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Happy Old New Year: Duality in culture and life

Firework and an Orthodox Church

January 13, 2014

By Veronica Muskheli

(Photo | Taylor Zaijcek & John Simeone)

(Photo | Taylor Zaijcek & John Simeone)

Together with a few other Eastern European nations, Russians have a concept that is strange to Americans, the Old New Year. It is celebrated the night of January 13th to 14th because, according to the Julian-style Eastern Orthodox Church calendar, January 14th is actually January 1st. Russians, Georgians, Macedonians, and so forth, whether we are at home or abroad, ring in the New Year twice, two weeks apart. I have always liked this custom. Somehow it suggests to me a second chance at renewal. Let’s say you did not have a good New Year’s celebration, well, you have another chance to ring it in properly! It even reflects our opportunity to live not just a single life but a kind of double life; two or more lives for the price of one! This tradition highlights the multiple roles we play in our lives: Among Russians, at least, the Western-style New Year is a holiday to be sociable, while the Old New Year is for smaller, more nostalgic family gatherings.

I may be particularly aware of doubling or tripling in cultural traditions because I often find myself attempting to explain (though not always succeeding) the kind of double life that I lead. On one hand, I am a biologist and a research scientist in the Department of Pathology at University of Washington; on the other hand, I am a PhD student in the Slavic Languages and Literatures Department, and also seeking a REECAS certificate. In composing this piece, I found myself contemplating both the double aspects of my existence and the double holidays. It occurred to me that maybe, I can draw parallels between these two sets of doubles.

At the age of 20, I immigrated to the United States from St. Petersburg, Russia — then still Brezhnev’s Leningrad and the Soviet Union. The opportunity to immigrate came with the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. I had known by then that Soviet propaganda was lying to us about the rest of the world, but I did not know what it was really like out there. I jumped at the opportunity even though it meant dropping my studies in St. Petersburg.

Despite this, my education was still one of my primary concerns. I was always interested in both literature and biology, but at the time I felt these interests conflicted. When I started my studies at the University of Texas, my family convinced me to focus on biology because I would never speak English as well as native speakers. At the time I agreed, and thoroughly enjoyed my studies. In fact, I remember wondering how it could be that not everybody was studying biology — the most fascinating subject in the world! But upon enrolling, I discovered a wonderful surprise of the American educational system: I could pursue a variety of courses, which meant that I could take classes on language and literature even as I pursued my biology degree. In the Soviet system, a biologist could study only biology, aside from mandatory classes in the mind-numbing, ritualized version of Marxism-Leninism.

A second wonderful surprise of the American system was the ability to take classes outside of a formal degree program. Ever since I started working as a biology researcher at UW, I have been taking classes on the side, allowing me to slowly acquire a second education in the humanities. By the time my children grew up, I had the requisite knowledge to apply to the graduate program at Slavic Languages and Literatures Department. It will probably take me until I reach the age of retirement to get my PhD. Meanwhile, I am thoroughly enjoying my studies in Russian and Eastern European folktales, and I wonder how it can be that not everyone is studying the folktale — the most fascinating subject in the world! For my dissertation, I will be writing on contemporary Russian women writers’ use of folktales to explore nationality and gender.

So, yes, I am managing to live a double life. It is ironic — since it is a Russian tradition — that at the celebration of the Old New Year, I drink a toast to the flexibility of the Western educational system. Here’s to a Happy Old New Year!