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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Irrepressible Spirit of New Year's

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For the first time in history, Russians woke up to the new year in a country run by representatives of the KGB. Yet what should have made my fellow citizens' blood run cold (as it did in the weeks preceding and will in the days to come) didn't dampen the New Year's celebration one bit. Nothing ever has, as far as I can remember.

Russians gathered at family dinner tables massed with delicious homemade food, miraculously of the same quantity as during the Soviet era when goods in the stores were scarce and when Russians spent months collecting the necessary ingredients for the feast. Russians raised their glasses and popped open the champagne to toast the first minute of the new year with a loud hurray. They decorated trees and watched nonsensical and silly television shows as a musical accompaniment to the party. In short, they did everything that manifests the most sacred, the most eagerly awaited and the most religiously observed holiday in the country. It was the same when I was a child, the same when I became a mom, the same when I was widowed, and the same now that my daughter is about to go to college.

The way New Year's is celebrated is the key, I believe, to understanding the Russian psyche and the nation's skill at surviving against all odds. Regardless of how bad the past year was, or maybe because the past year was bad, despite rational expectations of what the coming year will inevitably bring, there are those few hours of New Year's Eve that twist the mind and make Russians believe that happiness is real and present and that it will last, at least until dawn. New Year's Eve is a manifestation of the Russian art of internal exile from the omnipotent state and the corrupt government. New Year's is Russians' Prozac, the collective one-shot cure for an everlasting nationwide depression. It is a pagan holiday without idols. It is a way of saying the f-word to the things Russians believe they can't control, and to those they can but don't dare to. When questioned by pollsters, 97 percent of Russians said they were going to celebrate New Year's Eve, as opposed to 10 percent who celebrate Western Christmas and 71 percent who celebrate Orthodox Christmas. Yet I don't know a single one of my church-going Orthodox friends who didn't violate the required strict fast that precedes the Jan. 7 Christmas holiday but overlaps with New Year's. The latter wins. Nothing can beat New Year's Eve, and nothing can stop a feast, the one and only holiday that unites an otherwise ideologically, religiously and ethnically divided nation.

Over the past decade, I happened to find myself in different countries and in various settings on New Year's Eve. I spent New Year's in Washington and in Park City, Utah, in the United States, in Eilat in Israel, and at a ski resort in Austria. Whether I was surrounded by strangers or by my best friends, it never felt the same as celebrating New Year's Eve in Russia. I felt almost sad, out of place. I felt something was missing that made New Year's in Russia the real thing. Nothing is truly comparable to this Russian holiday based on unfounded expectations and ungrounded hopes culminating in one night of absolute happiness. Sure, it says a lot about the immaturity of the nation and its fatalistic approach to the future, in which someday, somehow something good might happen. But there is something else to it as well: Regardless of who is sitting in the Kremlin and how much authorities have ruthless power over peoples' lives, there is one thing they can't control. They can't stop New Year's from coming, never have and never will. And this is something truly worth celebrating. And perhaps this is why, following tradition, there will be yet another New Year's celebration on Jan. 13 in accordance with the pre-1917 calendar.

Yevgenia Albats is a professor of political science at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics.