Celebrating the New Year’s Eve in Belarus: The Russians are Coming
Traditionally, Belarusians celebrated Christmas as a part of Kaliady – a two week long pagan holiday of winter solstice. However, today most Belarusians celebrate New Year's Eve as their main winter holiday.
This tradition comes from Soviet times, when communists rejected the sacred sense of Christmas time. New Year's eve celebrations in post-Soviet lands remains closely linked to feasts of food, consumption of alcohol and fireworks.
Belarusian authorities organise most celebrations that take place in public places and enforce tough security measures. Many people are adverse to these conditions and prefer to stay at home, while others go abroad to celebrate the New Year, western style.
Meanwhile, thousands of foreign tourists come to Belarus for the holiday, most of them being Russian. Here, they escape from Moscow's hustle and bustle and enjoy lower prices, organic food and plenty of Soviet nostalgia.
Traditional Kaliady vs. the Soviet New Year
In Belarus, Orthodox believers celebrate Christmas on 7 January in accordance with the Julian calendar, whereas Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas on 25 December, using the Gregorian calendar. Traditionally, Belarusians celebrated Christmas over a two week stretch, a period traditionally called Kaliady, it is a fusion of the Christian holiday of Christmas and the pagan holiday of winter solstice.
The day before Christmas is called Kućcia, from the name of the ritual barley dish. That evening, a family would have a certain number of other dishes on the table, all of them Lenten in character — in other words, dishes without meat. When sitting at the table, the family's eldest member called upon the spirits of their family ancestors as well as the god of frost to join their celebration and give good favour to their household.
The most joyous aspect of Kaliady for kids was them taking to the streets for a loud, ruckus stroll around their town or village, wearing handmade costumes and masks, singing ritual songs, wishing the families health and a good harvest in the coming year. In return, they would ask for a gift of food, drink and/or money.
While the traditional Kaliady celebration exists in some villages even now and enthusiasts are trying to revive it in nation's cities, the Soviet tradition has made long inroads and its winter celebration is much more widespread. The Soviet atheist empire rejected any kind of sacred religious holidays and firmly entrenched New Year's Day at the centre of the year's festivities. As a result, today throughout the former Soviet Union New Year's Day plays the same role as Christmas in the west.
Happy residents and nervous authorities
As perhaps anywhere else during Christmas time, in Belarus people hurry to buy presents for their friends and relatives. Christmas tree markets pop up everywhere, and Belarusians often are greeted in public transportation, various shops and other organisations with well wishes from local authorities in the form of posters.
For Belarusians, an abundant, overflowing New Year's Eve table is a must. People tend to eat and drink a great deal, even excessively, and are prone to cooking a great number of dishes for the night's festivities. Among them one will find the omnipresent champagne, tangerines and Olivier salad which is made out of potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise and ham.
Before midnight, people watch the president’s New Year's address to the country and at midnight people drink champagne and set off fireworks. Most people start drinking long before midnight, and by midnight are already in quite a fine state. Others, who drink less actively, set off fireworks, give and receive presents and often go out on the town.
The ocal authorities usually set a large New Year's tree, which resembles a Christmas tree in many regards, in every district of the city for people to gather around after midnight. In Minsk alone there were 27 sites designated for the masses to celebrate the end of 2012.
There, state-organised performances usually take place, with Father Frost, a type of Soviet Santa Claus, and singers and dancers. However, it has become more difficult for people to celebrate outdoors, as security measures and police control has become rather burdensome in recent years.
After the terrorist act of 2011 the authorities became very nervous of any kind of event where a large group of people would be gathered. At all of the main sites, the police will place a turnstile in order enable them to check people one-by-one. Many of the more drunk citizens were prevented from joining the public celebrations and turned back by the police. For security reasons, only half-litre bottles of liquid are allowed. Animals are also prohibited from being brought in to the officially designated celebratory space.
Even during Christmas celebrations at churches, policemen have become a fixture. They control people's movement and even try to spread them throughout the interior of a church in order to prevent a stampede.
These measures persuaded many that it is better to stay at home, as soberly walking through the turnstiles does not look like all that much fun on New Year's Eve. For many Belarusians, celebrating at home seems to be rather boring and after a large feast, they want to go out to meet their compatriots in welcoming in the new year.
It becomes increasingly popular among Belarusians to celebrate the New Year abroad, especially in their own neighbourhood: Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic or Lithuania. Here people find a different, more Western style of celebrating the New Year. Meanwhile, people from other countries, especially from Russia, prefer to celebrate the holiday in Belarus.
Russians Celebrate New Year in Belarus
This year, Minsk offers New Year's Day tours for foreigners for $440, with around a hundred different excursions made available. According to official information, ten thousand tourists will come to Minsk for organised tours, most of them Russians.
However, it is impossible to estimate the precise number of Russians that come to Belarus to celebrate New Year since border control and monitoring do not exist. However, as tourist agencies claim, all hotels, hostels and flats for short-term rental were full in Minsk at the end of December.
