Russian Region Wages War on Halloween

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Luke MacGregor / Reuters

Russia's President Vladimir Putin leaves Downing Street in London on June 16, 2013

It’s getting to be a Halloween tradition in Russia for local governments to ban the holiday. Last year, schools in the city of Sochi, which will host the Winter Olympic Games next year, were forbidden from celebrating Halloween after the local education ministry ruled that it could harm the “psychological health” of the city’s children. For the last decade, a similar ban has been in force in Moscow, and this year the Siberian region of Omsk joined the list after local authorities ruled that the holiday contributed to “extremist sentiments.”

In a directive issued to all of the region’s schools, the Omsk education ministry ordered teachers to “take measures to curtail any events aimed at celebrating Halloween.” Citing the findings of the Institute of Pedagogical Innovations, a state-backed research center, the ministry said that the holiday perpetuates “certain propaganda for the cult of death” and could have “destructive effects on the psychological and spiritual-moral health of the students,” according to the local news website, which cited a copy of the directive.

The regional minister of education, Sergei Alekseev, confirmed the reports in a statement, saying the ban on Halloween was part of an effort to stop “extremist sentiments among children and young people.” Events held on school grounds, he added, should coincide with the “basic cultural values of the people of Russia.”

In recent years, an aversion to the influences of the West has become a staple of President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric, as he has tried to rally younger voters based on a patriotic “national idea.” In a speech last month, Putin said that “the mechanical copying of foreign experience” cannot help Russia in its search for a political and cultural sense of self. “Such crude mimicry, such attempts to civilize Russia from the outside, have not been accepted by the absolute majority of our nation, because the drive toward independence, toward spiritual, ideological and geopolitical sovereignty is an irrevocable part of our national character.”

In Putin’s view, that character is to be shaped in large part through the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has often denounced foreign holidays like Valentine’s Day as “pagan” or “Satanic.” A few days before Halloween, one of the leading clerics of the Orthodox Church, Vsevolod Chaplin, warned that the holiday presents a “serious danger” to society. “When you play with demons, it’s easy to get played, and to wind up under influences that are no laughing matter,” he told the state news agency RIA Novosti.

Yet all the Church’s proselytizing has not curtailed a deep Russian tendency toward superstition. A survey conducted last year by the independent Levada Center polling agency found that 59% of respondents believe in “hexes and the evil eye.” After the fall of the Soviet Union, which tended to condemn Western holidays as frivolous symptoms of social decay, Halloween caught on fast in Russia. Corporate costume parties became all the rage in the 1990s, and night clubs throughout the country started holding ghoulish events at the end of each October.

But with Putin’s attempt to shape a distinctly Russian national identity, such displays of Western merrymaking have earned the condemnation of the state. So while there is no ban on trick-or-treating or wearing costumes, a lot of Russian kids are having to save the fun for after school.