New Letters and Dates

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

On the morning of February 1, 1918, Soviet citizens awoke to discover that it was February 14. This was the result of a decision by Sovnarkom on January 24 that as of February 1 the Julian calendar which had been used in Russia to calculate days and months since the adoption of Christianity in the tenth century (but only since 1700 to calculate years), would be replaced by the Gregorian calendar. Because by the twentieth century dates according to the Julian calendar were thirteen days behind the Gregorian, February 1 became the fourteenth. Bringing the calendar of Soviet Russia into conformity with most countries of the world was a far less radical step than revolutionary France’s adoption of an entirely new republican calendar according to which 1792 was declared Year One and weeks lasted ten days.

The use of the Julian calendar in Russia throughout the revolutionary year of 1917 explains why what was known as the February Revolution occurred, by the Gregorian calendar’s reckoning, in early March. Similarly, the April Days took place in early May, and, of course, the October Revolution happened in early November. As Trotsky noted in the preface to his History of the Russian Revolution, “The calendar itself, we see, is tinted by the events … Before overthrowing the Byzantine calendar, the revolution had to overthrow the institutions that clung to it.” The new government sought to instill the calendar change in the popular mind by creating a new calendar of holidays, including the Anniversary of the Revolution, May Day, Paris Commune Day, and others, on which the heroes and milestones of the revolutionary past were honored.

Alphabet reform proceeded from a decree of the Commissariat of Enlightenment of December 23, 1917. This eliminated four letters from the Russian alphabet, reducing their number to 33. It was the first such reform since 1711. In the late 1930s, the Russian alphabet replaced the Latin (which had replaced Arabic during the 1920s) in Azerbaijan and Central Asia. It also served as the basis for alphabets used in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and the Mongolian People’s Republic.

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