March 8th in Russia is International Women's Day. Besides Russia and a few former Soviet republics, no one really celebrates it anywhere else in the world. In Russia, March 8th is a federal holiday and a reason for men to sometimes spend more money than they do on Christmas gifts. American Valentine's Day doesn't come anywhere close in spending on flowers, diamonds, cars, and other knick-knacks of endearment.
How did Russia end up celebrating the international day which is not celebrated anywhere else? It has its roots in Roman times. Roman matrons (married women who were born free) had their special day, when their husbands would surround them with extra love, care, and gifts. Even female slaves got the day off.
The inspiration for the holiday comes from the protest in New York on March 8, 1857, when female textile workers marched for better wages and work conditions. Half a century later, on March 8, 1908, female activists of the New York Social-Democratic Party gathered to pay tribute to women's rights. In 1909, the Socialist Party of America declared the last Sunday of February as National Women's Day. In 1910, Clara Zetkin, a female German politician and a fighter for women's rights, advocated for an annual International Women's Day at the international conference of female socialist activists in Copenhagen, Denmark. No particular date was set at the time.
For the first time the so-called "International" Women's day was celebrated in 1911 by four different countries -- Austria, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland (though on different dates). The new tradition was repeated again in 1912. Saint Petersburg joined the celebration in 1913, however the names of the organizers or a particular date cannot be located anywhere in Soviet archives, even though this date became very important for the Soviet government just a few years later.
Finally, in 1914 -- for the first and for the last time ever -- March 8th was celebrated as International Women's Day in six countries: Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, and Switzerland. The beginning of World War One made Europe completely forget about the newly born holiday. While Europe forgot about the date and the cause, Soviet propaganda officers (commissars) kept it in their closet of anti-religious surprises.
Russian Orthodox Easter and Maslenitsa, an ancient Slavic celebration of the end of winter and a direct analog of the Roman Catholic Carnival, often occurs around the beginning of March. Communists did a great job of pushing Christian holidays into the background by emphasizing the importance of social events. Even today, when the nation is as Christian as it used to be before the Soviet Union, New Year's still is a bigger holiday than the birth of Christ, compliments of the Soviet Communist Party.
The United Nations declared 1975 as "International Women's Year". The Communist Party was quick to adopt the great idea of an obviously good cause and use it to their advantage. That year, March 8th became an official Soviet holiday.
The holiday never really caught on (maybe because it lacked a Hallmark) and though it survives in Russia and Ukraine, the Baltic States and Georgia abolished it and Armenia re-christened it the Day of Motherhood and Beauty (and moved it to April 7th).
Happy March 8th, dear international (Slavic) women!
Click here to read Edvard Radzinsky's article from the Wall Street Journal on Russia's greatest treasure - Russian women.