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New Year in Siberia

One of the first questions my Russian acquaintances ask me is, “Have you ever celebrated the New Year in Russia?” On hearing that I have not, they always laugh and tell me that until I have met the New Year Russian-style, then I have never really celebrated New Year at all. My attempts to tell them about the Times Square parties – which I have never been to, having celebrated most of my new years at home in Kansas – leave them unimpressed.

It should come as no surprise that I balked when my Russian friends approached me about throwing a New Year’s bash in my apartment. My friends, like myself all in their early 20s, live at home. Most Russians do not get a place of their own until marriage, if then. Thus, I am the only one with his own place. After they swore to keep the number of invitees down (15-20), to supply all the food and drinks themselves and to not leave until the place was spotless, I agreed. “At most one person will get sick,” Kolya assured me. I was not especially heartened, but I reasoned that I have very little in my apartment to get destroyed: thick plaster walls, a painted wood floor, a tough wooden bed, an old couch, a small kitchen table and a mostly-broken TV. The books, guitar, and dishes I hid.

The first guest, Misha, who I had never met, arrived at 7pm on December 31st with a heavy hiking back-pack. From the backpack quickly emerged tea, coffee, several loaves of bread, home-made pickles and a couple bottles of wine. Guests trickled in over the next few hours, nearly every one with hiking backpacks full of food and many with bedrolls. Russian parties, I had already been warned, generally last at the very least until the next morning.

Posters are rare in Russia, so I have decorated my walls with maps. Misha asked me where in America I am from, a typical question. The answer “Kansas” tends to get either blank stares or jokes about Dorothy. In their credit, however, that is more than most Kansans I know can say about Irkutsk, the Siberian city of 700,000 I am living in.

As soon as a critical mass of guests had been reached, they settled down in the kitchen to begin cooking. Much of the food had come prepared. As always, Sasha brought preserved mushrooms his family had gathered the last summer and several bottles of home-made sparkling wine. Natasha, my neighbor, brought over a tvorok-and-raison pie (tvorok is one of those Russian delicacies criminally missing from American cuisine; it resembles cheesecake filling), after which she returned to her own family’s party. Anya brought breaded fish. Others brought various pies, preserved fruits and vegetables, and salads (all home-made). Almost no one arrived without a bottle or two of wine. Red wine was chilled between the double panes of my kitchen windows; the beer was kept cool in a bathtub full of water.

The New Year Table

Once on site, they proceeded to make more salads. A Russian salad would not be recognized in Kansas as such, since lettuce is almost completely unknown in Russia. Russian salads come in two sorts: collections of pickled vegetables, or mayonnaise-based inventions resembling chicken or egg salad. They also assembled a large tray of the open-faced sandwiches of smoked fish or sausage that are a staple of every Russian picnic. Sasha directed the pealing and boiling of about 10 pounds of potatoes, most of which are still in a pot on my stove.

While half the guests were busy in the kitchen, the rest were redecorating my room with the supplies they had brought. The centerpiece was the yolka, a small but well-decorated pine tree. Russians find the idea of a tree on Christmas very amusing. The walls of my room are completely devoid of hooks or nails, but they nonetheless managed to hang ribbons and bows and streamers all around.

Around 11 pm, we went to Natasha’s to retrieve a folding table, and by 11:30 all the food was prepared and on the table. The meal was punctuated by regular toasts. Toasting in parts of Russia is said to have developed into a high art. After the Event itself – which brought on another round of toasting — I was called over to Natasha’s, where her family was quietly celebrating the New Year together. I got small presents from everybody. Even Russian Christians exchange presents on New Year’s rather than on Christmas. I had given them my presents the day before. All my friends received the same present from me: banana bread, which Russians have never heard of but usually love once they have tried it. After a toast and a promise from Natasha to head over to the party shortly, I headed back.

Shortly, Natasha arrived and about half the party headed downstairs to meet her friend, Masha, who was arriving by taxi after celebrating the New Year with her family. On the way, we passed the concierge, a fixture of many Russian apartment buildings. I had taken down food and wine for her earlier and left it with a note, since she had been in her own apartment with her husband when I dropped by. Each guest who arrived had brought increasingly bellicose messages from her. At first, she had been very helpful directing people to “the American’s apartment,” which was important since Sasha had given all his friends incorrect directions. The last few guests, however, reported statements like, “How many people are going to this party?” and “If you get too noisy, I’ll chase you all out.”

