Paul Goncharoff

Saturday morning in Moscow, sunny and bright with the temperature at a brisk minus eleven degrees. For some reason I had lasagna on my mind and looking in the kitchen cupboard saw there was no garlic, oregano, not even basil! So off to the farmers market down the street with roubles jingling in my pocket, as the market does not take credit cards.

A large, gregarious grey haired woman from Georgia lorded over her booth that exclusively sells spices, and she greeted me with a high five reserved for more or less regular customers. The selection of spices was as always impressive, both fresh and dried. I selected what I needed peeling off three hundred roubles when she stopped me, and with a smile said “take it in good health; it is my gift to you as today is your holiday”. She meant it, pushing away my rouble proffered hand.

I quickly thanked her and being a native New Yorker didn’t protest for one second thinking to myself what a fine loyalty program she just cooked up. Then it hit me as I passed a booth selling wrapping paper, ribbons and gift stuff, on the front row were cards emblazoned with congratulations since February 23 is when Russia celebrates its Day of the Defender of the Fatherland. It did cross my mind to return to the spice booth and come clean, but then again I thought why spoil her generous disposition.

Like anywhere else, if a holiday falls on a weekend its impact is less than if it comes on a weekday yet the spice lady was on the ball even at 9:30 am.

The history of this holiday originated in the days of the Soviet Union and was celebrated as a national holiday known as the “Day of the Soviet Army and Navy”. After the USSR collapsed, the holiday continues to be celebrated in a number of CIS countries. Today it is known officially in Russia as the “Day of Defender of the Fatherland”, but in a broader unofficial way, it is now generally celebrated simply as men’s day since the duty for all men traditionally is to defend their homes and country.

The history of the holiday dates back to January 1918. On this day, against the backdrop of the ongoing World War I in Europe and civil war here in Russia, the Council of People’s Commissars (the actual government of then Soviet Russia), headed by its chairman Vladimir Lenin, adopted the Decree on the organization of the Workers ‘and Peasants’ Red Army.

In the first days of January 1919, the Soviet authorities remembered the approaching first anniversary of the organization of the Red Army. Then the initiative to celebrate the first anniversary of the Red Army took over the Moscow City Council. On January 24, 1919, it was decided to time these celebrations with the Day of the Red Gift (something like war bonds). Therefore, the Day of the red gift and the Day of the Red Army, dedicated to it, was first celebrated on February 23 1919.

Later, by order of the USSR people’s commissar of defense dated February 23, 1942, the wording was changed: “The young detachments of the Red Army, who first entered the war, utterly defeated the German invaders near Pskov and Narva on February 23, 1918”. That is why the day of February 23 was declared the day the birth of the Red Army.

In 1951, the last interpretation of the holiday appeared. In “The History of the Civil War in the USSR” it was stated that in 1919 the first anniversary of the Red Army was celebrated “on a memorable day of the mobilization of workers for the defense of the socialist Fatherland, the mass entry of workers into the Red Army, the broad formation of the first detachments and units of the new army.”

So it goes, the country moved on, changes here, tweaks there, yet the core reason for remembrance remains and it is taken seriously and acknowledged by most all Russians as a worthwhile event. With a gift of spices and resulting lasagna, my family and I will certainly raise a toast tonight to commemorate the day.