Lauren Chilton, Summer 2019, standing by the largest samovar she could find!

Russia Day: Student Observations

Published: January 12, 2020

Russia Day is celebrated on June 12th. This holiday commemorates the adoption of the 1991 Declaration of Sovereignty of the Russian Federation which declared Russia’s independence from the USSR. However, many Russians are still unaware that this was ever done – and view Russia, instead, as a successor state to the USSR. In accordance with this view, this holiday is generally celebrated simply as show a of patriotism for Russia. There are parades, street festivals, and fireworks.


Where did you go to experience the holiday? What did you see and what did you do there?


Joseph Ernst (St. Petersburg, Summer 2019): For Russia Day, I took the opportunity to get some needed rest and relaxation. I did not have any classes for the holiday, so I was able to get a few hours extra of sleep! Me and some fellow students treated ourselves to a big brunch at Plyushkin House. We then walked over to Anichkov Sad, where we were able to listen to the parade as it went by. Back in the States, I lived on the main road that had all the parades in my town, so it was a cool experience seeing the similarities and differences between a Russian and American parade. I have never really been someone who goes all out to celebrate holidays, so I was more than happy to spend time relaxing with friends. I was very excited for the fireworks, however. Although the banks of the Neva were very crowded, being a part of a crowd when there are massive fireworks going off never gets old!

Lauren Chilton (Moscow, Summer 2019): I went with some Russian peers and other students to the Samovar Festival off of the ВДНХ metro station. We walked past the Cosmonaut Museum and then strolled through a square that commemorates the republics of the Soviet Union. We saw a fountain with gold statues of women dressed in the traditional garb from each republic. Each woman was also holding an example of the main crop of each republic. It was a very beautiful fountain, and the beauty did not end there. We moved past a set of buildings, each built and named for each republic. Then we entered the area where the festival was located. There were games, some kiddy rides, a concert area, and lots of food and souvenirs! My group and I walked around for a bit and sampled the food and listened to the music. The food was amazing. I had some shawarma along with a little cherry pie. The shawarma wrap was made in front of me and was delicious, and the pies were obviously homemade. I was very impressed! Next, we met back up with our Russian peers and we sat at a picnic table and played some games where we practiced the Russian language. We got to know the other Russians in the group, and we also learned a little bit more about what makes a Russian patriotic.

Grace Mappes (Moscow, Summer 2019): I was part of the group who went with Lauren (above) to the Samovar festival, and I really enjoyed my time there. The park at VDNKh was absolutely gorgeous and filled with a pantheon of women representing the countries of the Soviet Union, pavilions showcasing each country’s architecture, colorful fountains that have a tendency to spray water on windy days (I found this out the hard way), and many, many ice cream stands. Primarily, I walked around all the different vending stands specifically set up for the festival and saw some beautifully-crafted pots, statues, clothing, and bags from different corners of Russia, as well as an array of vintage items like cornets, knives, and cameras! Lauren convinced me to try the shawarma and I was not disappointed, and I was surprised by the addition of a few Alcreme stands, where they served alcoholic ice cream! There was also a large live concert that had performances ranging from ethnic singers to more contemporary artists, and there were plenty of rides and bounce houses for the young, but unfortunately not the young-at-heart.

Helen McHenry (Moscow, Summer 2019): My peers and I began Russia Day with our normal five hours of classes (and more than the normal amount of grumbling), and I found it intriguing how eerie our daily routine became when the rest of the city had the day off. There were no jostling people aside on the metro while struggling to keep friends in sight, nor did we pass other classes in session as we trudged up to the fourth floor. Lunch, normally a fairly straightforward affair, became an adventure – as the university cafeteria was closed, we were forced to venture out into the city, discovering a small столовая right across the street. After class, I headed back to the dorms with my classmates, who were planning on journeying into the city center that evening. I made a last second decision to join my program at the Samovar festival, arriving a solid twenty minutes after the meeting time. I would have been perfectly happy to wander around on my own, enjoying the sights – beautiful even on such an overcast day – but a text from Alex alerted me to the fact that my absence had not gone unnoticed. After yet another rendition of “where’s Helen,” I caught up to my friends, who were busy taking pictures in front of an elaborate set of fountains. As I spent this portion of the evening with Lauren and Grace, I have little to add, so suffice it to say that even in Russia, festival air is perfumed with the smell of funnel cakes.

