Santa, poised over the mission control center, peering at a gleaming satellite on the screen. Santa, gaze turned cheekily back, zooming over the Earth in a blazing rocket ship.
In these delightfully wacky vintage Soviet postcards, holiday tradition meets the vibrant schlockiness of ’70s sci-fi. However wacky they look, these images actually represent a sophisticated political project, one that uses the allure of nostalgia to create a vision of a utopian, space-age future.
Cheap to produce and designed for dissemination, postcards are a convenient form of propaganda. At the same time, they are personal in a way that posters and paintings aren’t. They travel from home to home, dispatched as symbols of consideration from family and friends. Examining this kind of intimate propaganda reveals a fascinating story about how holiday traditions are invented, along with the agendas that shape them.
With the rise of the Soviet Union, the celebration of Christmas was discouraged, in keeping with the state’s anti-religious policy. New Year’s replaced Christmas as the pre-eminent winter holiday. Indeed, despite the pine trees and presents, these are actually New Year’s postcards. The rosy-cheeked, white-bearded gentleman you see here is not Santa, but rather Ded Moroz, or “Grandfather Frost.”
At first, Christmas was seen as an outright enemy of the people. It needed to be aggressively stamped out. In 1922, the Young Communist League held an anti-Christmas, featuring carols with stirring lyrics about “serving the worker’s revolution” and “restoring to the world the light of reason.” The climax of the event was the “burning of the gods”: stuffed effigies of Christ, Muhammad, and the Buddha were tossed onto a bonfire and set ablaze.
However, over the next few decades, the government shifted to a subtler tactic — one that embraced almost every aspect of Christmas except Christ. They recognized that the ritual and excitement of the holidays was a powerful force and could be harnessed for political purposes. In 1935, a prominent Soviet official wrote a letter in Pravda, the official paper, calling for the reinstatement of the decorated tree as a part of the New Year’s festivities. The tree, topped with a red Kremlin star, was to stand as a symbol of the nation’s “happy youth.”
When the government was trying to drum up support for research into nuclear power, they molded ornaments in the shapes of nuclear-powered rockets, icebreakers, and automobiles. The famous Arctic explorer and Hero of the USSR, Otto Schmidt, dressed up as Ded Moroz to visit classrooms and hospitals every New Year’s. It’s easy to see how one idea led to another: if Ded Moroz could advance the glory of the state by exploring the North Pole, why not make his next expedition a voyage to the stars? Thus we have Grandfather Frost soaring through skies, striking a definitive victory in the Space Race with his sack of gifts clutched firmly in hand.