Review: “Winter Holidays in the Soviet Era” at The Museum of Russian Art

(Photo via Museum of Russian Art website)

(Photo via Museum of Russian Art website)

I’ve always thought of December as a glittering month. Twinkling lights appear around buildings and swirl around trees, while festive music is played and coffee drinks mixed with eggnog or peppermint appear on menus. Whether you celebrate a holiday or not, it’s hard to deny that decorations add a magical quality to Minnesota’s December weather.

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But what if Christmas decorations were prohibited? What would it be like to only celebrate on New Year’s? The Museum of Russian Art explores these questions in its exhibit, “Winter Holidays in the Soviet Era”. Filled with over six hundred ornaments and documents from pre-1917 to 1966, the exhibit is a glittering time capsule of history.

Aside from the large number of ornaments, the most striking feature of the exhibit is the level of clever craftsmanship visible in every piece. Kim Balaschak, an ornament collector from Philadelphia, is responsible for the beautiful display. She collected the ornaments from 1995 to 2008, during the years she lived in Russia. She states on her LinkedIn page that she remains “dedicated to positive events and news about Russia”, and describes the collection as showing “the traditions and resourcefulness of the Soviet people during their rich and turbulent history”. It is this blend of childhood nostalgia and historical fascination that leads to the popularity of these ornaments amongst adult collectors.

For those interested in the historical context of the exhibit, various documents are included. Greeting cards, photos, paintings and posters illustrate the shift from a Russian Orthodox Christmas to a state-supported, non-religious holiday to celebrate the New Year. I enjoyed the ornate painting printed on invitations to the Kremlin Yolka, one of the New Year pageants staged during the schoolchildren’s winter break from January 1 to 11. There are also letters from World War II, written by soldiers to their families for the occasion of the New Year. The exhibit noted that little blue cardboard mailboxes were common ornaments on New Year trees – symbolizing the only link between the soldiers on the front lines and their families, and the importance of speedy mail service to keep this connection.

As for the ornaments themselves, they are made from materials including glass, plastic, tin, wire, paper, cotton, ceramics, and even fabric. It was interesting to see how the images and figures depicted in the ornaments and sculptures changed according to the political climate. Characters from Russian fairytales sit next to astronauts and tiny models of Sputnik and other spaceships, and traditional Grandfather Frost is next to the Red Star of the Soviet Union. All of the ornaments cater to children, and it isn’t hard to see how politics colored every aspect of the New Year holiday.

Some memorable ornaments are in the shapes of vegetables, including one set that was based on a children’s story written by an Italian Communist author. According to the exhibit, the story follows the Little Onion and his friends Cherry and Radish, who defeat the rich and powerful Tomato, Lemon, and Orange. After the powerful and unjust are overthrown, the poor vegetables can be happy – and the message of class struggle, revolution, and workers’ solidarity is conveyed in a simple way to children. This part of the exhibition is an example of how the entire exhibit does not shy away from noting the propaganda campaign that created of some of these ornaments.

However, it does not belabor the political history or agenda of the celebrations. Instead, the historical background is used to place the ornaments in a broader context, and visitors can chose how they wish to see and understand the displays. It’s a worthwhile visit, and an intriguing view of holiday celebrations in a historical context.

The Museum of Russian Art’s exhibit “Winter Holidays in the Soviet Era” will run until January 25, 2015. For more information about the museum, exhibit, or Kim Balaschak, please see the links below.


The Museum of Russian Art:

Kim Balaschak:

© 2014 Sophia Myerly