Their faces smiled from bus stops, from escalators, from sidewalks, a vision of Russian purity alongside the leggy glitz of Sex and the City: The Movie posters. The young groom's arms gently encircled his bride's slender white bodice, their steady gaze suggesting a secret joy known only to the young newlywed. With the historic golden needle of St. Petersburg's Admiralty spire gleaming in the background, they heralded a message more poetic than that of any dubbed popcorn flick. "We choose," their poster proclaimed, "love, family and fidelity."
Until seeing such ads, most Russians had never heard of the Day of Love, Family and Fidelity, a holiday that banners pasted above sidewalks and strung above streets informed them would take place on July 8. Celebrations from Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok included such events as homily plays, pop performances and the presentation of medals to couples married over 25 years. With such displays, the Russian government positioned the holiday's message to young people to tie the knot and start procreating as the cultural keystone of a larger sociopolitical package addressing Russia's current demographic crisis, which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin identified in 2006 as "the gravest problem facing modern Russia."
The holiday was new. But in placing responsibility for the survival of Russian population and identity in the bedrooms of young people, the Russian state was in fact retrofitting an old Soviet narrative. Typically drawn upon in times of transition or upheaval in which leaders relied on the peaceful home life of the 'ideal citizen' for the realization of a more perfect state, this concept posited private and public interests as identical and each citizen's romantic life as a matter of civil duty. But in the post-Soviet, sex-saturated society of today's Russia, the problems of marketing old narratives to a new generation multiply in a familiar disconnect between state edict and real life, as the government attempts to seduce a savvy 21st-century audience with 20th-century moves.
So Long, St. Valentine
Organizers have noted that the holiday offers a Russian alternative to St. Valentine's Day, which the State Duma recently denounced as "inconsistent with Russian cultural values" in a proposal to outlaw its celebration in schools. Beyond its role as a response to an immediate population problem, the holiday's inspiration from the country's Russian Orthodox past places the day more broadly in the revived conservative bent of Putin's Russia, which looks to cues from the country's cultural past to fill the identity vacuum left by the Soviet Union's collapse and rebuild Russian dignity in the face of Western cultural hegemony.
For centuries, July 8 has stood as the feast-day of St. Prince Pyotr and his wife Fevroniya, a canonized couple who died on that same day in 1228 and serve as the guardians of family and sweethearts. The holiday's organizing committee (headed by President Dmitri Medvedev's wife, Svetlana) engineered the feast day's secular repackaging as a response to Russia's current demographic crisis: analysts estimate the country will lose anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of its population by 2050 due to low birth rates and high death rates (especially among working-age males) from factors like alcohol and poverty. However, the revamped holiday retains the full, vocal backing of the Orthodox Church, as seen in a statement of support on the Moscow Patriarchate's official website praising the holiday's response to the country's need for "clear indicators that determine the meaning and role of the inner life of the family."
While promoted as a stand-alone holiday that would assume a yearly place in Russian culture, the Day of Family, Love and Fidelity is part of a bigger cultural and political movement the government heralds as "The Year of the Family." This tour de force combines concrete measures such as financial incentives for mothers having two or more children with cultural coups like the new holiday. The state hopes thus to combat the demographic problems facing a troubled society with the image of a resurgent Russia leading a new generation into a more stable future.
This trend emphasizing conservative family values has given birth to such movements as a 2005 Moscow city hall ad campaign warning that condoms don't offer complete protection and advocating monogamous relationships, and a week in the Krasnodar region when women will be encouraged to have abortions for medical reasons only. Perhaps most colorful is the "Conception Day" holiday inaugurated in 2007 by Governor Sergei Morozov in the Ulyanovsk region, which encourages couples to "give birth to a patriot on Russia Day" by having the day off to procreate on September 12, exactly nine months beforehand. Women patriotic enough to give birth on Russia Day are honored with such material rewards as refrigerators, televisions, and (the grand prize, awarded to the mother judged most respectable by the event's committee) a UAZ Patriot, a Russian SUV model.
Svetlana Medvedeva or Sarah Jessica Parker?
