Young newlyweds take part in an activity to celebrate the new holiday
MOSCOW (AFP) — Russia on Tuesday marked a Day of Family, Love and Fidelity intended as a rival to Valentine's Day, with church services and prizes for married couples taking precedence over lustful confessions.
The celebrations included Orthodox church services, medals for people in especially long-lasting marriages and the dedication of a metal bench in Moscow intended to help squabbling spouses sort out disagreements.
"From this year forward, we in Russia will celebrate this as our shared holiday, as Family, Love and Fidelity Day," Moscow's deputy mayor, Lyudmila Shvetsova, said at a ceremony for couples who got married on Tuesday.
The holiday is being celebrated for the first time following criticism from Orthodox Christians and nationalists of Russia's growing enthusiasm for Valentine's Day on February 14, seen as a corrupt Western import.
"Saint Valentine's Day is a celebration of love. But being in love means loving always and remaining faithful," Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, a senior church figure, said last month.
The new holiday is being promoted by politicians, Orthodox believers and even pop stars who will take to the stage later on Tuesday for a concert to be shown on prime-time television that will celebrate love.
President Dmitry Medvedev's wife Svetlana heads up the organising committee.
Apart from the fun and games, however, the holiday has a more serious purpose in the minds of Russia's leaders -- boosting the country's drastically declining population by promoting family values.
The day "is a good idea," said Pyotr Rovyakov, one of the smiling grooms who was congratulated by Moscow's deputy mayor at a ceremony in the grounds of Tsaritsyno, a picturesque palace in the Russian capital.
The date of the holiday, July 8, marks the 780th anniversary of the death of Orthodox Saints Pyotr and Fevronia, a married couple persecuted for their love and, according to legend, buried in the same coffin.
Events were taking place as far apart as St. Petersburg and the Pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok, with about 40 events in Moscow alone, according to the family and youth policy department of Moscow city administration.
At least 200 couples who have been together more than 25 years were to receive medals from city officials, said Olga Pravdina, a spokeswoman for the organising committee.
Another planned event is the dedication of a bench on the banks of the Moscow River whose sloping shape is designed to force bickering couples to sit together and thus get over their disagreements.
The object of the event is partly to stop the decline in the country's population, which has fallen from 149 million in 1992 to just over 142 million last year -- a drop averaging 700,000 people annually.
In 2006, then-president Vladimir Putin called the population decline "the gravest problem facing modern Russia" and announced an array of initiatives to reverse the trend, including financial incentives for new mothers.
In recent years the governor of one Russian region, Ulyanovsk, has organized a special day off work for local officials devoted to procreation and dubbed "Conception Day" in the local media.
Local women were promised that if they gave birth precisely nine months after Conception Day, on an annual Russia Day holiday in June, they would be awarded prizes such as fridges and televisions.