Sam Barrett, (Moscow, Summer 2017): С Днëм России! We took advantage of our day off from classes for the federal holiday. An SRAS student coordinator met us to lead us as group to see some of the major events in the city center. We first went to Red Square where we found a barrage of different exhibits and military vehicles on display. This is a great event to visit if you are interested in Russian history…or if you just want to snag a cool photo of you looking down the barrel of an ex-military tank! Other exhibits allowed us to travel back in time and learn more about various industries in Russia that build the country we know today. We visited the papermaking booth to watch how fibers were turned into parchment. We listened to traditional Russian music, performed live on the various stages throughout Red Square. We then crossed to Hermitage Park, also in central Moscow, for the world’s largest tea party, which they called “Samovar Fest!” Samovar Fest is a huge outdoor tea party with food tables with delicacies from all around Eastern Europe, live musical performances, souvenirs, and an enormous samovar at the center of it all! Attending Samovar Fest was such a fun experience. After a fun day of learning about Russia’s history and trying some new foods, we headed over to the Bolshoy Kamenny Bridge, one of the major bridges that crosses the Moscow River, for some prime firework-viewing seats. Unfortunately, the bridge was still open to automobile traffic, which only left the sidewalk areas available for standing. If you are interested in visiting this spot to watch the fireworks, keep in mind that the bridge fills up quickly, so it’s best to get there about 40 minutes before the fireworks begin. Watching the colored lights over the Kremlin and the Moscow River served as the best possible ending to a culturally rich day!


What other events were held in the area? Were there other events to choose from either inside the city or outside?


Lauren Chilton (Moscow, Summer 2019): There were probably other events, but I did not see them as we made our way to the Samovar Festival. We also had classes on the same day, so we did not have much of a chance to explore the city to see what else was being held.

Helen McHenry (Moscow, Summer 2019): I was not aware of any other official events, but from the state of some of my classmates the following day, the city center was hopping that night. I can say with certainty that most evening celebrations had died down by 10:30, as a navigation error on the metro had my friend and I traveling across the city late at night. We almost had the car to ourselves for much of the trip.

Joseph Ernst (St. Petersburg, Summer 2019): In Saint Petersburg, there were many events that I chose not to take part in – simply due to my desire to lay around most of the day and enjoy the sun! There was a traditional sand sculpture competition at Peter and Paul Fortress, a “Battle on the Neva” reenactment, and a 300 person flashmob!

Sam Barrett, (Moscow, Summer 2017): This holiday is a very exciting time not only for native Russians, but for visitors as well! This year, celebrations were particularly extensive in Moscow, with historical reconstructions and reenactments as well as cultural events and entertainment offered throughout the city.


Did you see any commercialization of this holiday?


Lauren Chilton (Moscow, Summer 2019): I did not see any holiday-specific souvenirs or sales in the area. It was not like back in America where there are sales of all kinds simply for July 4th weekend or Memorial weekend. The festival we went to was very homey feeling. It did not feel fake or synthesized. The food that was being served was obviously homemade, and the vendors seemed very proud of their wares. The souvenirs were also well made and affordable! However, I was surprised that at the Samovar Festival, there weren’t very many samovars! There was a large inflated one and maybe two others, and it was relatively difficult to find tea. It kind of seemed like a name that was put on the festival to simply set it apart from the other Russia Day festivals.

Helen McHenry (Moscow, Summer 2019): From my experience, holiday-specific souvenirs were replaced by souvenirs unique to various towns and regions outside of Moscow. We were told to take the time to peruse the various stalls – as if someone who loves trinkets as much as I do wouldn’t jump at the chance – because many of the items being sold were uncommon in souvenir shops around Moscow. One stall of particular interest sold beautiful green statues which represented various beasts of Russian legends – from the easily recognized unicorn to the polkan (a Russian version of the centaur) to some less clear-cut characters, many of which were derived from birds. The items on sale seemed to accentuate the skill of the artisan, rather than connect to the holiday itself.

