Looking Back – New Year in the Days of Soviet Belarus
10 December 2019
In 1917, the celebration of New Year was officially cancelled by the new Soviet Government. It was only in 1936 that the law finally permitted our citizens to decorate their houses with Christmas trees and to celebrate the forthcoming year. So, what did New Year celebrations actually look like in the Soviet Union?
For a start, January 1 was a working day. It only became a day of rest in 1947. But life was difficult and frugal in those times, and some products could only be bought with a ration card. Festive treats were modest – potatoes, herring and vinaigrette. Only those with money were able to afford chocolate.
Then in the 1950s, things began to change for the better and the importance of New Year as a holiday increased. Christmas trees started to appear in schools, in offices and in factories. At the same time, people began to exchange presents. Ded Moroz (the Belarusian Santa Claus) gave children a small gift – a bag containing two sweets and two cookies. Times were hard in those years of hunger, and a gift that would today be seen as modest was then thought to be lavish in the extreme.
Then by the 1960s, New Year was becoming a very significant holiday celebrated by many. Families gathered around the radio to listen to the chimes striking twelve, before heading out to greet the New Year by visiting friends and neighbours. At parties, everyone had to show off their good side. Men would wear their best suit or at the very least, a collar and tie, whilst women were supposed to appear ‘with hairstyles’. Around the time of the New Year, hairdressers knew that they would be working around the clock.
And the presents, oh the presents! No-one arrived empty-handed! Salads, champagne, vodka and chocolate for kids. Classic dishes appearing on New Year’s dining tables in the era of the Soviet Union now usually included Baltic sardines, squid from the Far East (later crabsticks), Bulgarian green peas, smoked sausage, mayonnaise, tangerines and the much-loved Soviet champagne, which it is still possible to buy today! Shop-bought cakes on the table were a sign of affluence and sophistication. They were rarely more tasty than homemade, but their value came from the fact of them being bought for money, usually after standing in line for hours.
In 1951 the new GUM store opened its doors for business, followed exactly 13 years later by the Central Department Store. Then in 1978 the department store Belarus appeared on the scene. These three major city stores soon became the prime purveyors of New Year gifts.
In the 1970s the new tradition of celebrating New Year ‘at the TV’ began to establish itself, as TV sets were by then an essential household item. Programmes such as Blue Light (iconic Soviet light entertainment featuring popular music and comedy) were a must-see.
In 1970, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev had delivered his New Year address to the people for the very first time. Then in 1986, an event unthinkable in the freeze of the Cold War took place – Soviet President Mikael Gorbachev congratulated the United States on the occasion of New Year while simultaneously, American President Ronald Reagan returned the compliment to the peoples of the USSR.
Even today, many people still talk about how New Year in the Soviet Union felt special. This fond remembrance relates to the difficulties and privations of life in those times, and the particular effort that was needed to celebrate the holiday – buying things for the New Year table months in advance when they were in the shops (because you didn’t know if they would be available in December), the struggle to find a decent Christmas tree, the lack of choice and quality of gifts for friends and family. Then when everything finally worked out ok, against all odds, what a wonderful feeling there was that some miracle had occurred, and that the celebrations could finally begin!
For those who want to learn more about the unique spirit of the Soviet New Year, a number of cult movies still exist; and Belarusians continue to watch them, again and again, every New Year! Look out especially for Carnival Night (1956), Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (The Night Before Christmas) (1961), This Funny Planet (1973), Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath! (1975), Office Romance (1975), Old New Year (1980), and Carnival (1982).
All at BelarusPrimeTour wish you a Very, Very Happy New Year!