Introducing the "Year of the Family" at its opening ceremony, then-President Putin emphasized the inherent connection between healthy families and a healthy state. The family, he declared, is "where (the young's) eyes are opened and they learn a valuable lesson, namely one that begins with the Motherland," since "it is precisely in the family circle that the very first civil impulses... are felt." In highlighting this connection, Putin have drawn upon a Soviet narrative of appropriate romantic behavior first fashioned by Stalin and expanded by Khrushchev into "Communist morality." In this trope, the private lives of individual couples were invested with the responsibility of carrying out the goals of the ideal Soviet state, returning home from a day of hearty Soviet labor to create industrious children. Soviet leaders often drew upon this narrative in times of transition, such as the 50s and 60s, when Khrushchev sought to rely on the commitment of individual citizens rather than repressive Stalinist controls.
The emphasis Putin and the Moscow Patriarchate place on young people's responsibility to build proper romantic relationships signals a clear embrace of the Communist morality narrative that historian Deborah Field describes in her 1998 essay "Irreconcilable Differences." This concept explains that all members of society were "authorized to monitor and intervene in people's private lives," with everyone charged in enforcing harmonious relations, "eliminating the possibility of internal conflict and ambivalence." New symbols such as the Reconciliation Bench installed in honor of the Day of Love, Family and Fidelity in Moscow--where quarreling couples are physically brought to emotional harmony in public view by the bench's sloping sides--resound with Communist morality's old emphasis on harmony over conflict, reason over emotion, and the role of the whole watchful community in ensuring the individual couples' proper behavior.
However, the problems associated with the Communist morality narrative since the 50s multiply with the narrative's awkward retrofitting to a twenty-first century, post-Perestroika society. In an interview with the Independent, Field noted how Khrushchev's touting of "responsible love" over "irresponsible passion" resulted in "two conflicting discourses: what the state was telling people and what people were being exposed to" in popular culture. Without coercive Stalinist machinery to ensure obedience of these norms, Khrushchev's attempt to impose a reworked Communist morality ended with youth's ultimate refusal to accept its vision of state-geared disinterest in personal emotional life, with serious consequences for their support of Khrushchev's broader aims. In 2008, as Russian teenagers line up to watch Cynthia Nixon discuss bikini waxing on the silver screen, the alternative discourse about sex and individualism is racier and more accessible than ever before, heightening the difficulties first encountered in the Khrushchev era of imposing a heavy-handed narrative on a freethinking populace.
I saved the Motherland and all I got was this lousy t-shirt
The Day of Love, Family and Fidelity's promoters have difficulty escaping the deflated symbolism that history has shown can result from selling cultural dictates to young people from the top down. Today as in the 50s, a rift stretches between those who market the family narrative and those who consume it. The holiday's organizers expressed confidence that the audience at whom the holiday was aimed were successfully captivated. "It's totally obvious that young people support it," Lyudmila Guseva, the head of the city hall department for youth and family policy, told the Moscow Times, citing their commitment to the holiday's stated values.
Although celebrations at St. Petersburg's Peter and Paul Fortress brimmed with squadrons of young people enlisted to pass out free buttons and t-shirts, some young people seemed less engaged with the holiday's message. Irina Korovina, a student living in Saransk, a town near Moscow, told the Independent that to her, the day was "nothing," an event which she and her peers only found out about several days beforehand and which held no special significance. Though some of her friends attended the pop concerts and other events staged in her town, she surmised that the day served more as "one more opportunity to have fun" than as a meaningful event.
Without the life-encompassing strength of old Soviet organizations like the Young Pioneers and the Komsomol, where constant activities filled and defined the young citizen's daily life from earliest childhood, the conservative state messages of the new holiday become lofty ideals that may fail to secure active involvement. Youth movements such as Nashi espouse many of the same ideals of patriotic morality as those the Day of Family, Love and Fidelity promote. Their popularity indicates a willingness on the part of young Russians to engage with the Kremlin's bid at cultural identity through nationalism under the banner of conservative family values. But without offering young people ways to engage with their nation's revamped self-identity that are stronger than a recycled narrative packaged in holiday wrapping, Russia's quest to build a new generation of patriots might leave the state standing at the altar.
You're invited to ring in Conception Day '09 with Joy Neumeyer B '10.