Peter the Great and the New Year in Russia

Paul Delaroche, Peter I the Great, 1838 (via Wikimedia)

His decree ordered that Russia observe calendar years from the birth of Christ.

By Dr. Andy Willimott
Lecturer in Modern Russian/Soviet History
University of Reading

Peter the Great’s reign was marked by an overriding desire to enforce reform on Russia, dragging it kicking and screaming in to line with many European practices. On 20 December 1699 (according to the Julian Calendar), he even introduced a decree that caused consternation among the Russian court and Orthodox Church. Until that point Russia had observed Byzantine practice, following a calendar dated from the notional birth of Adam and marking the New Year on 1 September. According to this calendar the year was 7207.

But the “Tsar Reformer” was about to change that. His decree ordered that Russia observe calendar years from the birth of Christ. In keeping with “many European Christian nations,” the decree stated, 1 January was to mark the birth of a new year and a new century. Russia awoke that day, not to the year 7208, but to 1700.

Peter prescribed obligatory celebrations. Fir tree, pine, and juniper branches and trees were to be used to decorate homes and streets. He also ordered 7 days of festivities to mark the New Year, an early example of “enjoyment by decree.” Peter was consciously riding roughshod over the old dates and religious occasions that marked the old calendar. In a similar vein, that year Peter placed the Orthodox Church under bureaucratic controls and he issued decrees on foreign dress—placing a tax on beards and ordering his court to abandon bulky boyar costumes in favour of European dress. Famously he established a new capital, St. Petersburg. Situated by the Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg became a symbol of the cultural change for which Peter was striving.

Petrine Russia left many legacies. Future generations would both react against and embrace Peter the Great’s example of westernisation. In the years following his reign, Russia developed an ever more complicated relationship with western culture—fluctuating between admiration and condemnation.

New Year celebrations, however, very much remain a fabric of the Russian calendar. The New Year holiday is the most important of the season.

Indeed, also inspired by the prospect of modernising Russia, the Bolsheviks went one further than Peter the Great, replacing the Julian calendar with the Gregorian calendar in 1918. The Julian calendar had fallen 13 days behind the Gregorian by the time of the Russian Revolution. To the Bolsheviks, the old calendar was a symbol of the country’s backwardness—due to the way leap years were calculated on the Julian calendar, Russia was literally 13 days behind the calendar now in standard use in the west. Rejecting the logbook of the tsarist past, they set about enacting their own programme of cultural change.

Fireworks over St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow (via Wikimedia)

As a result, today Russia celebrates two New Years. On 1 January, Russia marks the New Year like most of the planet, against the Gregorian calendar. And, on 14 January, Russia marks the “Old” New Year instigated by Peter the Great.

Russian’s are preparing themselves for both.

Happy New Year! — “S Novim Godom!” (С Новым годом!)

Happy Old New Year! —“So Starym Novym Godom!” (Со Старым Новым годом!)

Originally published by Reading History, 12.20.2017, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.



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