This all seems to be very complicated, but it is one of the most significant Russian holidays.