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Beware the Eighth of March

April 2, 1997

Russians take their holidays seriously. Preprinted greeting cards don't pass muster; personal congratulations are in order, as are gifts, flowers for the women, and, of course, vodka. An unwritten code governs the felicitations and merrymaking, and little is left to chance. Take the eighth of March -- International Women's Day, one of the biggest holidays of the year here. It is the day on which Russian men honor the women in their lives -- be they mothers, girlfriends, wives, or friends -- in what may best be described as formulaic units.

I pick up the phone and dial Zalya's number. She answers -- "Allo?" -- and because this is the eighth of March she waits for me to begin my recitation, which I have not so much memorized on purpose as learned by sheer dint of repetition.

"Dear Zalya, I congratulate you on the occasion of Women's Day. I wish you love, prosperity, happiness."

"Thank you, Dzheff."

"May all your dreams come true. May you always stay as beautiful and as young-looking as you are today."

"Oh, thank you, Dzheff!"

The conversation ends with mutual do svidaniyas. I move on to the next on my list, and no doubt Zalya's phone is already ringing with the next congratulations; in Russia, no male -- foreign or Russian -- should forget to congratulate every woman he knows, lest he risk giving offense. Nor should he forget to present the important women in his life with flowers wrapped in tinselly paper. I look out my window: up and down the slushy sidewalks of Tverskaya Street stroll women with their bouquets, showing in floral splendor that they are loved and respected at least one day of the year.

After congratulations, Russians -- mainly men -- move straight to the core activity of any holiday in the Motherland: hard drinking. Beer and wine would be laughed off the shelves of any respectable wassailer, and mixed drinks would elicit hoots of derision: straight vodka is the sine qua non of the zastol'ye, or table spread. Friends gather around living-room tables covered with all manner of zakuski (often translated as the dainty Gallic "hors d'oeuvres," although the lowbrow Russian term denotes only something to chomp on after a bitter swill of vodka).

Formulaic units of expression come into play here as well: one drinks only after offering a toast. Standing at the table, glass raised, one is called upon to eulogize, in almost Homeric fashion, the women present, the host, the homeland, the Orthodox faith. To elicit wry smiles one might toast Soviet-style to "peace and friendship between peoples." But one must toast, or wait for a toast, before tippling; freelance boozing as is common in the West is considered ungracious. Even more importantly, one must drink to the dregs. Unpardonable offense may result if a glass is lowered half-full, especially if drinking to the health of someone at the table.

To shun participation in this drinking ritual likewise gives offense: teetotalers are viewed as holding themselves aloof from the bacchanalia and may shame the revelers. About the only acceptable excuse for abstaining is having to drive home; any alcohol in the blood is too much by Russian law, and penalties are severe for violators.

A certain amount of depravity has its place during the course of the evening. The boom box blasts out Russian pop, the television roars at full volume, the inebriated strut their stuff, boogeying away on makeshift dance floors. An atmosphere of abandon comes to reign, and fights may break out between the men. Vodka releases torrents of testosterone and undams the anger and frustration that are so much a part of life in Russia. If blows are exchanged, however, combatants rarely hold grudges the next day: "I was drunk" excuses the bloody nose or black eye, and real men always forgive.

Women drink too, but less (even on their own holiday), if only because hoisting drunken husbands off the floor and cleaning up after them is easier to do with a clear head and settled stomach. When I question women friends here about how much they really enjoy the eighth of March, given all the mopping up required of them afterwards, they usually look wistfully at their bouquets, then at their besotted Pashas or Sashas, and say, "Men are just big children. They have to be looked after." In Russia, tolerance is at the heart of not only a happy holiday but also a happy marriage.

Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. He has recently written on Siberia and Zaire for The Atlantic Monthly.

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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