Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
Today is Russian Christmas, dated according to the calendar of the Orthodox Church.
Now it’s a popular festival, but for seventy-four years, under the guise of the Soviet Union, Russia was an atheist state. It officially denigrated religious belief, or it did so much of the time, and at certain moments it persecuted the priesthood with a terrible fury. No wonder the winter holidays were focused on New Year.
And yet historians have often drawn attention to the similarities between Soviet ideology and Christianity, as well as to the rituals that apparently united the churches of Christ and Communism. Michael Burleigh popularized the idea of Nazism and Communism as ‘political religions’. Yuri Slezkine, author of the monumental House of Government, has systematically excavated the eschatological mentalities that Bolsheviks apparently shared with the millenarian sect of the early Christians.
True enough, the Bolsheviks gave their political rituals a religious flavour. In the 1920s, ‘Octobering’ became a substitute for Christening. There were Red Weddings. Each community’s Palace of Workers was a kind of temple. And as time went on, New Year celebrations owed more to the trappings of Christmas: take the TV special that was broadcast every 31 December from the 1960s on, Little Blue Flame, or the children’s yolka shows in theatres, both of which were replete with fir trees, tinsel, and lights, while Grandpa Frost delivered presents, though usually in a blue rather than a red costume. But these symbols, though familiar, were often secular. Even when being festive, the Soviet mentality was mostly a materialist one.
The two Soviet history blockbusters of 2017, Slezkine’s House of Government and the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin, demonstrate the difference between the millenarian and the material Bolshevik worlds. Where Slezkine’s frame of comparison for interpreting Bolshevism is early Christianity, Kotkin’s is the state practices of the early twentieth century, from bureaucratic filing to food requisitioning, from mass incarceration to social welfare. As post-Soviet Russians mark Christmas during their extended New Year celebrations, when churches are packed and consumer appetites are vigorous, you choose whose interpretation tells us more.