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In Russia, 10-day New Year’s fete pits business vs. pleasure

By David Nowak
Associated Press / January 8, 2011

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ZHELEZNODOROZHNY, Russia — While the rest of the world has been back at work for days, the New Year’s holidays are still in full swing in Russia.

Since 2004, Russians have been partying through the first 10 days of January, after May holidays were moved to winter to give people some respite during their seemingly interminable deep freeze.

While few complain about the extra days off, some economists wonder whether the country can really afford such a long break, especially as ripples from the global financial meltdown are still being felt.

Yet at an outdoor ice rink near Zheleznodorozhny, a town of 100,000 about 20 miles east of Moscow, macroeconomics was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

“Who cares about the economy? Just look around you,’’ said retired mechanic Valery Rannykh, 70.

The scene was intoxicatingly tranquil: mothers helping toddlers into skates for the first time; father-vs.-son hockey games; brothers whizzing up and down playing tag.

Among the free-flowing mayhem, Rannykh’s 6-year-old grandson, Dima, skidded around the rink.

“Look out there,’’ Rannykh said. “He is growing up. People are living their lives. Isn’t it a pretty picture? This is what the holiday means to us — economics be damned.’’

Nearby, businessman Sergei Kotelnikov, 42, was beaming even though the restaurant he co-owns was closed. “They can’t take this away from us,’’ he said. “It is a holiday we earn.’’

While many stores and restaurants do stay open, government offices, businesses, banks, and factories are shuttered. The stock markets are closed and no newspapers are printed. Traffic flows smoothly on Moscow’s chronically jammed roads.

New Year’s has been the biggest holiday of the year in Russia since Soviet times, when celebrating Christmas was banned or discouraged under communist rule. Christmas returned to favor with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and Jan. 7 — the day some Orthodox Christians celebrate the birth of Christ — joined Jan. 1-2 as a national holiday.

The holidays were extended if any of those days fell on a Saturday or Sunday, creating an on-again, off-again schedule that often resulted in people showing up for work just two or three days a week, for weeks. Many people, especially those with the money to travel abroad, took the entire period off anyway, so Russia did not really get running again until the middle of the month.

In 2004, the government officially made the first 10 days of the year a national holiday, transferring some days from May. Many Russians still take off the week between May Day (May 1) and Victory Day (May 9), a traditional time for family gatherings.

“Instead of moving the holiday, all the government did was create an extra holiday period. Periods of holiday do cost the economy,’’ said analyst Chris Weafer.

He estimated the January holiday costs Russia up to 0.5 percent of its GDP — about $62 billion — putting the country behind as the rest of the world is two weeks into the first quarter.

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