Subjects: Calendars; Russia

What's in a date?

Nov 29, 2012

A curious, although potentially far reaching, discrepancy between the United States and Imperial Russia existed throughout Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. At that time, the two countries operated on different calendars that were thirteen days apart. Russia, much of Eastern Europe, and Eastern Orthodox churches used the Julian calendar while the United States and the rest of Europe used the Gregorian calendar. The difference can be seen on some correspondence between the Roosevelt administration and its 1906-1907 Ambassador to Russia, George von Lengerke Meyer. In the example below, Meyer writes from St. Petersburg and dates the letter 3/16 June, 1905; with the three for the Julian date and the sixteen for Gregorian.

Letter from John von Lengerke Meyer to John Hay

Letter from George von Lengerke Meyer to John Hay, June 16, 1905. From the Library of Congress Manuscript collection.

Clearly the Roosevelt administration was conscious of the issue and hopefully acted accordingly. However, not everyone was so prepared; the 1908 Russian Olympic team arrived in London twelve days late. The root of this confusion can be traced to a reform made by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The Roman calendar had a year that averaged 366.25 days, but since a solar year is shorter, it required periodic modifications. These modifications were controlled by the pontifices, high ranking state priests, who apparently did a poor job;by 46 BC, the calendar was three months ahead of the seasons. Caesar’s reform made the average year 365.25 days with a leap day every four years. The calendar also had to be brought in line with the seasons, so that year was extended to 445 days.

The Julian calendar was more accurate, but the essential problem remained; an average solar year was shorter than 365.25 days. In case you were wondering, the current average solar year is 365.2421897 days and is growing shorter by about half a second per century. After a few centuries, the Julian calendar was showing its age; the equinoxes were happening earlier in the calendar year and Easter was falling later in the seasonal year. The reform effort that finally succeeded in confronting the problem was a papal commission under Pope Gregory XIII. The average year was shortened by leaving off a leap day for years that are divisible by 100, but not by 400. This seems odd to us because the most recent year divisible by 100, the year 2000, was a leap year under this formula. However, 1900 did not have a leap day and neither will 2100.

The calendar also needed to be reset as the vernal equinox was occurring around March 11th, but tradition called for the equinox to be on March 21st, the date by which Easter calculations are made. This was accomplished with a papal bull in 1582 that called for Thursday, October 4th to be followed by Friday, October 15th. Catholic countries quickly made the necessary changes but Protestant countries were hesitant, which reflects the perilous religious tensions of that era. International commerce and diplomacy were hampered by operating under two calendars, and most European countries had accepted the Gregorian reform by 1700. A holdout was Great Britain, and its colonies, which did not make the transition until September 1752 when Wednesday, September 2nd was followed by Thursday, September 14th.

Another European holdout, Imperial Russia, never accepted the Gregorian calendar. Shortly after the 1917 October Revolution, the Bolsheviks decided to accept the Gregorian calendar and instituted the change in early 1918 (Wednesday, January 31, 1918, was followed by Thursday, February 14, 1918). Interestingly, the October Revolution can really only be so named because Russia was still on the Julian calendar. The revolution started on October 25, 1917, in the Julian calendar, which is confusingly November 7, 1917, in the Gregorian calendar.



Richards, E G. Mapping Time: The Calendar and Its History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Posted by Grant Carlson on Nov 29, 2012 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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