This overview of Soviet postcards for the festive winter season shows how political and economic concerns translate into some intriguing postcard designs that include World War 2 themes, the adventure of the Soviet Grandfather Frost or the Great Soviet Industry.
The old custom of Christmas letters in England caused problems for the prominent London inventor, Henry Cole. He couldn’t leave the messages unanswered, but found them too numerous to deal with all at once. During the holiday season of 1843, this anxious gentleman came up with a solution. He commissioned an acquaintance, the artist J.C. Horsley, to make a sketch depicting a family at the festive table, accompanied by a generic Christmas greeting. The image, printed in a thousand copies for Mr Cole’s friends and families, became the first Christmas card sent via the British postal system.
In Russia, Christmas postcards appeared only at the end of the 19th century. The first open letters (without illustrations) were put into circulation on 1 January 1872 and their production was initially a state prerogative. The State Paper Procurement Expedition specifically printed them for the main church celebrations. However, the refined Petersburg and Moscovite public also commissioned postcards from private artists or photographers, and delivered them via couriers, sidestepping the Imperial Post.
On the majority of the Christmas cards of this era, one may see scenes from the Gospels, angels, various animals and young children. Though many talented painters aspired to create elegant festive pictures, Elisabeth Boehm (1843-1914) became the most popular postcard illustrator. Her small watercolors featured sugary images of children wearing traditional Russian dresses, accompanied by folk proverbs and celebratory wishes. Famous Russian art critic Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906) praised Boehm for her “original scenes of Russian life,” while grateful customers offered to sponsor the printing of her designs.
After the 1917 Revolution, Christmas celebrations were banned as inappropriate for the new atheist society, and the tradition of exchanging postcards temporarily ceased. Christmas customs received a second life in 1935, however, when the USSR established New Year as an alternative winter feast. Old Christmas personages underwent secularization as well, as Soviet cultural discourse appropriated and transformed their confessional belonging, but essentially their functions and attributes remained the same. The protagonists of the feast received new identities found in Slavic pre-Christian narratives, such as songs or fairy tales: St. Nicholas became the folklore Grandfather Frost (Ded Moroz) and the infant Jesus was transformed into the Young Year Toddler. Soon other symbols gained new interpretations: the Bethlehem star changed its colour to red and became an emblem of the Red Army. The cast of animals became localized as well: the traditional cow, donkey and sheep of the Nativity were replaced by Russian taiga creatures (wolfs, bears, foxes, deers, and hares), engaged in the transportation and ornamentation of the New Year tree. In January 1937, in the spirit of Soviet women’s emancipation, Grandfather Frost received a female co-worker, the Snow Maiden (Snegurochka). Gradually, all these new attributes of the Soviet winter holidays made their way onto the postcards exchanged by USSR citizens via the new, fast-delivery Post. These mobile pictures were perfectly suited to the popularization of the new imagery; published in large print runs, they reached the most remote corners of the country in a matter of days.
The New Year postcards changed their designs and messages following the start of the Second World War. Rapid correspondence exchange with the army became a truly strategic issue, on a par with purely military tasks such as the supply of weapons and cartridges. The Soviet Post strove to deliver mails even to and from the Front and partisan units. During wartime, postcard editions were specifically designed for every annual celebration, though the quality of paper and colours declined. In one of the most difficult periods of the war, during the Battle of Moscow in October-November 1941, the publishing house Art issued a freshly designed set of New Year’s greetings with a circulation of 300.000 copies. These new images contained patriotic messages reminding soldiers of their duty to the country, nation, and family. WWII New Year postcards roughly fall into two main categories, those sent from home and greetings from soldiers to their families and friends. The former often pictured children sending letters “for Daddy at the Front!” and women working “for Victory, for the Army,” while soldiers’ postcards usually depicted troops in winter uniform and typical New Year characters assisting the Soviets in battle. Thus, Grandfather Frost became a bearded sailor destroying the hated Nazis with missiles launched from his gift sack.
Soldiers seemed to appreciate the very possibility of using a postcard instead of normal paper. Its cheery colourfulness and different texture created a much-needed feeling of festivity within the daily military routine. In a postcard from the Contemporary Russian History Museum, an unknown Soviet soldier highlighted the unusual beauty of the postal medium to his recipients:
My dear ones! You see, how beautiful the paper is that I am using to write to you! We received these cards to celebrate the New Year. I congratulate you and kiss you warmly. I won’t be able to greet this New Year with you. Well, we’ll greet the next one together. Drink, each of you, a full glass for me, and for all our chaps who are fighting the German bastard at the Front. It must of course be a full glass! And filled with good wine! I wish you a happy and kind New Year for 1942. And we will do our best here. At the moment our chaps are beating the Germans hard, and in ’42 we will be even stronger.” (New Year’s Eve of 1 January, 1942).
