Dear fellow travellers
With all eyes on this evening's closing ceremony of the very successful Winter Olympics in Sochi, one might easily miss another Russian festivity today. For 23 February is a public holiday in Russia and families across the country take time to give a little extra attention to their menfolk. For our friend Alexey, who lives with his wife and two children in Smolensk, the Russian variant of Father's Day means that he spends much of the day with his male friends doing whatever Russian men do in garages.
You might believe that a garage is merely a concrete shed where you park your car overnight. But think again! Alexey doesn't have a car but his corrugated-iron garage, one of two dozen in a row behind an apartment block, figures mightily in his lifeworld. It is his space, a secluded reserve away from the family where Alexey takes an hour out every evening. Few of the other garages in the same block are used for cars. With an erratic electricity supply and an old couch, the Russian garage becomes a home away from home. Alexey tells us that he has a fridge, television and heater in his garage, none of which work properly. But garage life is not really about mod cons; it is about having a private space to call one's own.
There are of course famous examples of sheds and garages being used as literary retreats. George Bernard Shaw and Roald Dahl are writers who wove words in the seclusion of a shed. Alexey has no literary aspirations. His garage is a place to meet with his mates and share a drink or two. The men complain about their lot and weave a few fanciful rumours. Chances are he'll be there just now, most probably with a few male friends and with a wood fire flickering into life in an old oil drum in front of his castle. Later today, Alexey's wife and children will make a little more fuss than usual over arrangements for a family supper.
Alexey is not old enough to have been called to defend Mother Russia, but his privileged treatment today is a legacy of Soviet days, when 23 February had iconic status as a day to remember men who had defended and even died for their country. Inaugurated just after the Revolution as Red Army Day, it morphed later into Soviet Army and Navy Day, until in 2002 it became a day devoted to the defenders of the country. This post-Soviet attempt to drum up a little patriotism has been adapted by many Russian families into something a little less militarised - it's simply a day when dads get a few extra privileges. Mums don't need to wait too long for their turn comes around on 8 March which is International Women's Day.
It is pure coincidence that 23 February is not just a day for dads in Russia, but also the old Roman feast dedicated to Terminus, the deity who presided over boundary stones and border markers in Rome and its provinces. But it is a nice juxtaposition of feasts, for the garage in modern Russia is the ultimate border marker. It is a space for men - and men alone. There are still frontiers across which no woman would ever dare to tread.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)