July 8, 2008
Tony Halpin in Moscow
Russians celebrated an Orthodox rival to St Valentine’s Day today as part of efforts to reverse Russia’s shrinking population by promoting traditional family life.
The Day of Family, Love and Fidelity, which is aimed at wooing the young away from “corrupt” western influences, was backed by Russia’s First Lady Svetlana Medvedev and the Orthodox Church. Mrs Medvedev headed the organising committee for the festival, which coincided with the Russian Orthodox celebration of Pyotr and Fevronia, the patron saints of marriage and family life.
Their 13th Century love story is venerated as an ideal of married devotion. Prince Pyotr, who ruled the city of Murom, married Fevronia, a peasant girl after she allegedly cured him of leprosy. The couple, who were persecuted for their love, are said to have died together on July 8, 1228, but to have been buried separately, only for their bodies to be found later in the same grave. They were canonised by the Orthodox Church in 1547.
Amid the celebrations of romance, church leaders and nationalist politicians hope that the day will gradually supplant St Valentine’s. The western day for lovers is a relatively recent import to Russia but has grown increasingly popular with the young.
“St Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love. But being in love means loving always and remaining faithful,” the Orthodox Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk said at a recent briefing in Moscow to explain the festival.
A policy paper presented to Russia’s parliament, the Duma, last month proposed a ban on schools celebrating St Valentine’s Day because it was inconsistent with “Russian cultural values”.
Valentina Petrenko, a legislator in the Federation Council, Russia’s Senate, said that the Day of Family, Love and Fidelity promoted “national cultural traditions”, adding: “It is designed to be a day when people can propose, tie the knot or simply say ’I love you’.” Tatyana Shumova, deputy head of the organizing committee, insisted that it was “not intended to replace Valentine’s Day, it is about reviving traditions”.
The Kremlin hopes that the celebration of family life will also revive Russia’s population, which has been falling catastrophically since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia has shrunk by 7 million people since 1992 to 142 million last year and could lose another 30 per cent of its population by the middle of the century if present trends continue.
Former President Vladimir Putin described the demographic crisis as “the gravest problem facing modern Russia” in 2006 and introduced a programme to pay mothers to have a second child.
Moscow city government awarded medals today to 200 couples who had been together for 25 years, no mean feat in a country where 80 per cent of marriages end in divorce. Officials also unveiled a “bench of conciliation” whose sloping metal seat is intended to bring bickering couples closer together.
At least 20 regions across the country celebrated the new festival, introduced as part of the Year of the Family in Russia. Authorities in Murom inaugurated a statue of Pyotr and Fevronia in front of the city’s registry office.
Mrs Medvedev, 43, missed the event, however, because she was attending the G8 summit in Japan with her childhood sweetheart, President Dmitri Medvedev. He famously admitted earlier this year that he had fallen for her as a schoolboy and the couple, who married in 1989, have known each other for 35 years.