TALLINN - Valentine's Day, that sad excuse for romance, has been and gone and next up on the annual calendar is the bizarre phenomenon of International Women's Day. It's a day when the male of the species behaves in a most peculiar way, such as grunting his appreciation to his female counterpart, and generally recognizing the wonder of women. Patronizing? Probably. Backward? Most likely. Popular? Oh yes.
In case you're new to this part of the world, March 8 is a powerful leftover from the old Soviet calendar, a day when absolutely all women from Vilnius to Vladivostok are shown special appreciation, usually of the floral and cocoa bean variety.
Celebrated with flags, speeches and endless assorted pomp, International Women's Day was a major phenomenon back in the days of the U.S.S.R. It not only marked women's contribution to the socialist cause, but also reminded everyone that (despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary) the U.S.S.R. was a bastion of women's equality.
Ironically, this most Soviet of institutions originated in what some might consider the capital of capitalism - New York. In 1908, demonstrations by women working in the garment industry inspired what the Socialist Party of America dubbed National Women's Day, which was later adopted by international socialist groups. While in the Western world International Women's Day largely went the way of the Charleston and the Zeppelin, over the years the Soviets cemented it into their popular culture (and cement was one thing the Soviets certainly had a lot of).
Not surprisingly given its popularity, Women's Day survived the death of the Soviet Union with barely a squeal - at least in Russia. In that country, March 8 continues to be a day when men are expected to show their appreciation for all women - not just sweethearts, but mothers, sisters, co-workers, in-laws and the babushki who sell fish at the local market. Even institutions get in on the act, with offices organizing parties for female staff. Sometimes the expectations border on the extreme: any company accountant who forgets to deliver chocolates to the ladies at the tax office is pretty much guaranteed a surprise audit that year.
In its essence, International Women's Day in Russia is a day when women are given a break from housework and allowed to go out and get drunk with their friends. By that logic, the other 364 days of the year should be called International Men's Day, but let's ignore that minor discrepancy for now.
In Estonia, there was some initial backlash against the Soviet holiday, and it's not celebrated with quite the same level of fanaticism as in Russia. That said, it's still far too big to shrug off. Translation: get to the flower market early or risk presenting pathetic, soggy bouquets to the women who matter, be they colleagues, relatives, friends or someone even closer.
This year March 8 falls on a Tuesday, somewhat limiting options for taking your special someone to a romantic, after-dinner event. In Tallinn, the Drama Theater is staging a Neil Simon play called "Big Girl's Don't Cry." Tartu seems to hold more promise, with West Side Story running at the Vanamuine Theater. Also in Tartu, the ever-popular band Genialistid will be putting on a special Women's Day concert at the Student House (24 Tallinna). It's not known whether their hit track "Tana ma ei skoori" ("Today I Won't Score") is on the play-list, but if you forget to bring your date flowers, it's a song you may be singing yourself.