Grace Mappes (Moscow, Summer 2019): There was the opposite of commercialization in stores – most businesses were closed! I couldn’t grab my morning coffee on my way to class nor could I eat in any of the university cafeterias. I honestly forgot it was Russia Day until I read the signs on the doors of every restaurant or cafe I tried to get into that indicated their hours for the day before and the day of the holiday. In addition to Lauren’s points, I found the booming concert mostly populated by well-known pop artists a distraction from both the point of Russia Day and a Samovar Festival.

Joseph Ernst (St. Petersburg, Summer 2019): Besides the normal stands of Russian souvenirs that occupy spaces on the sidewalk or underneath intersections, I think simply the number of vendors was increased. I did not go into any shops, nor was I really paying much attention to the vendors either. I would like to know if the money was going to someone other than the person working the stand, though.

Sam Barrett, (Moscow, Summer 2017): One of the best parts about the Russia Day celebrations is that most of the public events are free! However, you will be surrounded by a ton of food trucks all day, so it’s best to bring some snack money along with you. You can easily find a wide array of snacks like dumplings, pastries and candies for less than 300 rubles. I bought some Georgian candy and a delicious cheese pastry for 250 rubles. If you’d prefer a heftier options, like meat with a drink, I would advise bringing about 800 rubles. There are also very good deals on ice cream! I saw one stand that was offering scoops for 50 rubles each, but the majority of the prices are around the 90 to 100-ruble mark. Something to stay away from on Russia Day are souvenir stands, especially at Samovar Fest. The prices are inflated to take advantage of the increase in tourism—a smart move on the vendors side, but not as beneficial for the buyer. You will be better off if you hang on to your money and try to find the item you’re looking for at a cheaper location.


What do locals think of the holiday? What does it mean to them, and how do they spend the day?


Lauren Chilton (Moscow, Summer 2019): The Russians that we were at the festival with (Dima, Illiya, Marina, Margarita, and Alex) were surprised that we had class that day. They said that they never have class, and that they like to spend the whole day celebrating the holiday. However, it did not seem important to them to spend the holiday with family–they were completely comfortable being only with friends.

Margarita explained to our group that Russia Day is a day to dwell on what makes a Russian patriotic. We played a game where she wanted us to learn what symbols were precious to Russian citizens, what Russians call themselves (Россиянин), and what they loved about Moscow.

Helen McHenry (Moscow, Summer 2019): While I weaved through the growing crowds with Alex on our way to the rest of the group, he brought up the Fourth of July, curious on how Americans commemorated their independence. My answer – “guns and alcohol” – was only slightly sarcastic, as our holiday tends to perpetuate the stereotype of the loud, ugly American in every way possible (and I love it despite and partially for this reason). Although the crowds were large, they seemed to lack the reckless abandon one imagines when they think of Americans on the Fourth and appeared almost restrained in comparison. Russia Day for Alex was a time to spend with his childhood friends, which in turn reminded them of the city in which they grew up. All three spoke of the nostalgia they felt in commemorating their nation with their fellow countrymen. Although Russia Day remains a light-hearted celebration, it maintains its significance, protected from the sometimes perverse commercialization seen in similar celebrations worldwide.

Grace Mappes (Moscow, Summer 2019): In addition to Lauren’s observations, I’d like to add that this celebration seemed to promote unity through modernity and casual fun, mirroring the 4th of July in many aspects. I didn’t experience any somber moments of remembrance nor did I see a significant amount of people who drank excessively.

Joseph Ernst (St. Petersburg, Summer 2019): I spoke at length with a good friend of mine about the subject. She felt like it is a good thing that there is a holiday to celebrate Russia as a nation today, but she at the same time, feels sadness. She does not understand why some young people would rather leave than stay and help their country. To me, it seemed like for her it was both a time to celebrate and a time to think about the future of the country.

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