Magazine article Russian Life

Celebrating Studenthood; St. Tatyana's Day: January 25

Magazine article Russian Life

Celebrating Studenthood; St. Tatyana's Day: January 25

Article excerpt

On January 12, 1755, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna signed a decree placed before her by her favorite, Count Shuvalov, ordering the founding of Moscow University. The Count had chosen this day for the signing because it was his mother's saint's day.

St. Tatyana's Day is an odd mixture of the official and the unofficial. At first, the founding of the university was not celebrated at all. Then the establishment of the university began to be celebrated on April 26, the date when it had first opened its doors and also the anniversary of Elizabeth's coronation. After about a hundred years of this practice, Nicholas I ordered that the founding should be celebrated on the anniversary of the signing of the original decree, and not the beginning of classes.

One might think that the lack of logic behind this change and the fact that it had come "from above" would have doomed Tatyana's Day, but this was not the case. By the end of the 19th century, a few years after the royal decree, Tatyana's Day had become one of Moscow's most popular holidays. Back then, being a professor, graduate, or student of Moscow University meant a great deal, more than it does now. A significant portion of Moscow's intelligentsia had ties to the university and revered Tatyana's Day.


Nikolai Teleshov, Notes of a Writer

  All Moscow knew that January 12 ... would be a raucous celebration by
university youth, middle-aged and elderly university leaders, respected
professors, and the former charges of the Moscow alma mater--doctors,
lawyers, teachers, and other members of the intelligentsia.

Even in the early days, there was a whimsical interplay between the official and unofficial manifestations of the holiday.

P. Ivanov, Memoirs

  A great hall. The dark greenery of tropical plants. Rows of chairs. An
academic department. The absence of bright lights. Important personages,
medals, sashes across the shoulders, dress uniforms, proper tailcoats,
the faculty collegium in full force. Behind the columns, the blue
collars of student frockcoats. Propriety, severity, composure ...
Academic oratory. The speech is measured, drawn-out, without enthusiasm
or embellishment ... Then the university report ... It's almost over.
Students begin to whisper among themselves. The medals are handed out. A
flourish. The hall comes to life. The national anthem. Tentative cries
of "Hurray!" End of Act I. The important personages file out ... From
somewhere in the back come scattered voices: Gaudeamus! Gaudeamus! [Let
us be merry!] These cries grow louder. Gradually they fill the entire
hall. Gaudeamus! Gaudeamus! There is singing of Gaudeamus igitur!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The roar grows louder. Unimaginable noise. The free
spirit comes into its own.

The second half of the day, the spirit of freewheeling carnival reigns supreme, as if everything has been turned upside down. Inebriated students chat with their distinguished elders--people who under normal circumstances would not give them the time of day--as if they were old chums. The owners of beer joints and taverns rub their hands together in eager anticipation.

Mirrors and china are removed from the expensive Hermitage Restaurant and elegant tables are replaced with simple ones. The floors, normally covered with sumptuous carpets, are sprinkled with sawdust so it will be easier to sweep away the garbage, broken wine glasses, and other traces of carousal. The kitchen does not bother with its usual culinary wonders, instead preparing cold zakuski, and rather than fine wines the restaurant offers cheap vodka and beer.

Everyone gathers around the table willy-nilly, without regard to rank, station, or age. Professors, assistant professors, and lawyers dress as if they were still beardless youths, wearing the simplest clothing they could find in their wardrobes--both in the spirit of egalitarianism and to protect their finer suits from the damage that would inevitably befall them over the course of a night of unrestrained drunkenness. …

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