Will you still be sending me a Valentine?
A valentine’ was a big question mark for me when I was studying at a Russian secondary school in the mid-70’s. I went to the famous English language school #17 in Moscow. We were all crazy about the Beatles, but what was ‘a valentine’, which one was supposed to send (or receive, for that matter)? Back then nobody could answer this question (there was a text about American holidays in our text book, but that didn’t help much). Today some of my school mates have become contemporary history-makers – outstanding bankers and politicians. Should I write a Valentine to Alexander Lebedev, head of the NRB bank and a deputy of Gosduma, or Alexander Mamut, ex-head of the MDM bank and the current head of Troika Dialog saying: "Remember our school #17?"
Now what ‘a valentine’ means is perfectly clear – this is a little card, usually in the form of a heart, which you send to your sweet-heart on St. Valentine's Day as a sign of your affection.
Interesting is the pre-history of this holiday. St. Valentine himself was a priest in Rome in the third century AD. He wedded young couples in love, whose parents were against their marriage for various reasons. Thus he was one of the first representatives of the church supporting happiness, and not a marriage within a clan or a marriage of convenience. When his underground activity was discovered St. Valentine was burnt at stake – that happened on February 14, AD. c 270. Later he was cannonized (by sweet hearts?) and the day of his execution became The Day of All the Sweet-Hearts, or The Day of All Those in Love, or The Day of All Lovers.
Most ex-pats celebrate this holiday in the traditional way – sending each other Valentines, flowers (although there is no Interflora in Moscow, there is a flower sending service) and having festive lunches and dinners at home or in restaurants. Those who are married to Russians (especially men) complain about the doubled and extra festival – they have to celebrate St. Valentine's, then the 8th of March, Mothers' Day, Fathers' Day, Catholic X-mas, Russian Orthdox X-mas, etc.
But what about Russians? This holiday is new here – not more than 10 years old, but within this short period it has been semi-adopted. In my green years, young Romeos and Juliets used to write such confessions by hand on the walls of appartment blocks' entrances or right on the pavement in front of their sweet-hearts' houses. I remember erasing not one of such statements next to and in front of my front door. But today the young order congratulations by a humorist who tells jokes in the Arbat for money and he does it in front of everybody – so, the psychology has changed, although the hand-written confessions still have their place.
Even school children are getting into this holiday; called in Russian ‘Valentinka’. A couple of years ago my nephew, aged 9, wrote a valentinka to a girl in his class saying: "Ëåðêà, òû çíàåøü. Ïðèçíàâàéñÿ ñêîðåé".
Older people aren’t so much into the mystery of receiving ‘anonymous’ cards, as into receiving and giving flowers, taking their partners to a restaurant. After all, St. Valentines is a holiday to be celebrated in public, unlike family-oriented New Year, and many restaurants have special menus for the evening. This may be followed by doing something exotic/erotic in a nice hotel room...
Young people in this country of extremes, may celebrate St. Valentine's – climbing a mountain, the two of them or in a company. Some even do a parachute jump, together, or fly paraplanes. Those who don't have that much money just order songs for each other on the radio, or congratulations on TV. Others order a running line saying "Masha! I love you. Sasha" in Pushkin Square from their mobiles.
Bikers get on their motobikes with their girl-friends to go and paint the town red on a St. Valentine's ride. By the way, they are called Night Wolves, the nickname of their leader is Khirurg (Surgeon), they have their own military-like hierarchy, their own charter, codex of rules, signs of distinctions, and rallying cry: ‘Are you going to live for ever?’
If you can think of anything better to do on St. Valentines day, you will introduce a new way of celebrating St. Valentine's in the new Russia, a country which has always been between East and West, being neither the Ageing Europe, nor the Mysterious Orient, taking a lot of Western and Eastern traditions and things, but understanding and practicing them in its own extraordinary way.