S Novym Godom!

🐇 🐇 🐇 greeting the new month and the new year, with Happy New Year! greetings in Russian, on a postcard showing a polar bear and a penguin — symbols of cold polar places, hence of winter — about to shake hands on a globe:

(#1) The Soviet Visuals Facebook page identifies it merely as: “Happy New Year!” Soviet postcard, 1960 (hat tip to Dennis Lewis on 12/31)

Soviet Visuals is a FB site for the Stratonaut shop, which sells all sorts of items from, or harking back to, the Soviet period of Russian history. Alas, in two hours of searching, I couldn’t find #1 anywhere on the Stratonaut site, or anywhere else, for that matter. This is of some interest, because the imagery (the polar bear and penguin) and the apparent message (a wish for unity and amity throughout the world) would be unsurprising in an American card for the Christmas / New Year season, but looks unparalleled in a Russian context — where I can’t find any polar bears or penguins at all, and where the iconography is deeply Russocentric (in one way or another) rather than universalist.

Russian New Year cards. From the “Random thoughts” blog, “A Window to Our Past: New Year greeting cards of Soviet Union and Post-Soviet Russia” by Raisatarasova on 3/11/13:

Greeting cards provide a window into our collective past; in this exhibition [on the blog] a set of greeting cards will take visitor on a historic tour of Russia which has faced many radical changes over the past decades: the Soviet red flag was replaced by the three-coloured Russian flag, International Labour day street meetings became a thing of the past, Revolution day is no longer marked red on Russian calendars, it is National Unity day that is celebrated instead. The country itself changed, and with it the need for celebrations changed – and so did greeting cards. Nowadays, greeting cards celebrating state holidays are no longer found in shops, in fact they are no longer in print. Just like anywhere else, in modern Russia holidays have lost their ideological significance and are seen instead as an opportunity to spend time with family and friends.

The exhibited Soviet cards are symbols of the past, recent yet so distant, messages of friendship from a country that disappeared from maps twenty-one years ago, soon after the fall of the Berlin wall. Addressed to many relatives, these cards became a real family treasure.

NEW YEAR: Traditions of New Year celebrations in Soviet Union changed with time. In the period between 1918-1935, 1st January was not considered important enough to be a state holiday; in fact it was an ordinary working day. Starting from 1936, New Year has become the most long-awaited and celebrated holiday of the year. New Year greeting cards started to appear in the 1950s, bringing the joyful atmosphere associated with the holiday to every family. These cards were available in great variety, were truly on demand and found their way to each and everyone. Old New Year cards radiate the feel of sincere fervour, approaching adventures and winter magic. Often these cards would include elements which reflect major achievements of the Soviet state such as space missions and hosting Olympics games in Moscow.

In modern Russia, New Year traditionally remains the main winter holiday, unlike Western European countries where Christmas is the most popular holiday. New Year greeting cards did not lose their distinction, on the contrary, modern greeting cards can be found in an astounding diversity of designs and artworks. However, one must note that something has changed from the times of USSR: New Year greeting cards no longer depict national achievements or characters recognized by everybody.

This section presents cards printed between 1962 and 1987.

It’s no doubt significant that many of these cards were printed by state enterprises (I’ll display three such below), and the weight of the Soviet state surely leaned on all the printers, with the result that the cards are thoroughly Russocentric, resonating emotionally with traditional Russian scenes and culture (and so reinforcing the status quo), plus the occasional element celebrating the Soviet Union. Most of the cards would serve perfectly well for exchanges of holiday greetings between friends, without explicit political content but in fact with very narrowly focused subjects.

Recurrent elements in these comforting scenes: snow, Grandfather Frost, three horses, snowman, reindeer, little bear, rabbit, smart fox, traditional Russian toys. To these are added, eventually, popular cartoon characters.

The clever fox is a popular figure in Russian folklore. Here in a 1978 New Year greeting card (artwork by A. Isakov, printed at the printing office of the USSR Ministry for Communication in Moscow):


And then there’s Grandfather Frost. From Wikipedia:

Ded Moroz (Russian: Дед Мороз …) is a legendary figure similar to Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, and Santa Claus who has his roots in Slavic mythology. The tradition of Ded Moroz is mostly spread in East Slavic countries and is an important part of Russian culture. At the beginning of the Soviet era, communist authorities banned Ded Moroz. Nevertheless, he soon became an important part of the Soviet culture. The literal translation of Ded Moroz is Grandfather Frost.

Ded Moroz wears a heel-length fur coat, in red or blue, a semi-round fur hat, and valenki [felt boots] on his feet. He has a long white beard. He walks with a long magic stick and often rides a troika. He is often depicted bringing presents to well-mannered children [especially on New Year’s Eve]

Here in a 1987 New Year greeting card (artwork by L. Semenov, again printed at the USSR Ministry for Communication):

(#3) [The “Random Thoughts” caption:] Granddad Frost in his sledge sliding on sparkling snow by villages. The sophisticated artwork represents traditional Russian drawing style.

At this point you should be hearing the strains of the “Troika” section from the Lieutenant Kije suite by Prokofief. The section is referred to in English as “Sleigh Ride”, but troika means ‘group of three’ in general, and more specifically a Russian traditional three-horse sleigh (as in #3).

Intrusion of national symbols. Occasionally these are worked into the cards, along with the other elements: the Olympic bear (from the 1980 summer Olympic games), cosmonauts, the Kremlin, etc.

