Time is on their side – how authoritarian rulers love tinkering with clocks and calendars

April 30, 2017

On August 15th 2015 North Korea went back in time. The government decreed that the clocks be turned by half an hour. So now North Korea has its own time zone, but what is the point of all this fuss? It has to be said that the Pyongyang regime has form in this area. It already had its own calendar – the Juche calendar, whose years are counted from 1912, which was the year in which its founder and “eternal president”, Kim Il-sung, was born. 1912 in the Gregorian calendar became Juche 1 in the new calendar, and we are now in Juche 106. The calendar began to be used on 9 September 1997, which is the day on which the Republic came into being. Curiously there are no pre-Juche years and the years before the Glorious Leader came into the world are based the Gregorian calendar, the most widely used calendar around the world.

I just want to on a quick digression about the Gregorian calendar. It takes its name from Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in October 1582. Britain maintained the Julian calendar, which was 11 days behind for another 180 years. The Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 introduced the Gregorian calendar to the British Empire, bringing Britain into line with the majority of Western Europe. The introduction was not straightforward; 1751 was a short year, lasting just 282 days from 25th March, New Year in the Julian calendar to 31st December. The year 1752 then began on 1 January, but it was necessary to synchronise the calendar in Britain with that of Europe. It was necessary to correct it by those eleven days. It was decided that Wednesday 2nd September 1752 would be followed by Thursday 14th September 1752. This led to civil unrest with rioters demanding “Give us our eleven days”.

As we shall see such temporal megalomania is not new. There is long historical tradition of rulers adjusting clocks and calendars as a way of demonstrating political power. King Canute is said to have wanted to turn back the tide. That was impossible, but surely there is no better way for a leader to leave his imprint on the world by altering what is such a fundamental aspect of our daily lives. This is controlling time itself.

The French revolution upended many ideas and it certainly had a significant impact on time: the years, the months and the days of the week were all reformed. Year I, written in Roman numerals began on 22 September 1792, the beginning of the “Republican Era”. The twelve months were each divided into three ten-day weeks called Décades, with the tenth day, décadi, replacing Sunday as the day of rest. That makes 360 days, so five or six extra days, known as complimentary days had to be added at the end of each year. The Republican calendar had the following twelve months, whose names were based on nature, especially the typical weather in and around Paris.

Vendémiaire in French (from French vendange, derived from Latin vindemia, “grape harvest”)
Brumaire (from French brume, “mist”)
Frimaire (From French frimas, “frost”)

Nivôse (from Latin nivosus, “snowy”)
Pluviôse (from French pluvieux, derived from Latin pluvius, “rainy”)
Ventôse (from French venteux, derived from Latin ventosus, “windy”)

Germinal (from French germination)
Floréal (from French fleur, derived from Latin flos, “flower”)
Prairial (from French prairie, “meadow”)

Messidor (from Latin messis, “harvest”)
Thermidor (or Fervidor) (from Greek thermon, “summer heat”), starting 19 or 20 July
Fructidor (from Latin fructus, “fruit”)

The title of Émile Zola’s novel Germinal comes from the revolutionary calendar and the seafood dish lobster thermidor may well have been named after the 1891 play Thermidor, set during the Revolution.

The ten days had more prosaic names:

primidi (first day)
duodi (second day)
tridi (third day)
quartidi (fourth day)
quintidi (fifth day)
sextidi (sixth day)
septidi (seventh day)
octidi (eighth day)
nonidi (ninth day)
décadi (tenth day)

The Décades were abandoned in Floréal 1802.

The Soviet reform of the Gregorian calendar was very different from the French Revolution’s reforms. They did not do away with the Gregorian calendar. This was probably a good thing as the Gregorian calendar had only been introduced after the revolution. This is why the October Revolution actually took place in November. A lag of 13 days had now accumulated in the Julian calendar. On 24 January 1918 the Council of People’s Commissars issued a Decree that Wednesday, 31 January 1918, was to be followed by Thursday, 14 February 1918. I don’t know if there were any riots, but I suppose they had more important things to worry about. Although if there had been any protests, I am sure Trotsky would have had them all shot.

In May of 1929, Yuri M. Larin proposed a radical change to the week. He eventually got Stalin’s support. On August 26, 1929, the Council of People’s Commissars (CPC) decreed that all productive enterprises were to transition from the traditional work week interrupted by a weekend, to a continuous production week. The idea was simple divide all workers into shifts. The uninterrupted week, the nepreryvka, would apply not only to factory workers, but to retail and government employees too. With factories and stores open and producing 24 hours a day, every day of the week, productivity was bound to soar. Alas with so much in this planned economy, it didn’t turn out that way, and On June 26, 1940, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet restored the seven-day week.

On 16 March 1940 World War Two was in the phoney war stage. In Spain General Franco had been in charge of the whole country for less than a year. On this day at 23:00 Spain changed from Greenwich Mean Time to 00:00 Central European Time. Two years later the change of time zone was made permanent so as to be in line with what had become Nazi-occupied Europe. So thanks to the Generalissimo’s affinity with Nazi Germany Spain has been in the wrong time zone for seven decades. It is the farthest West of all countries on CET, a time which they share with countries as far east as Poland and Hungary. This has created the Galicia problem. For example one day in mid-December the official sunrise time is 8.56am, which means that children begin their school day in complete darkness. Curiously, Spain’s Iberian neighbour Portugal adopted CET under the Cavaco Silva government in 1992. It was a fiasco with negative effects on academic performance, sleep habits and insurance companies reported a rise in the number of accidents. To add insult to injury, there were not even any savings on energy. In 1996 the experiment was abandoned.

India and China have something unusual in common. Despite their size, the each has a single time zone. In comparison, the United States, a country of similar geographical area to China, has four major time zones, each separated by an hour. What I understand is that people just have different schedules. After independence in 1947, the Indian government established IST (India Standard Time), which is five and a half hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). GMT is now considered another time zone, whereas UTC is not a time zone, but a time standard that is the basis for time zones worldwide. No country or territory officially uses UTC as a local time.

For nine years Venezuela enjoyed Chavez time. In 2007 the darling of the left, Hugo Chavez turned the clocks back by half an hour in 2007 to move Venezuela into its own time zone. According to the Economist it was to allow a “fairer distribution of the sunrise” but also ensured that the socialist republic did not have to share a time zone with its great foe, the United States. Like North Korea, Iran Afghanistan and Burma have their own time zones.

And then we have Turkmenistan. On August 10, 2002, the government of the central Asian country passed a law to rename all the months and most of the days of week. The names come from a number of Turkmen national symbols. These are described in the Ruhnama, the Book of the Soul, a bizarre mixture of autobiography, self-help and dodgy history. The names were chosen according to, as described, a book written by Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s first president for life.  Wikipedia has a handy summary: The months include

Türkmenbaşy (January) Meaning: “The Leader of Turkmen”, the adopted name of Saparmurat Niyazov, president of Turkmenistan

Baýdak (February) Flag – the Turkmenistan flag day is celebrated in February on Niyazov’s birthday

Gurbansoltan  (April)– The name of Niyazov’s mother.

Ruhnama (September) Niyazov’s book, defined as a spiritual guide for the Turkmen nation.

Niyazov also changed the days of the week, but he  died in 2006. and two years later the cabinet of Turkmenistan restored the old names of the months and days of week.

This is the end of my brief tour of how autocrats have sought to leave their mark on time. I hope you enjoyed it and I will be back on 18 Floréal CCXXV or Dynçgün the 7th of Magtymguly if you prefer.