Life in the Soviet Union has been portrayed as grim and gray. While there was some truth in this impression, life was also punctuated by frequent celebrations infused with ideology and propaganda. In 1917, the Bolsheviks tried to overcome desperation and poverty by displaying fervor for the revolution and the new state's commitment to transforming society.
Celebrating the international socialist holiday on May 1, 1918, Soviet Russia held this celebration almost every subsequent year. Bolshevik cultural figures staged parades, public displays, and other performances to encourage revolutionary ideas and symbols, such as the red banner and "The Internationale," the international socialist anthem. The anniversary of the October Revolution, held on November 7 due to the 1918 switch to the Gregorian Calendar, was a hallmark event until 1991, when no official celebration was organized.
After the revolution, there were leaders who argued that the new state should discard old public events, holidays, and practices. Others suggested that alternatives appropriately socialist in content should replace them. Many latter practices, such as the attempt to replace Christian christening with Octobering soon fell by the wayside. Other events proved long-lasting. Soviet Russia had disestablished the Russian Orthodox Church and officially rejected all forms of religion and associated holidays. In 1917 for example, marriage was transformed from a religious ceremony into a simple act of civil registration with a few secular rituals added to the ceremony as time progressed. By the 1930s increasing prosperity encouraged the reemergence of the Christmas tree, although it was rebranded for celebrating New Year's Eve.
Starting in 1936, the Soviet Union celebrated its constitution issued under Stalin, which was proclaimed the "most democratic in the world." Although each seat in the various parliamentary bodies had only one candidate to vote for, periodic elections to local, regional, and union-wide councils were regular aspects of Soviet life. The party and government poured considerable resources and propaganda into ensuring that voter turnout was overwhelming.
By the 1960s, a new central event was entered the calendar: Victory Day. Celebrated on May 9, the day commemorated the sacrifices of World War II by honoring its veterans. Initially a somber commemoration, Victory Day became a celebratory event highlighted by its enormous military parades. Combined with International Labor Day on May 1, Victory Day helped to inaugurate the spring, much like Easter for the religious. Celebration of International Women's Day on March 8 proved to be popular and it typically was accompanied by the giving of flowers and other small gifts. In parallel, there was a male-dominated celebration on February 23-- the commemoration of the founding of the Red Army. Moreover, there were special days to honor professions and bodies. Although not official state holidays requiring time off work, the days would be cause for celebration for those connected to an industry or a branch of the armed services: cosmonauts were celebrated on April 12, the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's inaugural space flight, while active and retired paratroopers reveled on August 2.
In addition to annual and semi-annual events, life in the Soviet Union included irregular events marking the lives of people buttressed with propaganda campaigns. Communist Party Congresses naturally called for party members' attention, but also influenced the lives of everyone. Held almost annually in the 1920s, they decreased in frequency under Stalin, who allowed a gap of thirteen years between 1939 and 1952 before calling another congress. His successors held them at regular intervals, approximately every four years. Mass media campaigns informed the public of new party initiatives announced at the congress, but also encouraged them to fulfill and overfill plans in the workplace "in honor of" the approaching congress or other event.
The Soviet Union irregularly hosted cultural and artistic events. International film festivals attracted foreign observers and brought global exposure to Soviet filmmakers. The 1957 World Youth Festival brought youth contingents to Moscow from far and wide, including the United States, for an event of cultural exchange that spilled over into exchanges of popular culture and some romantic relations. One-time events loomed large in the minds of those who experienced them. In 1937, the Soviet Union lavishly marked the centenary of the tragic death of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Ceremonies raised the already deeply revered poet to cult-like adulation. In the postwar era, the Soviet Union entered into international sporting competition for the first time. Having previously maintained a skeptical attitude toward international organized sports competition, the Soviet Union jumped into the Olympic Games in 1952 in part to prove that communism could also compete with the capitalist opponent in this arena. The games proved a success for Soviet athletes, who trained like professionals in an era when the Olympic movement retained its amateur ethos. Bringing home a haul of Olympic medals, they sparked a Cold War competition in the sporting world. Soviet leaders viewed the 1980 games hosted in Moscow as a capstone, designed to demonstrate peaceful development and the superiority of Soviet athleticism. They ultimately suffered when the United States protested the Soviet Union's involvement in the Afghan War, leading a boycott that reduced the number of participating nations from 120 to 81.
Suggested Reading and Resources
Malte Rolf, Soviet Mass Festivals: 1917-1991. (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013).
Jeffrey Brooks, Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War (Princeton University Press, 2000).
Choi Chatterjee, Celebrating Women:Gender, Festival Culture, and Bolshevik Ideology, 1910--1939 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002).
Karen Petrone, Life Has Become More Joyous, Comrades: Celebrations in the Time of Stalin (Indiana University Press, 2000).
Richard Stites, Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900 (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution
(Oxford University Press, 1989).