Here’s a fairly subtle introduction of the Soviet state into a 1973 Grandfather Frost card (artwork by by A. Boykov, printed at Graphic Art in Moscow:

(#4) Grandfather Frost driving his troika — with Red Square in Moscow in the background

But with a much heavier hand in this 1978 card (artwork by A. Panchenko, printed at the USSR Ministry for Communication):

(#5) [The “Random Thoughts” caption:] The card portrays [the] hospitality of the Olympic bear, [the] symbol of [the] summer Olympic Games in 1980. Sets of matrioshka dolls create [a] national welcoming atmosphere.

On the Russian bear (adapted for the Olympic symbol in 1980), from Wikipedia:

The Russian Bear … is a widespread symbol (generally of a Eurasian brown bear) for Russia, used in cartoons, articles and dramatic plays since as early as the 16th century, and relating alike to the Russian Empire, the Russian Provisional Government and Russian Republic, the Soviet Union, and the present-day Russian Federation.

Back to #1. An exchange on Facebook about #1:

AZ: I do wonder what makes this a Soviet postcard, as opposed to a mere postcard in Russian (which could be conveying a sentiment of amity throughout the world). As a Soviet card, I guess it would depict something like the Russian bear dominating the world. [But the Russian bear is a brown bear, not a polar bear.] Do we know anything about its intent?

Dennis Lewis > AZ: A Soviet card solely because USSR in 1960, I surmise. The message: we have to help each other survive, as Father Lenin said.

AZ > DL: That was my guess. But I’ve saved it for  the penguin [one of my totem animals]. S Novym Godom!

5 Responses to “S Novym Godom!”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Two further notes on material in the greeting cards.

    First, the evergreen trees in #4 and #5 are *New Year’s trees* (and are called that in Russian), not Christmas trees.

    Second. the Russian dolls in #5. These are matryoshkas (sometimes spelled matrioshkas, as above). See my 12/12/15 posting “Russian dolls”:

    How the greeting “Happy New Year!” ends up being conventionally conveyed in Russian as с новым годом (literally ‘with, accompanied by (the) new year’) is a more complicated story, which I’ll tell in a separate posting, where I will boldly go into the wilds of Russian inflectional morphology.

  2. Vadim Temkin Says:

    Actually “New Year’s trees” are called just «ёлка» in Russian – fir-tree. In botanical sense it would be «ель», but as Christmas/New Year tree it is always in diminutive form: «ёлка» or «ёлочка». The tradition is relatively new – it was imported from Germany in 1840s. It was a [Orthodox] Christmas tradition before Soviet times, then it was prohibited for 10-15 years and returned as New Year’s one in the second half of 1930s.

    The children’s (or adult for this matter) ball/celebration is called the same: «ёлка». It involves Ded Moroz and Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden, like in the Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera), as well as winter animals: hares, foxes, squirrels. (No bears, though – they are in hibernation during winter.) I played hare in kindergarten (the only appropriate animal for a boy, the word is masculine, unlike fox and squirrel, which are feminine). Much later I switched to Ded Moroz. 🙂

    As for «С Новым Годом!» it’s just standard truncation of «Поздравляю с Новым Годом!».

    С Новым Годом, Арнольд!

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Thanks for the further details. Oh yes, rabbit and squirrel are on other cards I didn’t post above.

    For my many Russian-ignorant readers: Арнольд is the standard Cyrillic transliteration of Arnold. As for the plural noun поздравляю pozdravljaju ‘congratulations, greetings’, its English counterpart congratulations takes a PP complement with the idiomatic P on (it’s just an odd fact that the P is on rather than for or whatever), while the Russian noun takes a PP complement with the idiomatic P с ‘with, accompanied by’ (again, just an odd fact).

    Still to come, exciting facts about gender, number, and case in Russian; the P с governs an object in the — oh dear — “instrumental” case (one of at least 6 cases). So: новый год novyj god ‘new year, New Year”, but с новым годом s novym godom.

  4. Victor Steinbok Says:

    A couple more minor additions to Temkin’s comment. Indeed Ёлка is the standard reference to a New Year’s ball – or any other New Year’s celebration in the run-up to the end of the year. In particular, at least since the 1960s, these are often organized events for kids, sponsored by either a state or private agency (e.g., a common trade-union even in the 1970s) that involves Дед Мороз & Снегурочка but not in a simple Anglo-American Santa tradition. It’s closer to a Dutch Sinterklaas tradition that involves storytelling, a simple theatrical play or a play on skates. A giant fir tree (real or fake) is the centerpiece and the children walk away with Halloween-style loot in a small gift bag or a cardboard “chest”. But I disagree that it’s always referred to as Ëлка. Indeed, if addressed this way it is perfectly understood, but it’s quite common to identify it as Новогодняя Ёлка (New Year’s Fir-tree). The diminutive expression, ёлочка, in my experience, only refers to the tree itself and not so much to the celebration.

    Another important factor in these cards is that they often involved elements either from children’s books illustrated by famous artists (or done in the same style by these artists, such as #2) or some traditional decorotive arts, such as Khokhloma or Palekh (#4 is vaguely reminiscent of the latter).

    Final comment is about the hospitality of the Olympic bear – the classical Russo-Ukrainian hospitality gesture is presenting an honored guest with a whole loaf of bread and salt brought out on a decorative runner or towel. The tradition is so ingrained that it seems odd in the context of New Year. BUT … the bear mascot was introduced in 1977 or 78 specifically for foreign consumption. The symbol was pervasive in Moscow (and a few other tourist centers), while the city was closed to most domestic visitors. #5 is from that period and was thus intended for foreign visitors (with surplus for domestic consumption), which explains the hospitality symbolism that otherwise would not appear on New Year greeting cards.

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