If the gulag, forced starvation, and show trials soured you on the Soviet Union, then the atheist superstate vanishing Christmas from its calendars—like airbrushing a fallen commissar from Stalin’s side—likely added to your distaste. Nobody likes a Grinch, especially a jack-booted one stepping out of the pages of Dr. Zhivago and onto some Russian kid’s Christmas present.
For more than seven decades, the Soviet Union refused to recognize Christmas. Grandfather Frost (pictured above) replaced St. Nicholas, Christmas trees morphed into New Year’s trees, and carolers became criminals. The USSR officially celebrated the date Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and the day when the Communists overthrew the people who overthrew the tsar. But on the calendar Christ’s birth proved no equal to the accomplishments of a cosmonaut and a Communist nut.
The Communist religion of irreligion predetermined this. “We must combat religion,” Lenin piously explained to his true-believing comrades. “That is the ABC of all materialism, and consequently of Marxism.” On Christmas Day 25 years ago, two well-fed bearded materialists with a fondness for the color red squared off.
In the battle between Santa Claus and Karl Marx, Jesus Christ won.
“The Bolsheviks replaced crosses with hammers and sickles,” Vyacheslav Polosin, head of the committee of religion in the Russian legislature, noted 25 years ago. “Now they are being changed back.”
In 1991, a Soviet Union reeling from recession and the loss of its satellite states, finally recognized Christmas, which on the Julian calendar falls in January rather than late December. On December 25 of that year, the government lowered the sickle-and-hammer over the Kremlin for the last time.
The holiday gift a quarter-century ago put an end to a regime that put an end to so many millions, invaded Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, and points beyond, promoted Trofim Lysenko’s campaign to champion “natural cooperation” over “natural selection,” allied with Nazi Germany, and banished Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, among other barbarous and bizarre acts great and small. But not everybody greets a gift with gratitude.
“In the old Soviet Union, you never saw faces like these,” Barbara Walters reported on Nightline in early 1992, “the poor, the homeless, and the desperation of the Russian winter. Their numbers are growing. Tonight: Is this what democracy does? A look at the Russia you haven’t seen before…. The people of Russia are learning this winter that the price of freedom can be painfully high.” A New York Times headline about the release of political prisoners read: “A Gulag Breeds Rage, Yes, but Also Serenity.”
Some people get a car and respond as though they got coal.
Twenty-five Christmases ago, an Evil Empire became a casualty of history on the Prince of Peace’s nativity. If it were a Pasternak novel, readers would call this irony. In our jaded story, we insist on dismissing it as a coincidence.