Meanwhile, the Russian ambassador to Belarus Aleksandr Surikov stated in an interview that over a million Russians would come to Belarus for this New Year's Eve. It remains unclear where Surikov got his hands on these numbers, but Belarus seems really attractive for Russians as a New Year's Eve destination, and not only its hotels but also vacation houses and even agro-tourism farms were flooded with Russians tourists.
Unlike tourists from the European Union and North America that need visas, Russian visitors benefit from visa-free travel to Belarus.
They come to Belarus to try to escape from the New Year's Eve fuss of Russian megalopolises, and find low prices, better quality food, and a type of Soviet oasis with other more authentic traditions as well. “The Russians are astonished that we are not afraid to let our children out to play alone outside, everything is clean and groomed and the people are nice”, the owner of one agro-tourism farmhouse explains.
Top 10 Belarus Civil Society Achievements in 2013
Top 10 activities and achievements, which in enriched Belarusian civil society in 2013.
Advocacy of the Year: Perspectiva NGO
Perspectiva, a small vendors association headed by Anatoly Shumchanka managed to postpone, until 1 July 2014, a complex procedure of certification to confirm the quality and safety of products in accordance with Customs Union regulation. Its advocacy efforts included series of appeals, meetings with officials as well as mass strikes due to which the voice of 230,000 small entrepreneurs was heard by the authorities.
“Belarusization” of the Year: Mova ci Kava courses
Organised at the beginning of 2013 by journalist Katerina Kibalchich first in Moscow, then picked up in Minsk, free educational courses Mova ci Kava (Language or Coffee) caused a real stir among Minsk residents. Weekly classes designed for people who want to improve their Belarusian language are attended by up to 120 students. The courses are conducted in an informal manner and are bolstered by inviting well-known Belarusian cultural figures.
Research of the Year: BEROC and CASE Belarus
Two researches are nominated in this category with Growth Factors of the Economy of Belarus by BEROC and The influence of Migrants' Money Transfers on Macroeconomic Indicators of Belarus by CASE Belarus winning for their respective analytical reports. The primary reasons for both organisations being awarded the title are their proven methodology, concrete recommendations and communication/outreach efforts to policy-makers and the general public. They collected respectively 128 thousands viewers/474 comments and 193 thousands viewers/346 comments on TUT.by.
Environmental Save of the Year: In Defense of Belarusian wetlands campaign
Implemented by a number of environmental CSOs, the campaign managed to stop peat mining in protected areas and save four wetlands. Using a wide range of tools (information campaign, support of other CSOs and unaffiliated people, creative actions, etc.), the campaign got support even from institutions and people far from environmental issues.
Local Fundraising of the Year: MaeSens project
For the second time in a row Pact sees the MaeSens project as a successful local fundraising initiative. There are two main reasons for this selection: i) reportedly about $250 thousand of private donations were collected for charity; ii) a new initiative Social Weekend was introduced this year giving average people a voice to select and vote for the best grassroots initiatives out there. Under Social Weekend more than 100 grassroots initiatives were competing for local sponsors’ support based on people’s choice and a public benefit criteria.
Grassroots of the Year: European Perspective NGO
The European Perspective NGO gave a voice to people who opposed government-backed construction projects in Minsk that affect over 200,000 people. Seven local advocacy campaigns resulted in citizens’ self-organising into groups of interest who are able to act independently, protecting their properties' from construction work and articulating their interests via a series of self-initiated public hearings. President Lukashenka reacted with a recommendation for authorities to conduct a more balanced urban policy.
Innovation of the Year: Kosht Urada
Kosht Urada (Cost of the State) an interactive on-line resource was launched on December 10, 2013 by the Belarusian Institute of Public Administration Reform and Transformation (BIPART). Kosht Urada serves to every citizen promoting accountability of the government and transparency of state spending as well as educating general public on how state budget is formed, how much taxes citizen spend on the state and where citizen’s taxes go. In the first day of operating Kosht Urada was visited by more than 8000 visitors also the project received considerable media coverage (here, here and here).
Art Project of the Year: Must Act – Must Art street art project
Paid for by local business and coordinated with the Budzma campaign and city administrations, street art community SIGNAL gathered street artists who painted the walls and courtyards in Mogilev and Gomel. Thus, the project visually and brightly promotes civic practises aimed at creating a friendly and humane urban environment.
New Forum of the Year: Kastrychnіtskі Ekanamіchny Forum – KEF
On November 5 Kastrychnіtskі Ekanamіchny Forum (October Economic Forum) was launched by a consortium of leading Belarusian economic research institutions, including the IPM Research Center, BEROC and CASE Belarus, with an inauguration conference entitled New Opportunities or Old Challenges? Scenarios for Belarus Economy. KEF is designed as a new platform for an open professional dialogue on sustainable development in Belarus in the context of the newest development of global economy.
And last but not least….
For something completely different of the Year
With Presidential elections coming up in 2015, the trophy for something completely different goes to the Green Party of Belarus, which suggested in October that an octopus should pick a single candidate from the opposition. The prospective candidates should all take a short swim in a small pool with an octopus, and whoever the octopus touches wins the primaries.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.