She seemed mollified by the food or possibly by the wine.

Having retrieved Masha, we returned to the apartment, where the guitars had been broken out. Kolya had found my poorly-hidden guitar. Denis brought his own. Russians know an incredible number of folk songs, some of which Denis had been kind enough to type up and print out for me. The guitar was followed by the arrival of Grandfather Frost (the Russian version of Santa Claus who arrives on New Year’s, not Christmas) and Snowflake – Sasha and Anya in full regalia and presents in tow. Everyone had to perform for their presents. I was made to sing “Frost,  frost,” since everyone knows that’s the only Russian folk song I have learned so far.

Russian parties are never deemed complete without a skit, usually performed by volunteers who have no idea what the skit is about and simply follow the instructions of the narrator. Snowflake (Anya) narrated. I do not recall the plot, but I played the part of a pirate, at one point having to carry a princess to the top of a “rock.” In Russian skits, landmarks are usually roles, not props. There was also a “tree” in our skit, upon which a “bird” was “perched” for most of the story.

Toasts continued to be announced. I committed the accidental faux paux of suggesting one “to friendship,” forgetting that in Russia this is taken very seriously. Fortunately, no one seemed too embarrassed. However, Sasha later responded with a toast, saying I was lucky to have found such a group of friends so quickly upon arriving in Irkutsk (I arrived November 16th), that such groups did not exist everywhere. I had actually hoped in choosing Irkutsk and Siberia in general that it would more resemble the friendly and open social environment and hospitality of my native Midwest. I had found making friends Russia’s old capital, St. Petersburg, very difficult. The big cities of European Russia resemble our big cities at least in their rather closed social environments.

The guests continued to trickle in, the last one arriving sometime after 3 in the morning. Not long after, the decision was made that the time had come for an excursion. Coats were dragged out of the closet – which had taken 3 people to close that last time – and we all headed to a large and well-lit yolka outside of the Polytechnical University, not far from my apartment. The excursion soon devolved into a free-for-all wrestling match in the snow, from which the girls were not excluded. The one really good pounding I got was at the hands of two girls, after which they filled my hat with snow for good measure – never mind that one of the girls was wearing my gloves, which I had lent her.

Drama – but is it Art?

Having had enough of this, we headed off to a playground to play on the slide, which was completely coated in ice, with a twenty-foot strip of ice on the ground in front of it. Russian boys tend to go down standing up, a technique which I have not mastered. I went down the slide sitting on pieces of cardboard like the girls. This was not exactly the chicken way out, however. The ice was lumpy, and writing this now two days later I sit rather uncomfortably. On the way home, one of my friends asked me how this compared with New Year’s parties in America. I said I did not know about America as a whole, but in Kansas they seemed to usually end by 2 or 3 in the morning. They thought this was quite rich.

After the excursion, a few of the guests said their goodbyes. Natasha and Masha left for Natasha’s apartment. The 10 of us who were staying prepared the bed, the fold-out couch, and the bedrolls. In a few small clusters scattered about the room, we drifted off to sleep … or rather, to nap. Within a few hours, people started getting up. Breakfast consisted of leftovers, which were not inconsiderable. I am still eating leftovers and expect them to last me several days yet.

The stereo was turned back on, and the party began anew. I was requisitioned to teach Sasha, Anya and yet another Anya how to swing dance. Swing is rare in Russia and completely unknown in Irkutsk. The night before I had been teaching the second Anya a few moves, which had impressed Sasha and the first Anya enough that they are now determined to learn.

The guitars were brought back out, and we sung the “very last” song. We had sung the “last” song the night before, but at the time I had been warned that there was a difference between the “last” and the “very last.” In fact, not long after, there were even more songs.

Much of the morning and afternoon was taken up by sporadic cleaning. My attempts to help were politely by firmly rebuffed. When the last guests, Sasha and Anya. left at a little before 4 in the afternoon, the apartment, if not spotless, was indeed cleaner than which the first guest had arrived nearly 21 hours previously.

A few days before New Year I received an email from one of my Russian friends, currently in Tashkent, Kazakhstan. On the subject of what she was doing for the holiday, she said she would probably sleep. “The holiday is no fun without Russians,” she explained. “Only Russians know how to greet the New Year.”

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