Sunday, 1 May 2011

May Day

"Today, today
is the first of May,
on this happy day in May
little children dance and play"

I have no idea where this masterpiece comes from; not from Mother Goose, for sure. We had to recite it in our English class when I was a kid.

For many people, the first of May is important, and it is for me, or used to be, in a peculiar way. Long before I was old enough to see through the official lies and propaganda, I hurried to switch on the television in the morning of the first of May to watch the May parade on Red Square. It was impressive, and it went for hours. Military parade first, then civil parade, called "workers' demonstration". My grandfather had to go on that, and I always begged him to take me along. I thought it would be grand to march there, waving flags and flowers. 

My patriotic feelings died eventually, and May Day became just one of those few holidays the Soviet authorities granted their citizens. May holidays - with luck, you could get four days including the weekend - implied an exciting trip, highly unlike the standard summar holidays. It would be something like a boat cruise from Moscow to Gorky where the Oka river joins the Volga; or hiking in Armenia to see the mountain monasteries from the 3rd century, or exploring the less touristy beaches of the Crimea.

However, in my first undergrad year I was, like my grandfather before me, ordered to join the civil parade on Red Square and show my enthusiasm and support for the land of triumphant socialism. This was imperative: truancy could lead to suspension. Some days before the event, we were gathered to make paper flowers and banners ("Language students toward communism!"). On the day, we were told to arrive at eight in the morning and were taken by buses to the place, half way to Leningrad, from which we were supposed to march. It was terribly cold, and some of the boys had cleverly brought strong spirits which they generously shared. Our teachers, who were just like us ordered to participate, closed their eyes - or perhaps accepted the drink. We were all hungry, for nobody had thought about bringing food. About eleven we started moving slowly, and well over midday we were outside my house, two blocks from the Kremlin, It was tempting to bolt through the police chain and go home to have lunch, but it wouldn't do. You had to be loyal to your friends. Nobody asked to be part of the circus. We were rushed through Red Square like cattle, hardly having time to wave our flowers or display the banners. The problem was then to get home, since all traffic in the centre was stopped. I had to call a friend who lived on the other side of the river and invite myself for a cup of tea. It was not until late afternoon the city got back to normal. I understood why grandfather had not been too eager to bring me along.

My first year in Sweden, Staffan took me to a May Day celebration, with paper flowers, slogans and speeches. I was chocked to realise that for some people, this day actually meant something. Twenty years later, I went to listen to my daughter speak on the first of May. We hold hands and sang The Internationale. I still feel ambivalent about it.

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