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This Month in History

This Month in History

December 10, 1904: Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov is awarded a Nobel Prize.

December 13, 1833: The new Russian national anthem is publicly performed for the first time.

Although it was his research into the nerves of the heart that earned Pavlov his Nobel Prize, he is best known for his work in behavioral reflexes and conditioning. Pavlov’s studied the relationship between salivation and digestion, most famously through a series of experiments with dogs. By exposing the animals to a variety of visual, aural, and tactile stimuli just before feeding, he found that the dogs began to salivate merely upon sensing the stimulus even when food was not present. He described this phenomenon as a “conditioned reflex,” in contrast to an innate reflex (such as a sneeze or yawn), which cannot be controlled. This concept has been highly influential in a variety of scientific fields as well as in popular culture. The conditioned reflex can also be regularly observed among members of Passport’s editorial staff who, late at night before a deadline, have been known to start drooling at the mere mention of ordering out for pizza.

The audience at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater heard the first public performance of the new state hymn, “A Prayer for the Russian Nation,” often known as “God Save the Tsar,” after the first line of the lyrics. During the time of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, various musical compositions had been used as a national anthem, but it was not until Tsar Nicholas I issued an edict calling for the composition of a national anthem that the gap was offi cially filled. After 1917, the Internationale was often used as the Soviet anthem until a new one, with music by Alexander Alexandrov and lyrics by Sergei Mikhalkov (father of the noted film actor and director Nikita Mikhalkov), was adopted in 1943. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the melody of the Soviet anthem was rejected but eventually resurrected a decade later, with new post-Soviet lyrics, also composed by Mikhalkov.

December 15, 1699: Peter I declares that Russia will begin observing the Julian calendar. December 17, 1547: Ivan IV takes the title of “tsar.” 

The 12-month Julian calendar was developed during the reign or Julius Caesar and adopted by Rome in 46 B.C. and spread throughout the Roman world. It was adopted by Peter the Great as a Westernizing reform, coming into effect on January 1, 1700, and is still used by the Russian Orthodox Church today. Before Peter’s adoption of the Julian calendar, Russia used the ancient lunar-based Slavic calendar, which marked time through a cycle of seasonal festivals. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the Julian calendar runs 12 days behind the Gregorian, which is why Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on the Gregorian January 7 (December 25 according to the Julian calendar) and “Old New Year” is celebrated on the Gregorian January 12. Russia adopted the Gregorian calendar in early 1918 by decree of the Bolshevik Council of People’s Commissars. In that year Wednesday, January 31 was followed by Thursday, February 14.

The reign of Grand Prince Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible, is widely credited with administrative changes and military conquests that enabled the Muscovite state emerge as a power in the region, a precursor to the modern empire established by Peter the Great. In recognition of this political and geographical unification, which included the expansion of Ivan’s rule as far as Kazan and Astrakhan across much of Siberia, Ivan traded in his title of grand prince and adopted the new executive title of tsar. The Slavic term, which is derived from the Latin “Caesar” and related to the English “chancellor” and the German “Kaiser,” came to be associated with the Russian monarch until the monarchy’s demise in 1917. However, it continues to connote absolute power.

December 18, 1892: Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker premieres. December 20, 1935: The Hotel Moskva opens in Moscow.

The score of the ballet, which is based on the story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by the German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann, was first presented to an audience in March 1892. In December of that year, the ballet was presented as a double premiere together with Tchaikovsky’s Iolanth at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. With its child-centered story of Clara, who receives a nutcracker as a Christmas gift and dreams about it coming to life and turning into a prince, the ballet has become a perennial favorite and the music universally familiar.

Considered a prime example of Stalinist architecture, the 14-story hotel featured lavish decoration by notable Soviet artists of the day. Located along Okhotny Ryad (then called Prospekt Marksa) between Red Square and what is now the State Duma of the Russian Federation, it was known for the views from its top floor as well as its four facades in different architectural styles. The (perhaps apocryphal) story behind this variety was that four alternative designs were submitted to Stalin. When instead of selecting one he simply signed the page, indicating approval of them all, the architects were too afraid to ask for clarification and decided to incorporate all four. The hotel was demolished in 2004 (the original facade was preserved) and replaced with a modern replica that is now near completion and scheduled to open in 2009 as a Four Seasons hotel. The image of the original Hotel Moskva survives today as part of the logo on bottles of Stolichnaya vodka.

December 26, 1825: The Decembrist uprising occurs in St. Petersburg.

When Nicholas I assumed the thrown after the sudden death of his father, Alexander I, a group of liberal-minded army officers led a revolt in protest. Forces loyal to Nicholas defeated the revolutionaries, who were captured and convicted. Some were condemned to death and others were exiled to Siberia, where many Decembrists’ wives accompanied their husbands. Although the absolutist Russian monarchy would survive for many decades and progressive Russians would have to wait years for the reforms the Decembrists had clamored for, those who participated in the rebellion became a symbol of resistance to autocracy and heroes to reformers both in their own time and for generations to come. Alexander Pushkin wrote poems honoring the Decembrists, and such infl uential Russian liberal intellectuals as Alexander Herzen were inspired by them. In the Soviet period, the Decembrists were viewed as the forebears of the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary efforts.

December 31, 1991: The Soviet Union is officially dissolved.

After the August 1991 coup by hardliners failed to unseat the reformist General Secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev, it was clear that the path of reform was irreversible and the Soviet republics began succeeding or seeking to renegotiate their relationship with the federal government. On December 8, the presidents of the republics of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus signed an accord dissolving the Soviet Union and establishing the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) in its place. On December 25, Gorbachev resigned from the office of president of the USSR and dissolved the post, turning power over to Boris Yeltsin, then president of Russia. The next day, the Surpeme Soviet, the USSR’s highest body, voted to dissolve itself and the country, effective the last day of the year. Thus the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which had been established on December 30, 1922, met its demise, just one day short of its 69th birthday.

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