Committed atheists and devout Russian Orthodox believers are holding major celebrations on the fourth weekend of April. The tables will be served and speeches said to the spiritual fathers of communism and Christianity. While Russian Communist Party chief Gennadiy Zyuganov will raise his glass to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II will hail the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Russian Orthodox Easter falls on April 23 this year, just one day after Lenin’s birthday. Major Christian and communist milestones also overlapped last year because Easter coincided with May Day, which celebrates workers. It is not a rarity for communists to reach for red flags, as Orthodox believers turn to the icons. Differences in the modern and church calendars are to blame.
In the 16th century, the Russian Orthodox Church kept the Julian Calendar when the Roman Church adopted the amended Gregorian one, which gradually spread throughout the world. As a result, Easter celebrations in Western Christianity rarely coincide with Easter celebrations in the Russian Orthodox Church. They are normally held one to four weeks apart.
Religious Russians with a soft spot for the communist party can consider themselves lucky this year because they can observe Lent and still throw a big party to mark Lenin’s birthday, provided they don’t mind staying up late. The seven weeks of Lent, called Velikiy Post in Russian, started on March 6 this year, so the father of Bolshevism’s birthday is also the last day for believers to abstain from alcohol, meat, milk and eggs.
While the idea of a religious communist may sounds like an oxymoron to Westerners, it is not that uncommon in Russia, the land of contradictions. Even when the iron curtain was tightly drawn around the Soviet Union, many Russians, including high-ranking communist party members, marked Easter at home.
Natalia Golovkina recalls that every member of her family received a personal kulich, a special Easter cake, traditionally backed in the shape of an inverted bucket. “The oldest got the largest kulich, while Kostya [Golovkina’s younger brother] always received the smallest one,” she says.
This bit of personal history does not seem that remarkable, until the setting of such a family tradition is considered. Golovkina was born in 1951, while Joseph Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist. Her mother was a nuclear scientist, which at the time, was a highly sensitive position that carried top-secret status. The family had a housekeeper and nanny, Marusya, who like many young women of that time came to Moscow after World War II. The war devastated her village and killed most local men, including her husband, so she moved to the capital to seek work.
Marusya was in charge of preparing all the meals for the Golovkin family and she cultivated Easter traditions with all the earnestness of a devout rural dweller, despite the politically sensitive position of her employer and an anti-religious attitude of the times. “She would always plant oats a few days before Easter and decorate the table with the green sprouts, set next to the kulich cakes,” Golovkina recalls. While not a very widespread tradition brought by Marusya from her native village, the first green shoots were meant to symbolize rebirth and celebrate life during the Easter meal.
Church services, however, were not part of the Golovkin family’s Easter celebrations. Orthodox church services were held all throughout the Soviet years, but attendance was discouraged, as it was portrayed as a backward remnant of a bygone era.
Today, religion is back in vogue. Moscow’s most expensive and stylish restaurants are offering special menus for Lent, and former KGB officer and current President of Russia Vladimir Putin is often seen lighting candles at televised Russian Orthodox services. Another reemerging tradition is getting married on the first Sunday after Easter, called Krasnaya Gorka. Marriages sealed on this date are thought to be blessed, so couples line up for months in advance to receive their marriage licenses on Krasnaya Gorka.