More info on Russian culture from a Russian tutor in London, or something you will probably not hear about in your Russian lessons in London!

Russian Easter

When do Russians celebrate Easter?

Easter is a new addition to Russian public holidays, having been virtually banned in the Soviet era. It’s back with a vengeance though, as religion is back in the life of Russian society.

Russian (Christian Orthodox) Easter falls on a different day from the Western one. The difference in dates comes from different church calendars – Julian (an older calendar, followed by Russian Orthodox Church) and Gregorian (a more modern one, followed by Western Churches).

The origin of the word пасха

The Russian word for Easter is “Paskha” which comes from the Greek and Hebrew words for “passing”. Originally, it was a celebration of the Jews passing out of Egypt. In its symbolic sense, it’s the passing of Jesus Christ from death to eternal life.

The main religious holiday in Russia

holiday Easter is the main holiday in the Russian Orthodox tradition, more important than Christmas. Just as in Western Christianity, it is surrounded by a whole “system” of other religious holidays and events: a 40 day fast before Easter, Palm Sunday the week before, “Clean Thursday - чистый четверг” before Easter Sunday, then Strastnaya Pyatnitsa - Страстная пятница (the Friday of Christ’s Passion)... It’s interesting that the Russian word for “Sunday”, ВОСКРЕСЕНЬЕ means “resurrection”, so the last day of the week was named after this religious event.

The symbolism of Easter

In the folk tradition, Easter symbolises the end of the severe winter, and therefore hope, renewal, rebirth of life, salvation. Traditional Russian Easter attributes are kulichi (Easter cakes) and painted eggs. Russian kulichi look and taste exactly like Italian panettone. True believers take them to church to be blessed by a priest, before eating. Less religious people just eat them as a nice snack with tea. Easter eggs are traditionally dyed with onion skins which makes them a deep red brownish colour. According to legend, when Maria Magdalena presented an egg to Emperor Tiberius as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, the emperor replied that dead people cannot rise, just as a white egg cannot go red – and the egg turned red! But today Easter eggs come in all colours and patterns.

Easter celebration in the Soviet era

In the Soviet times, Easter celebrations were strongly discouraged, but somehow the date of Easter was always known to everyone. In my memory, it was the only night of the year when a concert of trendy Western pop artists was shown all through the night (an unspeakable liberty!) – to stop younger people from going to church. And I think it worked! On that night, many people would watch the telly all night and record the “forbidden” tunes with a tape recorder, to play all through the year!

Easter in modern Russia

Nowadays, it’s a big national holiday. The main Easter service, taking place in the main cathedral of the country, the newly rebuilt (after being blown up by Stalin) Christ the Saviour in Moscow, is shown live with commentary on TV. The president usually attends it, accompanying the Patriarch – the Head of Russian Orthodox Church – who leads the service.

From midnight on Easter Sunday, all through the following week, Russians congratulate each other on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, by saying “Христос Воскресе!” (Christ has risen!), and answering “Воистину Воскресе!” (Risen indeed!) and then kissing each other three times on the cheeks. In case you are wondering about the verbal ending - воскресе, instead of the normal воскрес, that's just old Russian.

Like most Russian people of my generation, I am not religious, but every time I am in Moscow for Easter I enjoy the feeling of spring in the air, combined with the ringing of church bells and people carrying willow twigs with fluffy buds (an attribute of Palm Sunday) and Christmas cakes. For me, it’s a celebration of spring and of the fact that we have survived the winter.