Towards the end of the War, depictions of the coming New Year became associated with the advance of the Soviet Army, as the Russians used the same verbal forms in both phrases, the “coming year” and “the advancing army”. This linguistic polysemy caused the appearance of a postcard design depicting the New Year as a victorious Red Army soldier.
Mass reconstruction projects distinguished the post war era, with several million Soviet citizens sent to build houses, factories, roads, and railways. Consequently, the imagery of New Year cards changed as well. Now, the Young Year Toddler and Grandfather Frost turned into workers and engineers. They operated loading cranes and managed oil refineries to create a better future for the Soviet people.
After the War, the USSR replace the doctrine of “world revolution” with the policy of “peaceful coexistence”, acknowledging capitalist states’ right to exist and facilitating international collaboration. Around the same time, the main Soviet publishing house for fine arts, IZOGIZ, initiated a new series of festive postcards. They featured the achievements of the country’s foreign policy and underlined the peaceful and international character of the communist state. Thus, with the USSR representing itself as a guarantor of international peace, the Soviet Young Year Toddler walked on the Earth, bringing peace to various nations.
During the Khrushchev Thaw, Soviet citizens began to make international contacts. In July 1957, the Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students took place in Moscow, attracting 34.000 people from 130 states. The festival came at the height of attempts to “raise the Iron Curtain slightly”: for the first time, many foreigners came to the country, and some of them established friendly relations with Russians. The people of the USSR strove to maintain a correspondence with their foreign friends for decades, and the publishing house Soviet Artist (Sovetskiy hudozhnik) assisted this task by issuing postcards with foreign language greetings and international postage stamps.
In people’ consciousness, the New Year offered a promise of change and novelty, and was closely associated with new hopes and expectations. Soviet cinema staged New Year’s Eve as a joyful communal celebration where different classes came together to wish “New happiness” to each other. Following this thrust for innovation, the visual tradition started to depict the main technological and cultural discoveries of the outgoing year on New Year postcards.
These closely followed developments in the Soviet space programme and every December a new element of space exploration found its way into the designs commissioned by the Soviet Post, the Ministry of Communication, or the Transportation Ministry. In 1957, when the USSR launched the first artificial Earth satellite, the theme of spaceships burst into the postcard world. Initially, artists had to craft their own imaginary depictions of rockets, as original images and photos were strictly classified. By the New Year of 1958, however, anyone could buy a postcard featuring the Sputnik. By 1962, three satellites orbited the planet, and Grandfather Frost rode them instead of the traditional horse Troika. On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin made the first flight into space in the Vostok-1 spacecraft. That year, Soviet citizens recognized his historic orange SK-1 spacesuit on the congratulatory images printed by the Soviet Post. In 1965, the first ever spacewalk inspired the New Year postcard of 1966, where three little boy astronauts dance around a star tree in outer space.
The cold of the Arctic and Antarctic was well-suited to winter festivities and so too the Soviet ideology of promoting achievements in science and technology by means of such popular media as congratulatory postcards. After many decades working in the Arctic, Soviet researchers decided to apply their experience to the ice of Antarctica, and, in 1956, the First Composite Soviet Antarctic Expedition left Leningrad to reach the southernmost continent. That year’s postcards celebrated this exchange of polar expertise by issuing New Year images where the “indigenous population” of the northern seas, the polar bears, met their southern counterparts, the penguins. A little later, in September 1959, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker, Lenin. Even before completing its naval tests, the icebreaker was already featured on postcards celebrating the arrival of 1960.
New Year cards also reacted to USSR successes in civil aviation and railways. For example, in 1973, Grandfather Frost rode the Yak-40, the world’s first turbojet passenger aircraft for local transportation, and a year later, could also be seen flying the Il-62, the first Soviet long-haul jetliner operating intercontinental flights. In the 1970s, Grandfather Frost assisted young KomSoMol workers constructing the Baikal–Amur Mainline (BAM), which stretched nearly 3250 km from Lake Baikal to the Soviet Pacific coast. Given the difficult terrain, the construction of the BAM presented an engineering challenge: almost half of the route ran through permafrost, where winter temperatures could plummet to −60° C. However, that clearly didn’t pose a problem for the traditional winter characters.
The decline of Soviet ideology paralleled a growth of consumerist society, and New Year postcards began to echo the new concerns of the nation. Sugary and sentimental pictures of children and animals, together with the very concept of Christmas, made their way back into print. As the late-Soviet population dreamed of satiety and comfort, so traditional New Year wishes started to be accompanied by images of festive tables, laden with champagne, exotic fruits, and expensive desserts. And caviar became the main achievement of the outgoing year…