“There is thy gold--worse poison to men's souls…”
~William Shakespeare (Romeo & Juliet)
Today is Bribery Day! Since pagan times, Russians and their ancient Slavic forbears have set aside the Spring new moon to celebrate the strength of the grey economy. As ancient and venerable as Ivan Kupala and Maslentisa, Bribery Day has its roots in the agricultural pagan worship of the trickster god Otka. Otka was a Slavic version of the Greek God Hermes, guardian of thieves, messengers, traveling salesmen and merchants, and from his name, the modern word for “kick back” in Russian, “otkat’” is derived. On this day, as the winter slush finally left the soggy fields, as the Primary Chronicle of Russia recounts, the peasant elders of each village brought the last of their winter stores as offerings to their landowner, who dressed up as Otka. In an elaborate ceremony, each elder made lengthy speeches praising the god and the landowner, while their sons and grandsons placed their baskets at the feet of the landowner’s family. The speeches over, the landowner then announced the allocation of the narrow strips of soil called the “barshina” to the various peasants. Over time, whoever brought the largest donation would receive the most advantageous strips of land, which were adjacent to one another. This meant that the peasants could work the land without the hassle of traveling long distances between their different strips.
After the Baptism of Russia in 988, the Russian Orthodox Church gradually incorporated worship of Otka into worship of St. Nicholas The Miracle Worker. The Tsar held a grand levee on the first Sunday of April to receive the homage and elaborate ceremonial gifts from each head of the regional “gubanatoriya,” a tradition, echoed today in the annual Russian banking conferences in St. Petersburg, Sochi and London.
Revolution, famine, and the repression of the peasant kulacks during the forced Collectivization of the 1920s and 1930s severely curtailed celebrations of Bribery Day in Central European Russia, although stealth observations were recorded in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Far East. After the Great Patriotic War, Stalin’s death, and Kruschev’s “Secret Speech” however, authorities gradually relaxed their more stringent regulations and by 1960, Bribery Day was reinstated and today is as much a part of the rhythms of the Russian year as New Year’s, Maslenitsa, and the November holidays.
Here is a confession: I personally suck at bribery. Even after two decades, I never quite get the nuances, the timing, and I can never gage the right amount of money to proffer. Since free-lance writers are almost never on the receiving end of bribes, that has rarely been an issue for me. Back in the day, I did get what was an unmistakable approach in late 1994: I was offered the sum of $17,000 if I awarded a contract for services to a certain company. None of it was feasible: the company was laughably incompetent, and they had foolishly underestimated my influence in the decision making process. $17,000 was intriguing, though. To this day, I’m still wondering whether that was minus an $3,000, $7,000, or $8,000 kick back for the person who offered it to me. So I’m not a big time disciple of Otka, although I once confused the word for kick back (otkat) with the word for sunset (zakat), which HRH found hilarious. To this day, during the summer, we mix up some nice gin & tonics and head out to watch the “sun’s kick back.”
And that’s how I like to worship pagan “Otka.” So, mix yourself up your tipple of choice, and join Slavs across the globe in raising your glass to the ancient worship of the grey economy!!
Hey there readers!
Do you have a bribery story? My story about the 17K is true and I love it. Let us know about yours, won’t you by clicking on the comment button below. You don’t need to use your real name, but it would be great to hear from you!