No idea what to buy that special someone? Fear not. DW’s Moscow correspondent Emma Burrows looks at the unusual gifts on sale in the Russian capital – from calendars of Stalin to Orthodox priests and their cats.
There is no snow in Moscow – it all has melted – but the city is decked out in lights as we head towards the end of the year and the biggest holiday in the Russian calendar: New Year.
Giving a calendar as a gift is popular as Russians traditionally celebrate New Year rather than Christmas. During the Soviet Union the religious holiday was banned but since the fall of communism, the Orthodox Church has undergone a revival – and its priests are now unlikely pin-up stars.
The Russian Orthodox pin-ups
This year “Pop I Kot” (Priest and Cat) – a calendar featuring Orthodox priests posing with their cats – has become a hit.
“Someone comes here every day to buy one,” says the saleswoman in the shop. “Russians buy them, people who believe in the Church.”
Banned during the Soviet Union, the resurrection of Orthodoxy in modern Russia has been rapid.
The growth of the church has been fuelled by the Kremlin, which has used it to boost nationalism and uphold its foreign policy; last year Vladimir Putin justified the annexation of Crimea by comparing its religious importance to Russians to that of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Mosque Jews and Muslims.
Although many Russians do not actually go to church, some still identify with its values, which could explain the calendar’s popularity.
“It’s definitely not funny. I’ve never seen that before and I really like it,” said Vera Kapelkina, a 62-year-old cleaner. “You can see how there is kindness on the priest’s face and how he has a relationship with the cat. I also like it because the black and white photos remind me of the Soviet times.”
Nostalgia for the Soviet past could also explain why another, more contentious, calendar is popular.
‘We want Stalin to get up from his grave and help us’
In one of Moscow’s biggest bookshops a heated discussion is taking place. It is my fault. When browsing through the calendars, I accidentally knocked “Stalin 2016” to the floor.
A pensioner walks past, nods at the calendar, and says, “he’s great.” A woman pulls a face at him.
A loud argument then starts in the middle of the shop about one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century.
“He was the father of the nation,” the pensioner says. “People don’t understand history and they need to learn about history.”
The woman he is arguing with disagrees. Another looks at the calendar and says, “this makes me nervous, there shouldn’t be things like that.”
I find it hard to believe that one of Moscow’s biggest bookshops stocks the calendar of a man who imprisoned and murdered his own people.
“They make them because there is a commercial demand for them,” says Ludmila, a sales assistant.
“They’re in demand among pensioners, young people don’t buy them, young people even get angry about them,” she says. “Elderly women like them because they lived through the war. Some think if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have won.”
The “Stalin 2016” calendar is emblazoned with a quote: “Victory will be ours.” It focuses on his leadership during the Second World War. There is no mention of his political repression and purges in which his countrymen and women were rounded up in labour camps or shot.
The exact number of people who died under his rule is still hotly debated in Russia. Western historians accuse him of intentionally killing at least 6 million and imprisoning millions more. A group of communist party members I pass on my way home tell me this is exaggerated. They are laying flowers on the dictator’s grave near the Kremlin in memory of his birthday.
“We want him to get up from his grave and help us,” one of them says. “Even if only for a month.”
For many ordinary Russians, Stalin is not part of their history but part of their present.
“I had a lot of people who died in 1937,” Ludmila in the bookshop tells me, “so I don’t want to talk about him. Grandfather and everyone else…I don’t think there will be someone like him again.”
I show Elena, an office worker, the calendar. “I don’t remember seeing those things last year,” she tells me. “But this year, I suppose, is a bit different.”
“Now they’re maybe more popular because of the political rhetoric in connection with Syria, Ukraine and Crimea,” she says. “There’s a direct association between President Putin and Stalin, between what some people liked in Stalin and what they want to see in Putin.”
Stalin has been undergoing rehabilitation in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Museums and cultural centres dedicated to the dictator have been popping up across the country. This is perhaps linked to the fact that this year Russia commemorated the 70th anniversary of victory in what is known here as the Great Patriotic War.
“Stalin ruled with an iron fist but drove Russia up in the world,” Elena told me. “Putin is now doing the same abroad, particularly in Syria, by showing Russia’s military power. During the years of Gorbachev and Yeltsin people just wiped their dirty feet on Russia. People just want Russia to be respected.”
Vladimir Putin – the popular president
“Respect” would explain, in part, why Vladimir Putin is so well liked as a president. Part of his popularity comes from driving up living standards and bolstering Russia’s role on the world stage.
This one shows him alongside his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, striding away from what appears to be a burning Washington D.C. in the background.
“Of course it’s a bit of a joke,” says Danil Perfilov who works in the shop where the calendar is on sale. “Tourists love it but Russians also buy these things.”
Moscow is full of trinkets and souvenirs featuring the image of the Russian president.
In one shop, Elena and Zhenya, two Russians who live in Israel are browsing among the busts of Putin, Stalin and Lenin on display.
“This is patriotic,” Zhenya says, pointing to a bust of Putin. “[Russians] hear all the time about how Putin is great and they believe it. It’s in the press, it’s on the t-shirts, how he is a hero.”
In the shop selling the calendar, Danil admits, “Putin has advertised himself well over the last year. He’s done things like introduce sanctions against the West. I didn’t vote last time but I will next time…so his rating will be even higher!”
A poll by the independent Levada Center regularly puts Vladimir Putin’s popularity at more than 80%. He is genuinely admired and many people want to display his image.
In a subway outside the center of Moscow – a place with no foreigners in sight – a woman is selling mugs with the president’s face on them.
“People buy them because they love Putin,” she says. “If they were cheaper, even more people would buy them.”
And there, perhaps, lies one of the things that could threaten President Putin’s seemingly rock-solid popularity.
The mugs cost 330 roubles (4 euros, or about $4.50.) By western standards they are not hugely expensive but in a country where the economy is in crisis they are something many people cannot easily afford.
Which brings me to another calendar I found during my walk round Moscow: “12 ways to bring money into your life in 2016.”
“It’s a superstitious way to escape reality,” says Galina Pankratova when she sees the calendar. “Like a lotto or a casino.”
Amid low oil prices, with Russia still facing western sanctions, involved in a war in Syria and with food prices rising and wages falling, many people here really are gambling.
They are gambling that in 2016 their president will keep to his word and bring them through these tough times before it is too late.
“Hope dies last,” says one man. “Maybe that’s why they will buy it.”