Men get drunk in honour of women; MOSCOW DAYS

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What, I wondered, was more upsetting to the old lady? The fact that her husband, the victim of at least one heart attack, was legless, in defiance of a doctor's ban against vodka? Or the fact that he had achieved this condition, before the sun had cleared the treetops, on her special day, her prazdnik - or holiday?

As we stood chatting outside her home, little in her manner offered any clue; this was a situation with which she, and millions of other Russian women, are so familiar that they have lost the capacity for outrage. "Vladimir's not around today. He's just sitting inside, drinking," she explained, with a shrug. All the same, you could see she was unhappy. The day was proving no fun at all.

International Women's Day, celebrated on Saturday, is supposed to honour women. In Russia, however, it frequently achieves the opposite, propelling the country into spring with a hot gust of alcohol-scented chauvinism.

No matter that women played a central role in Communist society, both as labourers and professionals, and in uniform during the Second World War: Relations between the sexes in Russia are in a time-warp. Behaviour that would earn a man a smarting cheek in London, or a lawsuit in New York, is considered no more offensive than a handshake. The sexes are locked in an arcane waltz between the clumsy and the coy, the predatory and the prim, the medallion and the micro-skirt.

The arrival of advertising and the mass media, which have shown little restraint in bombarding Russia's new consumers with sexual imagery, have only made matters worse.

Women's Day reinforces this, providing an unwelcome reminder that chivalry is - alas, for women - not dead. Many men simply get drunk. But those who do not are expected to become one-day Don Quixotes, lavishing patronage on women whose labours they often ignore for the rest of the year.

"We do all the cooking and all the housework," said my friend, Oleg, when I called him to find out more. "Flowers are compulsory for all the women in the household." (That explains why there are lines of men gathered at the stalls of Moscow on Saturday morning, paying up to $6 (pounds 3.50) for a bloom).

But then he came clean. Weren't there a lot of men in Russia (and, elsewhere, for that matter) whom it was hard to imagine cooking and cleaning, I asked? "You know, we Russian gentlemen are great actors," he replied, "We make a big performance of it. The truth is that most of the preparations have been done by the women in the days beforehand."

I was glad I'd asked. For this explained what I saw on Saturday, driving out of Moscow for a day in the country. It was well above freezing, so warm that the whole landscape seemed to be dripping. Yet, roosting quietly on a lake was an army of men, hunched over small holes in the ice in the hope of catching fish.

Such behaviour jars with another Russian holiday, which this year coincided with Women's Day. Last week was Maslenitsa week, a 1,500-year-old feast held between two fasts - one that follows Orthodox Christmas and the onset of Lent.

Although the festival was banned by the Communists, it never entirely died and is now returning to popularity. It is a time of gluttony, in which Russians consume so many blini (pancakes) and so much vodka that there have sometimes been fatalities. But it also has strong pagan roots in fertility rites marking the end of winter.

In times past, it was Russia's version of the mardi gras, a riot of games, trials of strength, drinking bouts and erotic dances. A large straw doll would be burnt and its ashes spread around the fields to make the crops grow. Male elders would strip naked, and perform lurid dances before their fellow villagers.

Many of the traditions have died out. More's the shame. Given the male boozing and fishing on Women's Day, and Russia's fast-falling population, the country needs all the help that it can get.

Phil Reeves