Creating a Nonexistent Past: May Day in Post-Revolutionary Soviet Newspapers and Literature

Irene Fardin, University of Alberta

Immediately following the Revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik government began aggressively to promote new holidays and festivities which were supposed to replace Christian holidays and festivities. May Day became the most important holiday in the new Soviet ritual year, above all because it was meant to replace Easter. The official Soviet newspapers created an immense propaganda campaign to promote May Day, using various devices to convince people to celebrate it. This holiday, which was also called maiovka, had one important advantage over other newly-minted Bolshevik holidays: it had a history of being celebrated by revolutionaries in pre-revolutionary times. Journalists used this fact as a key feature to create the illusion of a shared experience in the past. The goal was to project the experience of a small group of people onto the whole nation. Employing Eviatar Zerubavel’s model of the mnemonic function of rituals and holidays, we can describe this phenomenon as a complex action intended to create a notion of discontinuity in history while creating a new, ideologically motivated notion of historical continuity.

Analysis of articles published in the official Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestia in 1917-1925 shows that the authors tried to convince readers that the population of the whole country took part in the celebrations. Articles devoted to the memoirs of maiovki’s participants appear regularly every year, starting as early as February. The texts lack any real details about the events, merely employing general description that is repeated from one article to another. Moreover, certain rhetorical and expressive devices are commonly used in these articles including, for example, narration from the point of view of a group. Here, the pronoun “we” suggests the participation of many people in maiovki celebrations.

This holiday became an inspiration for many proletarian poets, who adopted the same goal of convincing readers that there was nothing new or unusual in celebrating May Day and that this holiday was more meaningful than Easter. However, the main rhetorical device they use in their poems is different from that of the newspaper articles: these authors compare the joy of celebration with the joy of experiencing spring time and everything connected with spring: bright colors, fresh greenery and flowers, and an abundance of sunshine. They connect May Day with the eternal cycles of nature, and thus help create the illusion of a collective past experience.


Izvestiia. Moscow, 1917-1925.
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Pravda. Moscow. 1917-1925.
Proletarskie poety pervykh let sovetskoi epochi. Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel?, 1959.
Zerubavel, Eviatar. Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.