Toasting an uncertain future; Russia: Economic despair is dampening Russians' weeks of religious and new year holidays. But grudgingly they celebrate.


MOSCOW -- Few nations could take the punishment the Russian people have endured the last three weeks.

But Aslan Aslanov was preparing for one more round last night. He wheeled a shopping cart up to a supermarket display of approximately 6,000 bottles of Soviet Union brand champagne. Wearily, he reached for a bottle.

Another party was about to begin in a country that has little to celebrate and much to fear. Since Dec. 25, Russians have celebrated four holidays, one of them for four days. The final one began last night, and economic crisis or not, Russians valiantly rose to the occasion, laying their tables with whatever food and drink they could afford.

"We have had some breaks between holidays," said Yevgeny Danilov, explaining the five bottles of champagne in his cart, "so it's not as if it's been every day."

Still, many of his countrymen have started flagging. They've had too much time to see too many friends whose lives have gotten much worse since the last time they met. They're ready to go back to work and resume normal routines, if only they could.

A year ago, Aslanov, 30, could tell friends how well he was doing importing consumer goods from Korea. The crash of the ruble in August brought an abrupt and complete collapse to his business.

His business is gone; his wife, who is Jewish, feels uneasy living here because of a rise in anti-Semitism. The holidays have been long and painful for Aslanov. He's been saying goodbye.

"I have a sister in Australia," he said, "and the papers are almost ready for me to leave, too."

Today is New Year's Day, according to the Julian calendar dropped in 1918 in favor of the Gregorian used by the rest of the world. And even though it's not a work holiday, Russians really feel they should be celebrating what everyone calls the Old New Year. Hardship or not, they seem constitutionally unable to ignore an occasion to gather around a table with friends.

The holidays began Dec. 25 -- what Russians call Western or Catholic Christmas. That celebration, once suppressed by the Soviet authorities, has come into vogue over the past few years although it is not yet an official day off.

Then came New Year's Eve and New Year's Day -- the big Soviet holidays. Then came the Orthodox Christmas, Jan. 7, with celebrations beginning Jan. 6. Friday, Jan. 8, was declared a holiday, too, because the government figured no one would go to work with only one day until the weekend. Sunday was supposed to be a regular workday in exchange, but many people stayed home.

"I'm very tired of the holidays," said Yelena Zhukova, a 42-year-old housewife, who also celebrated her mother's 70th birthday. "We have been eating and drinking and toasting. Our main toast is that things don't get even worse in the next year."

Alexander Tkachyov, 45, who works in public relations for a bank, also saw friends for the first time in months. "We talked about how life had changed for the worse," he said. "It was the usual topic during the holidays. We're not sure of the future."

Tatyana Dyachenko, 52, is a doctor -- among the country's lowest-paid employees these days. That didn't prevent a round of celebrations, with guests invited to her home and invitations from friends.

"I went to see my friend Yelena whom I hadn't seen for a long time," she said. "We talked about the lack of money. My friend complained that though she liked guests, she was sorry she could not put out as much food and drinks as she used to. She worked at a bank and lost her job in August."

How anyone can afford even a little celebration remains a mystery in a country in financial ruin, where even many of those who still have a job don't get paid regularly. People dig into the last of their savings rather than ignore a holiday. And it's still cheap to drink. Vodka can be found for as little as $1 a half-liter -- about a pint. Soviet Union brand champagne sells for about $2.50.

With two opportunities to make resolutions, Russians might be expected to have long lists of them. They don't. The word "resolution" doesn't translate well in a country where individual action appears useless, where citizens watch helplessly and hopelessly as those at the top do what they will.

So Russians make wishes, instead. Lots of them.

Alina Melkumova, 22, tried a new way of wishing this year that she heard about on television. She wrote her wish on a piece of paper, burned it and poured the ashes into a glass of champagne that had to be drunk as the clock struck midnight.

"Some people didn't have enough time to burn it and had to swallow the clump of paper," she said, sitting somewhat incongruously in a display high chair in the store where she sells children's furnishings.

Among her wishes?

"At least something better than we have now."

Tatyana Dyachenko and her friends had several wishes.

"To keep friendly relations no matter what happens in this country, not to lose our jobs, to be healthy.

"And I had a special wish for the New Year -- to buy a beautiful blouse."

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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