In his innovative and stimulating book, Malte Rolf explores with subtlety and insight the complex and contested processes of festivities, festivals, and parades through which the Communist party and the Soviet state tried to legitimize themselves. Adds much to our knowledge of the cultural history of the Stalinist period in general, and it marks a welcome departure in scholarship on Soviet festivals and celebrations in particular.
Mass festivals were a trademark of twentieth-century authoritarianism, as seen in fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and elsewhere. But nowhere was this phenomenon more prevalent than in the Soviet Union. Despite being a dominant feature of Soviet culture, these public spectacles have been largely overlooked as objects of study by historians.
Originally published in German, Malte Rolf’s highly acclaimed work examines the creation and perpetuation of large-scale celebrations such as May Day, the anniversary of the October Revolution, Harvest Day, and others throughout the Soviet era. He chronicles the overt political agendas, public displays of power, forced participation, and widespread use of these events in the Soviet drive to eradicate existing cultural norms and replace them with new icons of Soviet ideology. Rolf shows how the new Red Calendar became an essential tool in redefining celebrations in the Soviet Union.
Rolf traces the roots of Soviet mass festivals in disparate multiethnic celebrations, protests, and street marches during the late imperial era. He then contrasts these with postrevolutionary events that sought to dissolve ethnic rituals and unify the masses. By the end of the civil war, the Bolsheviks had a well-defined calendar of events and began to dictate the forms of public celebration in accordance with party rhetoric. In distant regions, organizers attempted to follow the models of Moscow and Leningrad, despite budgetary constraints and local resistance. In many outlying areas a hybridization of events developed as local customs merged with party mandates. People often made use of official holidays to adopt their own agendas, yet continued to follow the line of an official Soviet culture. Mass festivals were thus an important tool for Sovietizing the cultural landscape.
After the Second World War, the Soviets exported their festival culture to Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, which resulted in a melding of Soviet guidelines with national cultural forms. Additionally, Rolf compares and contrasts Soviet mass spectacles with mass events in Italy, Germany, and the United States to reveal their similar influence despite divergent political, cultural, and social systems. In the Soviet Union, mass festivals continued through the time of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and up until perestroika, despite their fading political impact. Rolf finds that in the end, Soviet celebrations became effectively ingrained in Russia’s post-Soviet national memory, which ironically was the intent of the original festival planners.
Innovative and well-written . . . should interest scholars of the Soviet Union and of other state socialist societies as well as those exploring the role of festivals and choreographed displays of power in nonsocialist societies. For those who do not read German, it would be a great benefit if Rolf's book were translated into English.
A brilliant analysis of the way mass celebrations were designed, planned, and orchestrated by the party center and then transformed, modified, and reinterpreted on the peripheries of the Soviet Union. . . . Rolf closes his narrative with a comparative assessment of rituals and celebrations in 20th-century regimes (Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union) and in the United States in the 1930s. Many readers will find this part of the book most useful, as it is one of the rare attempts to portray socialist, Nazi, Fascist, and democrat rituals in contrast to one another.
Rolf has written an original and interesting book on the Soviet mass celebration tradition between 1917 and 1991. . . . He describes in fascinating detail the expansion of the festival culture throughout the USSR. Highly recommended.
Thanks to Cynthia Klohr's excellent translation, Rolf's study is now accessible to many more students of Soviet history. . . . A great contribution to the field of Russian social and cultural history.
Rolf's concept has an intellectual elegance that many will find heuristically useful. . . . A well-researched book that is an excellent addition to the existing studies on Soviet festival culture.
The University of Pittsburgh Press deserves praise for translating from German a groundbreaking work on Soviet mass festivals. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in Soviet culture, in festivals, and in authoritarian societies. Its affordable price makes it easily assignable to advanced undergraduate and graduate students in courses on Soviet and modern European and global history.
Malte Rolf iis professor of history at the University of Bamberg, Germany. He is the recipient of the Klaus Mehnert Award from the German Society for East European Studies, the 2008 Geisteswissenschaften Award, and the University of Tubingen’s Doctoral Thesis Award.