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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland

*This is an article I wrote for the students following my travels as part of the Reach the World program. You can view all my Reach the World articles at my RTW home page.

In Russia February 23rd is widely celebrated as a day to honor the "Defenders of the Fatherland."  It started in 1918, when (on February 23rd) the first military drafts took place in Moscow and St. Petersburg, recruiting young men into the Red Army to fight in the Russian Revolution. In the beginning, it was called Red Army Day, then later, when Russia became the Soviet Union, the holiday was changed to be called Soviet Army and Navy Day. Do you know when the Soviet Union collapsed? It was in 1991, when the union was split up and the Russian Federation was formed (plus 14 other independent countries). Now that there was no more Soviet Union, it wouldn't really make sense to have a Soviet Army and Navy Day. So the holiday was changed again! It's still celebrated on the same day as that first draft for the Red Army, but now it's called “Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland.”

Sasha, Liosha, Andrei, Maxim, and Vitya
Today the holiday is more of a “Men's Day” than anything. Veterans are honored, but so are young men, teenagers, old men who've never served in the military -- even little boys are congratulated! Boys of all ages receive small gifts like candy bars and other sweets. And it's a national holiday, so no one goes to school or work!

My new Russian friends, Masha and Katya, invited me to dinner at their apartment on Day of the Defenders. Masha and Katya are two girls that are roommates, and they host a Cooking Club at their apartment every Wednesday night! How fun! And delicious.

Every week somebody in the club is the Chef of the Week, and they are responsible for choosing a recipe, telling everyone what ingredients to bring, and then knowing how to make it so that they can direct the kitchen. This week Lena was the chef, and she showed us how to make Thai Curry Chicken!

This kitchen was packed!
People in Russia are used to living with a lot less personal space than we usually have in the United States. So even though it felt a little crowded for me, it didn't seem to be a problem that we had 19 people moving around and trying to cook in Masha and Katya's very tiny kitchen.

A TINY spoonful of curry proves
to be too much

When we finished cooking the curry chicken, vegetables, and rice, we dished up the bowls and sprinkled peanuts on top. Meanwhile Katya, Yulia, and Natasha make chocolate oatmeal cookies. Then we all went into another room to eat. There's no living room or dining room in the apartment – just two bedrooms. So we all made ourselves comfortable on the beds, couch, and the floor in Masha's room. It was really funny to watch my Russian friends eat curry. It really wasn't spicy at all; I could barely even taste the curry flavor. But they were all dying – some couldn't eat it because it was too spicy hot for them! Russian people aren't used to eating spicy foods, and it seems like they're not really interested in acquiring the taste for them, either.

After dinner, we had a long discussion about men, in
Animated discussions about men in today's society
 honor of Men's Day. All of the girls had to name two character traits that they value in men, and then we talked about what society tells us we should value in men, what society tells men that they should be like, and how we feel about society's “ideal man” and the attitude this type of man has towards women. It was a very deep conversation, and somewhat controversial. It was very interesting to hear everyone's opinions, because of course they were talking about Russian society. Even so, we could really see how American culture has influenced Russia through films and television shows.

The girls perform a song and dance
Hannah and Liz are 2 American girls also studying
in St. Petersburg right now
Then, it was time for tea and cake. Russians love to drink tea, and they drink it more often than they do coffee. So we brought out the tea kettle and plates of cake and cookies. Each of the men, Liosha, Sasha, Andrei, Vitya, Misha, and Maxim, were presented with Snickers bars in celebration of Men's Day. Several of the girls had prepared a military-themed song and dance skit, and after their cake the guys participated in a series of games. We had competitions to see who could wad up a newspaper with one hand the quickest, who could get a rubber band off their head the fastest without using their hands, and who could get a matchbox off the end of their nose the fastest – again, without using their hands. We laughed and laughed while watching the guys, it was a great time to get to know everyone and celebrate a Russian holiday with my new friends!
Andrei and Maxim playing the matchbox game
Enjoying tea, cookies, and cake
Russian oatmeal (for our oatmeal cookies)
Natasha and Yulia
Playing games after dinner

Note: Are you wondering why the guys' names sound like girl names? Russians often use nicknames for each other- diminutives that often end in “a” and they usually make sense. For example, Vitaly becomes Vitya, Dmitri becomes Dima, Michael becomes Misha.... But sometimes you'll hear one that just makes you think, “How in the WORLD did they get from the real name to the nickname?” One of these is Sasha, which is short for Alexander.

Miche: La semaine passé nous avons fêté le jour de Défenseurs de la Patrie. Mais ce n'est plus que pour les gens militaires, c'est devenu un jour pour célébrer tous les hommes russes.  Mes nouveaux amis m'a invité à la fête chez eux, où on a préparé un curry -- c'était trop épicé pour les russes! -- et puis on a fait des jeux, les filles ont préparé un petit spectacle, et nous avons goûté un gâteau et des cookies.  J'ai même rencontré deux filles américaines qui étudient ici aussi - une vient de Texas et l'autre de Missouri.  C'était une soirée bien réussi!


  1. OMG, Shirah, what a great story. The girl's apartment with all the guests and the cooking. So interesting they don't like spicy foods. I heard Russian's like to consume great amounts of vodka. Do the young people too? Thanks for a good blog, again~! xo


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