May Day: Let’s rethink the parade

1 May

May Day, Moscow, 1960

It’s May Day: I am sitting in the airport about to board my flight for Russia. How appropriate. Boarding is in 30 minutes, so this will be quick – and, hopefully, to the point.

At some point someone should (some people already are and I will, too) work through the issues that those of us born and raised in the Soviet Union, no matter how little we were when the country fell apart, have when days like May Day roll around. For many years I couldn’t help but be cynical: the seriousness with which May Day was supposed to have been taken during my supposedly Communist childhood has for a long time made me allergic for anything that even remotely resembled May Day. One of several of Milan Kundera’s wooden and not completely human protagonists, Sabina of the unbearably famous The Unbearable Lightness of Being, has this kind of allergy, too: any social movement, any protests stinks of May Day parades in communist Czechoslovakia for her. I quite liked Sabina and identified enormously with her allergy – as late as 5-6 years ago. But when I was teaching the book to my students several months ago, I couldn’t stand it. To give Sabina a very serious allergen, Kundera caricatures all social protests in the image of some kind of knee-jerk leftism that isn’t totally aware of its own critical faculties and isn’t seeking anything specific beyond some unfulfillable global goals. Perhaps, much of my youth (or that part of it that makes folks prone to be impressed by Kundera) now being over, I am ready – and, in much need – to rethink all this.

May Day might be a good day to start doing so. It’s time to skip over the cynicism that comes with the memory of going to demonstration with my parents carrying red flags, balloons, and portraits of the Marx-Engels-Lenin trinity – else, should having grown up in a country that claimed to have built communism, forever make it impossible to see the legitimacy that is absolutely there when it comes to issues like workers’ rights? Kundera’s May Day parade marches on to sweep everything in its way; but, perhaps, it’s time to think about how these parades were never really about what they claimed to have been about, how the lie by a state about what it saw as the meaning of holidays like May Day should not continue to be a potent force against seeing the necessity of being reminded of what May Day is really supposed to mean.

That sentence, I know, was a mouthful. As I said, these are issues to be worked through.

I’ll be in Russia tomorrow – May Day is still a day-off and a holiday there, though its meaning still not clear at all.


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