I CLUMSILY tap the code on the keypad to unlock the gate. Suddenly, I’m startled by a voice from behind: ‘You’re going to training on today of all days?’
I turn around to see a middle-aged woman walking her chihuahua. I have no idea who she is: I am not acquainted with very many middle-aged Russian women. She doesn’t look like my Russian teacher, and she’s certainly not the mother-in-law. I’m out of guesses.
‘Of course!’ I reply, still wondering who on earth she is, and why she is taking such a keen interest in my sporting habits.
I make my way through the gate. As I go through, she energetically congratulates me and wishes me a pleasant evening.
Very odd, I think. A case of mistaken identity, perhaps? Also isn’t it a bit cold for a chihuahua to be roaming the pavements of Saint Petersburg? I’m not sure they’re made for temperatures of fifteen below.
Then I remember: I’ve been congratulated all day. Babushka congratulated me on the phone in the afternoon and I was similarly flummoxed.
It is February 23: Defender of the Fatherland Day (formerly known as Red Army Day and, later, as Soviet Army and Navy Day).
The holiday was first celebrated in 1919, marking the date on which the first mass drafts were made into the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. Officially, the holiday celebrates those who have served in the Russian military, men and women.
Some readers will at this point wonder why I, from England, am being congratulated for my service in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. It is not the case, as some detractors assert, that I am here taking Putin’s pay. Instead, the holiday has in recent years become a de facto holiday in celebration of men, with its unofficial name being ‘Men’s Day’.
Yes, you heard me right: ‘Men’s Day’.
In the UK the mere mention of such a day would be greeted by a flood of tiresome BBC pieces, Guardian-esque derision and outrage on Twitter. Russia, however, has stuck with the queer idea that men are not all oppressive sexual predators whose sole aim is the victimisation of women and the maintenance of the ‘patriarchy’ (whatever that is). Further, men may even deserve some praise.
The situation, admittedly, does differ somewhat in Russia where, as in much of the former USSR, International Women’s Day is observed as a holiday. It’s taken seriously too: forget to buy flowers on March 8 and you will soon know about it.
(I learnt this painful lesson from a particularly unhappy ex-girlfriend from the Baltics. A word from the wise: best not forget two years in a row as I did.)
Anyway, why remember men? What Did Men Ever Do For Us?
As is conveniently forgotten by the dullards of Western ‘gender studies’ departments, men are overwhelmingly the ones who do the dirty, dangerous jobs, ordinarily receiving precious little thanks. In 2019/20, 97 per cent of workplace fatalities in the UK were men. Male privilege in action.
Men are also the ones who, throughout history, find themselves at the sharp end of swords, muskets and tanks. When the time comes again, no doubt they will be the ones to make the sacrifice.
This experience is particularly key for Russia and the ex-USSR. Russia’s modern historical memory is dominated by the Great Patriotic War – World War II to you and me – during which millions of young men died in the fight against Germany (see this video for a harrowing visualisation of the casualties). The effect of that war continues to be felt in Russia, with the nation’s demographics taking a cyclical hit to its birthrates every 25 years. Those dying in the war didn’t have children, and these non-existent children never have children. If you were born a male in the USSR in 1923, you had a 20 per cent chance of surviving until your 23rd birthday.
In a society where military service is far more widespread – a 12-month draft being mandatory for all men in Russia – it is easier to see how the concepts of celebrating the armed forces and men as a whole merged. Repurposing Armistice Day in the UK for a similar purpose, for example, would not work.
To be frank I wouldn’t want the introduction of a similar day in the UK. While there is a part of me that wishes to see the adoption of a Man’s Day (only a day? Let’s push for Man’s Month), this is only in order to wind up the kind of people who rant about the patriarchy while demanding the men in their lives get rid of the spiders in the bath and pay the bills at restaurants.
No, I don’t deserve credit merely for being a bloke, no more than I deserve credit for being bald. Going down that path, it would become more difficult to criticise the proliferation of months/weeks/days that have been dedicated to other ‘identity groups’.
The modern world abounds with reminders of our immutable characteristics. Depending on whether you have landed the right combination, this may be a cause for pride or for shame. The real purpose of this constant division and sub-division into oppressor/oppressed groups is a Marxist sleight of hand, designed to make us more fragmented and easily ruled.
Instead, let us celebrate people for what they do, not who they are. Praising people on the basis of the skin colour or genitalia only produces people who wrongly feel themselves entitled to a moral superiority. The corollary of this, naturally, is not to condemn people for who they are, but instead for what they do. I appreciate this may be too much of an ask in the context of 21st century discourse, and would also require the closure of many university departments and sacking of Diversity & Inclusion Co-ordinators across the land: all the better.
Nevertheless, my small encounter at the gate made me better understand those who continually push their ‘identity’ and demand to be lauded for it. When this stranger congratulated me, I admit to feeling a slight rush of dopamine, despite the fact that I had done nothing to deserve her well-intentioned praise.